Only thank God men have done learned how to forget quick what they ain't brave enough to try to cure.
— William Faulkner, The Hamlet
"Are we still fighting this war?" A co-worker asked this, exasperated, at a recent Flyer staff meeting. The war in question was the Civil War, which ended nearly 150 years ago. And yet Lost Causers and their political fellow travelers won't fade away, as a recent uptick in Confederate references attests. The latest in the series is a South Carolina Republican Party conclave at a Charleston country club a couple of weeks ago, which gifted the Internet with photos of state Senate president Glenn McConnell decked out in Confederate army garb, beaming, alongside a couple of presumably hired African Americans playing — there's no way to avoid this — the "happy slave."
More than a decade after author Tony Horowitz traveled the South to chronicle remaining pockets of Confederate nostalgia or defiance, it's become sadly — but not surprisingly — clear that we don't just have Confederates in the attic, we have them in our statehouses.
This extended Confederate summer may have concluded in South Carolina, but it began in Virginia, when Governor Bob McDonnell issued a proclamation declaring April "Confederate History Month" in the state while ignoring the issue of slavery as a part of that history.
Soon after, Mississippi governor Haley Barbour needlessly joined the controversy, dismissing complaints about Virginia's proclamation. It turned out Barbour had done Virginia one better, naming April "Confederate Heritage Month" ("history" is a somewhat neutral word, "heritage" is not) while also all but erasing slavery from the story. (Barbour followed this up more recently with an embarrassing interview in which he distorted the racial and political reality of his own Mississippi upbringing.)
South Carolina's McConnell responded to the uproar over his party pics by claiming that anyone criticizing his Confederate obsession was trying to "sanitize history," a bizarre bit of projection considering the image of the docile, contented slave he was promoting.
But let's be clear about who is sanitizing history here. Virginia's McDonnell told The Washington Post, before later issuing a forced apology for the proclamation, "There were any number of aspects to that conflict between the states. Obviously, it involved slavery. It involved other issues. But I focused on the ones I thought were most significant for Virginia."
When Barbour's Confederate Heritage Month drew attention, he got a bit of too-revealing backup from one of his constituents, the Rev. Cecil Fayard, chaplain in chief for the national Sons of Confederate Veterans, who told the Associated Press: "The War Between the States was fought for the same reasons that the Tea Party movement today is voicing their opinion. And that is that you have large government that's not listening to the people, there's going to be heavy taxation. And the primary cause of the war was not slavery, although slavery was interwoven into the cause, but it was not the cause for the War Between the States."
These are not the words of people interested in an honest reckoning with history. The unspoken premise of most white, conservative evocations of the Civil War era is that "Southerner" equals "white." But what the persistent, mangled nostalgia for the Confederacy always misses is that the slaves — roughly a third of the region's population at the start of the war — were Southerners too. The Confederacy didn't just wage war on the Union; it waged war on much of the South. The Southern slave economy inflicted total violence on a third of its own population — a third of our people. And while the Confederacy may have lost a war, those Southerners did not.
The real story of the Confederacy — from a modern Southern perspective — isn't one of bitter defeats or lost causes but of painful triumph over a system of oppression. And it wasn't just the slaves who were liberated by defeat. It was the beginning of a gradual, tortured emancipation for the entire region. Slaves were freed from bondage. The entire South was freed from the bonds of a slave society based on the imprisonment and exploitation of other human beings.
Confederate enthusiasts don't think like that. The slaves are an inconvenient truth, to be acknowledged when forced to but otherwise downplayed or disregarded. The most obscure, most oppressed slave on a plantation in Barbour's Mississippi was as much a Southerner as Jefferson Davis. Our histories should spend less time romanticizing the Confederacy's defeat and more time celebrating the slave's victory. You want to teach "Confederate history"? Teach that.
The other reality, of course, is that the persistence of a sanitized Confederate memory often has little to do with history. The ersatz "heritage" tends to be hand-me-down cultural imagery gleaned from the pleasant lies of Gone With the Wind — itself derived from the self-delusion of the Confederacy's pro-slavery "intellectuals" — rather than primary sources.
At a moment when white conservatives are desperate to portray themselves as racial victims, evoking the Confederacy while skirting slavery is politics, not history. To deny or downplay the extent of historical racial oppression is to mitigate the responsibility to confront its lingering effects. Men have done learned how to forget quick what they ain't brave enough to try to cure.