Monuments, History, and Our Shared Past
I grew up in the South in a small town in Arkansas nearly 140 years after the Civil War had ended. The Confederate flag was a regular sight in rural Arkansas as was talking about the history it represented.
In school, I learned that the Civil War was a battle fought in self-defense after a northern incursion onto southern land.
The story I was told goes like this: The Southern States had joined together to secede from the United States. This was a reaction to unconstitutionally high tariffs and over-reaching laws that threatened their sovereignty. The Northern States decided to prevent this secession by unconstitutional force. The South had to rise in self-defense. The worse part was that in the South, slavery wasn’t brought up, except by the North to drum up support for the war.
I was told that most slaves supported the South in the Civil War and were ready to fight.
I was told that slaves lived a better life under servitude than they do as free persons today.
As a person of color myself, the idea that the South didn’t have a race problem has never sat right with me. Why, if racism wasn’t an issue in the South, were so many of my peers so racist? Why was I ridiculed in the locker room for my skin color? Why did the men in the Confederate Flag draped truck that ran me off the road as I rode my bicycle home from school shout “Gutter Ni**er” out the window as I crumpled in the ditch? The stories go on, but as it pertained to the Civil War, I tended to believe the narrative I was taught in school. So I decided to investigate. Was the South simply defending itself? Was racism cooked up by the victors to smear and discredit? Did slavery enter the picture at all, or was it about state’s rights?
I wanted to find out.
Lucky for me and my quest for the truth, the southern states sent letters signed by their governing bodies stating the exact reasons for leaving the union.
More on that later, but first some history. Where did the narrative of The Battle for States Rights originate?
After the war there were significant programs undertaken to re-establish a national unity. The South was badly beaten. The emancipation proclamation had obliterated the southern economy’s underpinnings. It destroyed a major production center for the country as a whole. This left the formerly lavish southern aristocracy in dire straights and often poverty-stricken. Many places still have not recovered. (1)
The shadow of the war loomed largely. The returning soldiers and descendants of fallen southern men had a major identity crisis. It had become painfully apparent that the world had changed. No longer could one proudly speak of slavery and stand behind a dying ideal. The view of the “African” as an “inferior and dependent race” (2) would endure in both belief and law until the late 60s, only 50 years ago. The institution of slavery had fallen so out of fashion that a sort of National gaslighting campaign had arisen to preserve the view of fallen soldiers as heroes. The most predominant organization involved in rewriting history was known as the “Daughters of the Confederacy”.
The Daughters of the Confederacy is a Southern women’s heritage group founded 30 years after the end of the war in 1894. The group “aspired to transform military defeat into a political and cultural victory, where states’ rights and white supremacy remained intact.” (3)
The most prominent member was Mildred Lewis Rutherford. Rutherford published a guide for what textbooks were acceptable to further the “narrative of Northern oppression of white states.” She lobbied hard to ensure that kids were trained in the “knowledge of true history of the South in the war between the States and the causes that led up to the war, so that they will be able to state facts and prove that they are right in the principles for which their fathers fought and died; and continue to preserve and defend their cause, until the whole civilized world will come to know that our cause was just and right.” (4)
The battle wasn’t just in the schools. The revisionist efforts of the UDC focused intently on the erection of monuments and statues as public reinforcements of this new narrative. Over 700 monuments were created, most during the late 19th and mid-20th centuries. Interestingly enough, there are spikes in monuments erected during any civil rights movement. Early monument dedications made it clear that these places are rallying cries to white supremacy. These monuments weren’t meant to remember. They were meant to persuade. (5)
Despite the propagandist monuments and the school curriculums, the question remains, what prompted the states to secede?
Well, it wasn’t taxes. Tariffs at that time were actually written by the Southern states and were the lowest in history. (6)
Was it the encroachment on their rights? Well, yes. The right to own slaves. (7)
And finally, which states claimed, pre-Civil War, to be seceding for state’s rights? Other than the right to own slaves? None.
— — — — — — -
This next part will be hard to read. But as this is a discussion of our painful past, please let these words soak in. Do not look away. “We mustn’t hide from history” -a constant trope on social media connected to the preservation of monuments and flags. The Southern States left behind documents detailing exactly why they left. This is what they said. This is that history.
Mississippi states as their reason for leaving the union clearly- “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world.”
