Confederate Monuments Are a Result of Historical Revisionism

robert e. lee
Robert E. Lee (Wikipedia)

After white supremacist Dylan Roof executed nine black people during a Bible study session at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17, 2015, it was discovered that he had a website with links to Confederate sites and a photo of him proudly holding a Confederate battle flag.

South Carolina’s Republican Governor Nikki Haley responded by calling for the removal of the Confederate flag from a flagpole on the state’s Capitol grounds. “We are not going to allow this symbol to divide us any longer,” she said. “The fact that people are choosing to use it as a sign of hate is something we cannot stand.”

The flag had been erected in 1961, officially as part of the state’s Civil War centennial celebration, but really as a symbol of Southern opposition to the growing African-American civil rights movement.

On June 23 Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump weighed in on the topic by saying that the flag should be taken down and put in a museum. This was before Steve Bannon took charge of Trump’s election campaign.

On July 9 Gov. Haley signed legislation authorizing the removal of the flag and the following day a large crowd applauded as it was taken down.

Governor Haley’s success in getting the Confederate flag removed encouraged others across the U.S. to call for the removal of Confederate memorials in their communities, including people in states as far away as Arizona.

The growth and success of these local initiatives angered right-wing extremists. Earlier this year they responded to a decision by the Charlottesville, Virginia, city council to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a municipal park, by organizing a Unite the Right protest rally to be held in Charlottesville August 11-12.

The U.S. Department of Homeland (DHS) security notified local law enforcement officials on August 9 that the protest would likely result in violence. They warned that white supremacists and anti-fascist “Antifa” extremists had clashed twice before in Charlottesville over the removal of Lee’s statue, at a white nationalist rally on May 13 and a Ku Klux Klan gathering July 7.

On the night of the 11th a procession of far-right protesters that included white supremacists, white nationalists, neo-Confederates, neo-Nazis, and right-wing militia members marched through the city’s University of Virginia campus. They chanted Nazi and white supremacist slogans while carrying lit tiki torches and briefly scuffled with counterprotestors before the state police broke it up.

Things got much worse at the next day’s protest. There were more protestors on both sides and the far-right protestors included people carrying Confederate flags and wearing Trump’s “Make America Great Again” caps and giving the Nazi salute while shouting, “Hail Trump!” The police failed to prevent violence from breaking out, a local state of emergency was declared, and the situation became deadly when a far-right protestor named James Alex Fields Jr. purposely drove a car into a crowd of counterprotestors, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring at least 19 others. (A police helicopter also crashed on route to scene, killing two state troopers.)

President Trump didn’t say anything publicly about the events in Charlottesville on the first night of the right-wing protest. But he responded to the second day’s violence by telling the country that he condemned “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.” His speech was widely criticized for failing to explicitly condemn white supremacists and Nazis, and his repetition of the phrase “many sides” created an inference that he put them on the same moral plane as the counterprotestors.

He responded to the criticism by defending himself in a speech on August 15 wherein he said that he’d already condemned neo-Nazis, but not all of the right-wing protestors in Charlotte had been neo-Nazis or white nationalists. “You also had some very fine people on both sides,” he said.

Trump also seemed to defend the right-wing protestors by sympathizing with their reason for organizing the march – the city’s plan to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee.

“Many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee,” he said. “So, this week, it’s Robert E. Lee. I notice that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?”

At a rally he held in Phoenix, Arizona, a week later he repeated this excuse, telling the crowd that, “They’re trying to take away our culture. They’re trying to take away our history.”

A subsequent national poll found that 54 percent of Americans agreed with Trump that Confederate monuments “should remain in all public spaces,” while 27 percent said they should be removed, and another 19 percent said they didn’t know. (Unfortunately, the poll failed to identify whether or not the respondents lived in former Confederate states.)

A closer look, however, shows that Trump’s argument isn’t based upon facts. For example, after the South was defeated in the Civil War, Robert E. Lee was against monuments to the Confederacy. When he was invited to the Gettysburg battlefield in 1869 to help place granite monuments to mark the positions that had been held by Confederate units during the battle, he declined. “It is wisest, morever,” he wrote, “not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered.”

