Letting Go Of The Lost Cause: Confederates Were Racist Traitors

The Civil War ended 155 years ago. We need to finally correct the historical record. The Confederates were racist traitors and should not be celebrated.
General Robert E.Lee and his Confederate officers in their first meeting since Appomattox, taken at White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, in August 1869, where they met to discuss “the orphaned children of the Lost Cause” – August 1869 (Unknown photographer – Restoration: Adam Cuerden/Public domain)

General Robert E.Lee and his Confederate officers in their first meeting since Appomattox, taken at White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, in August 1869, where they met to discuss “the orphaned children of the Lost Cause” – August 1869 (Unknown photographer – Restoration: Adam Cuerden/Public domain)

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Memphis, Tennessee, has an outstanding example of evolving norms. On the Mississippi River bank, there are three memorials to an African American named Tom Lee. The first is the oldest and lauds a “very worthy Negro” who couldn’t swim but saved the lives of a number of white people whose boat had just capsized. A later memorial simply describes him and his feat.

The third is stunning and features him reaching out to the other boat and is modeled on God and Adam in the Sistine Chapel. That’s context. They didn’t remove the first statue insinuating that not all African Americans are worthy. The city simply added statues to mark evolving racial attitudes.

We rarely see historical statues contextualized. We are left to assume these statues are meant to honor the subject. That’s precisely the problem with Confederate statues. They are treated as valuable parts of the American heritage, not as symbols of hate.

Today, much of the nation is confronting our troubled racial history and seeking to remove Confederate statues and rename military bases and parks honoring the rebels. Some counter with the argument that this is an attempt to rewrite our history, even erase it. But in fact, we are finally on the verge of discarding myths about the ”Southern lost cause” and writing history as it really happened.

As an example, we’ve had an enduring and odd historical myth about General Robert E. Lee. Many Americans long regarded him as an honorable, decent man. And yet, this West Point graduate and descendant of Lighthorse Harry Lee, a famed Revolutionary general, took up arms against the United States after Virginia’s secession. According to legend, he only joined the Confederacy because he couldn’t bear to fight against his beloved Virginia. This West Point graduate instead took up arms against the country he swore to serve. This by definition is treason.

As to his love of Virginia, Lee had vast economic interests to protect. He owned large plantations, had massive debts, and hundreds of slaves. Further, this ”honorable” man was noted for his cruelty to these slaves. This is the man American history chose to honor.

And what of the General and later President who won the Civil War? Ulysses S. Grant had an ill-deserved reputation as a drunkard and lousy general despite his being the victor.

The big question for us: why did Americans reverse our history? We came to honor traitors with statues and memorials and at the same time, ignored the heroes of the Union Army who kept our country intact.

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I grew up in Mississippi. This is how I learned history. I was shocked at the discovery that this wasn’t just Mississippi being Mississippi. Much of the country has fetishized the Southern ”Lost Cause.”

One flash-point has long been a statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia, one-time capital of the Confederacy. People have clamored to remove it while others have insisted on keeping it in place. Virginia Governor Ralph Northam recently ordered the statue’s removal, although that is being delayed because of court fights.

Robert E Lee’s descendant, Robert E Lee IV is a pastor and a leading voice to remove the statue. He understands the reality behind the myth:

”In the small town where I live and grew up, the Lost Cause of the Confederacy didn’t need a special name — it was the education we all received. We were taught that during the Civil War, the Confederate States of America had just motive. Perhaps you’ve heard the mantra: “The Civil War was fought for states’ rights.” It was enshrined in monuments across the country after the war ended.

”The catch is that there’s more to that sentence, something we southerners are never taught: The Civil War was fought for states’ rights to enslave African people in the United States of America.”

Immediately following the Civil War, constitutional amendments and laws were enacted to protect the newly freed slaves. Not surprisingly, the Reconstruction laws were greatly resented in the South.

Reconstruction ended with one of our most contested presidential elections, between Democrat Samuel Tilden and the Republican Rutherford Hayes. Congress decided the election in Hayes’ favor. However, the Party of Lincoln had to make concessions to Southern Democrats. Thus, Reconstruction ended and the myth of the Lost Cause arose to ”heal” the nation. And the former slaves were again subjugated.

The KKK gained new strength and Southern states rewrote constitutions and laws to disenfranchise African Americans of their newly acquired right to vote and hold office. Whites freely unleashed terror on blacks.

As a schoolgirl, I learned this was a good thing that ended the anarchy unleashed by the Yankees. In reality, this unleashed brutality against blacks that wasn’t much better than slavery.

And so we come to Confederate statues and places and the so-called rebel flag. The confederacy never had an official flag. The familiar rebel flag, the stars and bars, began as the battle flag of the Confederate Army of the Potomac. It became one of several flags used by the rebels.

Today, people all over the country wave it proudly. They say it’s a symbol of their heritage no matter what part of the country they call home. While denying it’s a symbol of hate and white supremacy, there is no other meaning that can possibly be ascribed. Either that or treason, since it was used in a rebellion against the United States.

The Confederate statues and memorials were not erected by Southerners in the wake of the Civil War. They date from the post-Reconstruction era and are meant to glorify the Lost Cause. I’m not guessing. I grew up learning all about the Lost Cause and the need for slavery, why it was a good thing and why African Americans are inferior.

Let that sink in. That is what we were taught in school. In Mississippi, they didn’t even try to water it down. But make no mistake, most Americans learned diluted versions of what many have called our national original sin. Many did grow up thinking that issues regarding the economy and states rights caused the “War Between the States.” But every secession document refers to slavery as the root cause of leaving the United States. History itself proves that a war was fought to retain the right to hold human beings as chattel property. The entire Southern economy was based on that.

We cannot doubt that the rebel Confederate statues and flags pay homage to the sin of treason and the sin of slavery and a history of maintaining white supremacy after the war. They were part of an effort to restore southern misplaced pride and reunite the nation, at least the white people of the nation.

It’s time for our nation to stop pretending. Our history consists of overcoming these evils and recognizing them. That means we take down statues that honor the worst evils of our history.

We are still fighting the remnants of the Civil War by honoring traitors as heroes, to thank God that the confederacy did not win, and to stop giving the rebels a posthumous victory. Taking down their statues is a good start.

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News // Civil War / History / Racism