Georgia’s letter of secession makes it clear why slavery needed to continue. Stating that “the subordination and the political and social inequality of the African race was fully conceded by all.” In other words, everyone agrees, blacks need to be subordinate because they aren’t equal. Excepting the fact that the African race alone could work in the sun as Mississippi argued, “none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun.” They needed them because only black people can handle the conditions needed for agriculture at that time.
South Carolina hated that the Northern states had “denounced as sinful the institution of slavery” saying “some of the States by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens (blacks); and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety.” In other words- it was wrong to let Africans vote.
Virginia flipped the script accusing the North of “the oppression of the Southern Slaveholding States.” The slaveholders, not the slaves, were the victims.
Arkansas wanted out too. The primary reason for Arkansas’s secession was “hostility to the institution of African slavery from the free states.” Arkansas complained that they couldn’t stand the Northern states’ support for “equality with negroes”. Arkansas made their grievance very clear and went so far as to boil it down for us “They believe slavery is sin, and we do not, and there lies the trouble”. Words penned by Governor Henry Rector on the eve of war.
Some southern states worried about the fate of freed slaves. Mississippi said the North “seeks not to elevate or to support the slave, but to destroy his present condition without providing a better.”
Meanwhile, Texas held nothing back. The secession letter is so disturbing that I am not going to paraphrase or overly shorten it for brevity.
Texas was interested in “maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery — the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits — a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time.”
“[The Northern States] proclaimed the debasing doctrine of equality of all men, irrespective of race or color — a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of Divine Law. They demand the abolition of negro slavery throughout the confederacy, the recognition of political equality between the white and negro races, and avow their determination to press on their crusade against us, so long as a negro slave remains in these States.”
“We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were 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.” (8)
These wern’t written by a “bad apple”. These letters were written by the elected representative bodies of the Southern states.
To put the exact reason for the war in the clearest terms Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens said in his 1861 Cornerstone speech, “Our new government is founded upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.” (9)
The constitution of the confederacy, ratified by the lot, differed from the US constitution in that it explicitly protected the institution of slavery.
Section 2 Part (3) No slave or other person held to service or labor in any State or Territory of the Confederate States, under the laws thereof, escaping or lawfully carried into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor; but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such slave belongs, or to whom such service or labor may be due.
And again, in the entry about new territory:
Section 3 Part 3 In all such territory the institution of negro slavery, [will continue] as it now exists in the Confederate States. (10)
The South was entirely dependent on slavery. It was supporting the rest of the nation on the backs of slaves. If everything you know and love hinged on a system that only inconvenienced those you saw as “an inferior and dependent race”, wouldn’t you fight to protect it?
A disturbing fact remains. A large portion of our country, only a few lifetimes ago, saw a fellow human being as less than human. And in the cause of that deprivation of humanity, they fought and died to protect a way of life.
Even less time has elapsed since we erected monuments to our atrocities. Monuments not meant to remember and learn from but constructed with the sole purpose of whitewashing history to save face.
Stated plainly, the Civil War was about slavery, white supremacy, and protecting an inhumane way of life. After the war, wanting to change that narrative while passing the racial superiority ideal to the next generation, monuments were erected.
Should these monuments be destroyed? No. They belong in the museums of Black History. The way that we keep a remembrance of Nazi atrocities in the Holocaust Museum and memories of Pearl Harbor at its eponymous museum in Hawaii. The remnants of the oppressor always belong to the survivors. It’s how we remember and it’s how they heal. Let us reserve our public squares for the causes worth celebrating. The causes we all claim loudly to believe in today.
I can understand why the descendants of slaves do not want to join in on a public celebration of the perpetrators of their abuse. If we as a nation see African Americans as citizens, then these are their public squares now too.
Finally, the South needs to own its bloody and unjust past. Nobody alive is responsible for the actions of their ancestors. We are not culpable unless we participate in the denial. My Southern friends, and even I, were victims of a gaslighting scheme that has only served to keep a wound open. To re-victimize and diminish the suffering of the slaves descended from an age that we fought a literal war with ourselves to protect.
Don’t get angry at the one that points out the past. Own it and act.
(3) Gaines M Foster “Ghosts of the Confederacy” 1987
(4) Facing South › 2019/04 › twisted-so…Web resultsTWISTED SOURCES: How Confederate propaganda ended up in the South’s…
(8) Read all of the letters here: https://www.battlefields.org/lea…/articles/reasons-secession
(10) Yale University › law › avalon › csa…Web resultsConstitution of the Confederate States; March 11, 1861 — Avalon Project