A comprehensive report, issued in 2016 by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) shows that many Confederate monuments aren’t really historical markers, but attempts by neo-Confederate groups, like the Sons of Confederate Veterans and United Daughters of the Confederacy, to help promote the Lost Cause, a longstanding historical revisionism campaign designed to portray the Confederacy as a benign entity. Proponents of this myth claim that the old South had a superior culture and the Civil War wasn’t about slavery but about states’ rights. In other words, there was a moral equivalency to the causes for which the North and the South fought the war. The Confederacy just happened to have lost the war. Civil War historian Edward H. Bonekemper III has called the Lost Cause, “the most successful propaganda campaign in American history.”

I presume that some of the people who want Confederate monuments maintained simply feel that we shouldn’t be tampering with history. But in 1967 the United States Board on Geographic Names (BGN) changed the word nigger to Negro in 143 geographical place names. And after World War Two, the new German government outlawed the public use of Nazi symbols. Were those changes wrong?

I’m not saying that all Confederate monuments should be removed, just the ones that primarily serve to glorify the memory of the Confederacy. General Lee, in fact, advocated for just one type of Confederate memorial. “All I think that can now be done, is to aid our noble & generous women in their efforts to protect the graves & mark the last resting places of those who have fallen,” he wrote in 1866.

The graves of Confederate soldiers should, of course, be maintained. So should historically oriented Confederate monuments at Civil War battlefields. But even these concessions may have been frowned upon by most of the Union soldiers that survived the Civil War. In 1869 former Union soldier William T. Collins wrote an eloquent policy statement for distribution by the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), the largest Union Army veterans organization. His purpose was to explain why the GAR was opposed to allowing the graves of Confederate soldiers in public military cemeteries to be decorated on Memorial Day.

We strew flowers therefore on the graves of our comrades, and prevent their being strewn in the national cemeteries at the same time, on graves of such rebel dead as may be buried therein, not because we cherish any feelings of hate, or desire to triumph over individual foes, but because we seek to mark in this distinction and manner the feelings with which the nation regards freedom and slavery, loyalty and treason, Republican principles and those of a slave-holding oligarchy.

We are ready to forgive – we hold no malice – but we will never consent by public national tribute to obliterate the wide gulf that lies between the objects, motives, and principles for which we fought and our comrades died, and those for which the rebel armies banded together, and for which their dead now lie in numerous graves.

They were brave, and we know it – none can better appreciate that fact than those who fought against them. But mere courage never ennobled treason. It cannot turn slavery into liberty, nor make despotic intentions desirable and to-be-applauded virtues. Our refusal to decorate rebel graves marks not hatred of their occupants or friends, but our undying hostility to the ideas for which they fought and died. To do less than keep this distinction fresh in the national mind is to undermine the republic itself. – William T. Collins

I don’t propose that we should resume the practice of preventing the graves of Confederate soldiers from being decorated. But reconciliation must be based upon honesty, not the falsehoods embodied in the Lost Cause. Former Confederate Col. John S. Mosby felt this way when he wrote a letter in 1907 in which he complained that proponents of the Lost Cause mythology were distorting history by downplaying slavery as the cause of the Civil War.

What other country on Earth, I ask you, would allow memorials on public properties to a traitorous rebellion that cost the lives of more than 360,00 loyal soldiers, and wounded at least 280,000 more? A dare say none. The hundreds of Confederate monuments that exist today, especially those dedicated to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, are a testament to the effectiveness of the propaganda that promoted the historical revisionism of the Lost Cause.

The removal of monuments that glorify the Confederacy doesn’t create a slippery slope that endangers all of American history. It’s easy to tell the difference between a monument to the Confederacy from one that isn’t. Nor will their removal solve the daily problems of Americans, including the black people who still suffer in poverty due, in part, to the legacy of slavery. But sometimes there are more important things than money, and cultural symbols matter. The truth is that the removal of Confederate monuments from public places isn’t an attempt to “take away” our history, it’s a way to begin to dismantle the historical revisionism that led to their creation. It’s a way to restore the truth – something that Donald Trump often ignores when it’s convenient for him.

Updates

On June 4, 2018, the Southern Poverty Law Center released a report showing that more than 1,700 monuments, place names and other symbols honoring the Confederacy remain in public spaces.

