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.  The Republican Party platform for the 1860 presidential election didn’t call for the abolition of slavery in the Southern states, where it already existed. But Republicans opposed the expansion of slavery into new states in the West, and Southerners believed that slavery was eventually doomed if it couldn’t grow. Furthermore, Southerners wanted to maintain their tyranny of the minority in the U.S. Senate, were the number of senators from slave states far exceeded the number of U.S. citizens they represented.

The declarations issued by the Southern states when they seceded from United States in early 1861, after the 1860 election of Republican Abraham Lincoln, made it clear that slavery was the main issue. Mississippi’s declaration of cause, for example, said 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 said 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.”

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