The Civil War ended 152 years ago in Virginia, in the village of Appomattox Court House. Yet in April 2017, the removal of memorials honoring Confederate soldiers six states away — soldiers and generals who fought to defend the institution of slavery — was apparently controversial enough that it merited reference by Corey Stewart, a Virginia gubernatorial candidate. And this past weekend, in the midst of praising President Andrew Jackson — noted for enforcing genocidal policies against Native Americans while engaging in the occasional duel — Donald Trump asked an interviewer why the Civil War even had to happen in the first place.
Setting aside the fact that it is somehow no longer surprising that a candidate is running for the governorship of Virginia on a “Make the Confederacy Great Again” platform and that Donald Trump is reaching across the aisle to praise a dead racist Democrat, both men are also engaging in rank ahistoricism — in short, making stuff up. But when it comes to the Civil War, they have more than a century of company in doing so.
Although Confederate general Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union general Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865, with the promise that members of the Confederate Army would not be tried for treason and would be allowed to keep their horses and sidearms, America never truly reckoned with the causes of the conflict that caused casualties of about 1 million — and in doing so, let the losers of the war win.
To Trump’s markedly uninformed question: The Civil War was fought over slavery. South Carolina seceded from the Union in 1860, and wrote in its articles of secession that it was doing so because Abraham Lincoln, “whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery,” was elected president. The state of Mississippi argued the following when it seceded from the Union in 1861: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery … Its labor supplies the product, which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth.” The state government of Texas, in its secession declaration of 1861, held that slavery was “the revealed will of the Almighty Creator” and should exist for eternity.
Even the events that precipitated the Civil War were defined by slavery. The Compromise of 1850 required Northerners to return runaway slaves through the Fugitive Slave Act, the Missouri Compromise of 1820 allowed the state of Missouri to enter the Union as a slave state, and the three-fifths compromise contained within the Constitution of the United States permitted slaves to be counted as three-fifths of a human being. These were not laws, but stopgaps, desperate attempts by the American government to avoid a central question: Should people be able to buy, sell, and own other people? In the end, it took a war to answer, and finally end the practice of slavery in the United States.
Yet the story of the Civil War never got to be told by the people whose lives it was fought over. Even as the war was ending, the losers began to take charge of the narrative. As early as 1867, Confederate veterans argued that they, not the Union, had been the ones fighting for the cause of “liberty, justice, humanity, equality, and all the calendar of virtues of freedmen.” In their view, the South had been wronged, invaded and subjugated by virtual foreigners. The Confederacy represented not a failed state, but a lost Eden of sorts, one that thousands of people had fought and died for, deserving of tremendous loyalty.
But former slaves — the individuals bought and sold by politicians and Jesuit priests alike, people who made up as much as 47 percent of the total population of the Deep South at the start of the Civil War — have not historically enjoyed such warm attitudes. They were blamed for the failures of Reconstruction, the period following the Civil War in which the nation tried to put itself back together while integrating Congress and Southern statehouses for the very first time. The inclusion of former slaves in government was considered a mistake, not only by poor white farmers, but by historians. The so-called “Dunning School” of history argued that it was merciless white Northerners who used “thriftless blacks” to steal from Southern states. One Dunning School historian, E. Merton Coulter, argued in 1947 that Reconstruction failed because “education soon lost its novelty for most of the Negroes” who would “spend their last piece of money for a drink of whisky.”
That view gained sway in American history textbooks: At Texas universities in the 1960s, history textbooks told of “simple-minded” freedmen who “insolently jostled the whites off the sidewalks into the gutter” because they now could vote. It was white Southerners who were the victims, according to the Dunning School — a perspective taught in schools and universities across the country.
Popular culture served as a misguided educator as well, enforcing the view that the Confederacy was the real winner of the Civil War. The most important film of the early 20th century was 1915’s The Birth of a Nation, in which Southern white women are beset by roving gangs of black men (white actors in blackface), only to be rescued by the heroes of the Ku Klux Klan. A quote by President Woodrow Wilson in the film states that white men were spurred to action by “self-preservation,” and created the Klan to “protect the Southern country.” He later hosted a screening of the film in the White House.
It was the highest-grossing film in American history until the release of the 1939 Civil War epic Gone With the Wind, which depicted the struggles of the daughter of a Southern plantation owner, Scarlett O’Hara, who is left halfway through the film with only loyal slaves and her sisters for company in the wake of the Confederacy’s loss. The actress who played Scarlett’s beloved Mammy, Hattie McDaniel, was the first black person to win an Academy Award, but was not allowed to attend the film’s premiere in Georgia nor sit with the rest of the cast at the Oscars, thanks to Jim Crow laws.
Slave narratives collected by the federal government during the 1930s did not hold the same sway as popular cinema, and the Confederate flag, which honors a government founded almost exclusively on slavery, became a sign of independence and freedom, even for non-Southerners. Rather, the Civil War has largely had the legacy of slavery flattened at best or excised from its history at worst. This has turned America’s most devastating conflict into a false narrative of independent-minded farmers facing off against the federal government over the right to live free from external interference. Not mentioned is that slaves would, of course, not be so lucky.
Stewart, a Minnesota native running for governor in Virginia on a Confederacy-appreciating platform, said in 2017 that embracing the “Stars and Bars” and ensuring that slavery go unmentioned from official proclamations of Confederate history was a means of fighting “political correctness.” But memorializing and heralding the losers of America’s most violent conflict, veterans of an army created to defend the right to purchase and sell and own human lives, in order to avoid telling uncomfortable truths is the very height of self-soothing political correctness.