On October 2, 2018, U.S. Attorney Thomas Cullen announced at a news conference in Charlottesville, VA, that four members of a militant white supremacist group from California had been arrested on charges they traveled to Charlottesville last year to incite a riot and attack counter-protesters.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans Promote The Lost Cause Myth

confederate flag at picacho state park, az
Enormous Confederate flag at Picacho Peak State Park, Arizona, March 19, 2016 (Jeff Burgess)

Arizona State Parks hosts Civil War re-enactors every spring at Picacho Peak State Park, located in the Sonoran Desert off I-10 between Phoenix and Tucson. The park is adjacent to the sight of the April 15, 1862, Battle of Picacho Pass – often called the westernmost battle of the Civil War. It produced the first fatalities from the campaign by the Union’s California Column to drive the Confederates out of Arizona.

The Battle of Picacho Pass has been re-enacted almost annually since its 100-year anniversary in 1962. But since it was really just a skirmish, the re-enactors also recreate more significant battles fought in neighboring New Mexico, including the Battle of Valverde and the Battle of Glorieta Pass.

Arizona State Parks calls this annual event Civil War in the Southwest, and I attended it this year. The battle re-enactments aren’t the only attraction. You can also tour the Union and Confederated re-enactor camps, as well as a Sutler’s Row, where you can shop for historically authentic clothes and other things.

Sons of Confederate Veterans recruiting table
Sons of Confederate Veterans recruiting table – Picacho Peak State Park, Arizona, March 19, 2016 (Jeff Burgess)

I enjoyed the experience except for one thing – the Sons of Confederate Veterans recruitment booth. In the interest of full disclosure, I had four great-grandfathers who served in the Union Army. So, of course, I am  a bit prejudiced against anything Confederate. But I also recognize the free speech rights of the Confederate group to have a booth at the re-enactment. (The Union group, Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War SUVCW, had a booth too.)

Confederate monument, Southern Arizona Veterans Memorial Cemetery
Monument to Confederate soldiers buried at veterans cemetery in Sierra Vista, Arizona. (Wikipedia)

But the historical nonsense that the Sons of Confederate Veterans are dispersing is offensive. This neo-Confederate group is still promoting the myth of the Lost Cause – wherein they claim the South started the Civil War as an honorable struggle to preserve the Southern way of life, and that it was about states’ rights, not slavery. In other words, there’s a moral equivalency between the causes the North and the South fought for. A good example of this propaganda campaign is the wording on the monument the Sons of Confederate Veterans erected in 2010 for the Confederate soldiers buried at the Southern Arizona Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Sierra Vista. It ignores the issue of slavery and claims they merely fought for “the constitutional right of self-government.”

This claim has been thoroughly disproven by the historical facts. But anyone who might still be inclined to believe it only needs to read the declarations issued by the Southern states when they seceded from United States in 1861 after the election of Abraham Lincoln. Mississippi’s declaration of cause, for example, says that, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest of the world.”

The secession declaration of Texas is even more succinct and says that the United States was “established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.”

Mississippi and Texas were among the original seven slave states that seceded and subsequently declared the creation of the Confederate States of America in February of 1861. This excited Southern sympathizers in the frontier territory of New Mexico, and the following month they held a convention in Mesilla wherein they voted to declare the Confederate Territory of Arizona in the southern portion of New Mexico, which had been acquired in the Gadsden Purchase.  The chairman of the resolutions committee revealed the feelings of the participants when he declared, “We will not recognize the present Black Republican administration.”

Furthermore, the Constitution of the Confederate States of America leaves no doubt about why the Southern states seceded. The document is a virtual word-for-word copy of the U.S. Constitution – except concerning the topic of slavery. In Article I Section 9(4) it states, “No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.” In other words, the commercial institution of slavery was permanently protected.

Another telltale fact is that after the South lost the Civil War in 1865, many ex-Confederates migrated to Cuba and Brazil, where plantations based upon slavery were still legal.

Now, I’m not claiming that all Confederate soldiers fought to preserve slavery. Many fought for their states. And not all Union soldiers fought to end slavery. Many fought to put down a violent rebellion and preserve the Union, or just to collect a paycheck. But there’s no doubt that slavery was the primary cause of the war. The approximately 179,000 black soldiers that enlisted in the Union Army obviously had slavery on their minds. About 2,800 of them were killed in combat, and about another 68,000 of them died from diseases and other causes.

In 1990 the U.S. Congress finally began to attack the Lost Cause myth and recognize the importance of slavery as a cause of the Civil War when they passed H.R. 3248, which required the National Park Service to include information about the causes of the war to visitors at Gettysburg National Military Park. They got more serious about it in 1999 when they passed the FY2000 budget for the Interior Department, which oversees the National Park Service. The congressional conference committee added an addendum to the bill that said, “Civil War battlefields are often weak or missing information about the role that the institution of slavery played in causing the American Civil War.” They also directed the Secretary of the Interior, “to encourage Civil War battle sites to recognize and include in all of their public displays and multimedia educational presentations the unique role that the institution of slavery played in causing the Civil War.” And they told the National Park Service to produce a report about the existing information provided to the public at their battlefield parks, and whether or not it included references to slavery. The report was issued in March 2000 and showed there was “room for improvement.”

This long overdue change, as you might imagine, upset the Sons of Confederate Veterans. In a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black, they complained that providing information about slavery being a cause of the Civil War at battlefield parks was revisionist history. The SUVCW was eventually forced to weigh in and issued a Policy on the National Park Service Interpretation Program of Civil War Battlefields in 2003. It reiterated that the SUVCW believed the most important goal of battlefield parks was to preserve the battlefields and show what had happened there. But it also stated that, “regardless of whether we make a short list, or a long list of the causes for the Civil War, they all invariably emanate from the issue of slavery. Thus, it seems only reasonable that the National Park Service should mention this issue in their interpretive program. ”

The information that was being distributed at the Sons of Confederate Veterans recruitment booth at Picacho Peak, however, included gross distortions of the historical truth. Their literature and website state that, “The citizen-soldiers who fought for the Confederacy personified the best qualities of America. The preservation of liberty and freedom was the motivating factor in the South’s decision to fight the Second American Revolution.” It adds that, “The memory and reputation of the Confederate soldier, as well as the motives for his suffering and sacrifice, are being consciously distorted by some in an attempt to alter history. Unless the descendants of Southern soldiers resist those efforts, a unique part of our nations’ cultural heritage will cease to exist.”

I have no problem with the Sons of Confederate Veterans wanting to honor American history and document the sacrifice and heroism of their Confederate soldier ancestors. But promoting historical revisionism about why the South went to war and ignoring the evil institution of slavery is indefensible.

Update

In late 2017 the Arizona State Parks department announced that, beginning in 2018, they would no longer sponsor the Civil War in the Southwest event, claiming it cost too much for them to administer it. This was despite the fact it was very popular and they collected a lot of entrance fees from the numerous attendees.

During 2018 the Arizona Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans began a fund raising project to pay for repairs to the Memorial to Arizona Confederate Troops at the Arizona capitol. The project’s web page says the monument was erected to commemorate the War for Southern Independence. The group’s website also includes a web form for people to inform them about a “heritage violation.”

Modern Republicans and the 14th Amendment

dead republican elephantThe 14th Amendment was passed after the Civil War in 1868 by a Republican-controlled Congress as part of the Reconstruction Amendments, which were designed to prevent discrimination and protect the civil rights of all Americans.  It includes a Citizenship Clause wherein it declares that, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”

Several Republican presidential candidates have recently called for the end of birthright citizenship, as it is defined in the 14th Amendment, because they complain it encourages undocumented immigrants to enter the country to have “anchor babies.”

Republican front-runner Donald Trump, for example, has called for a legal test case to see if Congress has the power to deny automatic citizenship to the children of undocumented immigrants because of the amendment’s phrase “subject to the jurisdiction thereof.” Other Republican candidates have called for a constitutional amendment to revise the 14th Amendment.

I know from firsthand experience that anchor babies are real problem, but I don’t think we need to go so far as to tamper with the 14th Amendment to solve it, as there are better options.

But I think modern Republicans have a bigger problem to address than anchor babies. I’m talking about how ignorant most of them are about their own party’s political history, and how distant their current opinions are from it.

Updates

On October 30, 2018, President Donald Trump announced he was going to sign an executive order to end birthright citizenship. He claimed, “We’re the only country in the world where a person comes in and has a baby, and the baby is essentially a citizen of the United States.” Like many of Trump’s claims, this was false, as numerous countries provide birthright citizenship. Most legal scholars believe the courts will find the executive order to be an illegal violation of the 14th Amendment.

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