America’s Confederate icons must go

Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, and Jefferson Davis in this enormous carving “etched” into the side of Stone Mountain. Photo by Jim Bowen, Flickr, Creative Commons

TOM REGAN: SUMMONING ORENDA
June 03, 2017

About 25 years ago I accompanied my then fiancé, and now wife, to visit friends in the small town she grew up in just outside of Atlanta, Georgia. I had never really been in the South before, and so I was unprepared for what I found.

During our visit, one of the tourist attractions that she took me to see was Stone Mountain. In case you have no idea about what Stone Mountain is, it is the Confederacy’s equivalent of Mount Rushmore. In what is apparently the largest bas-relief carving in the world, three of the main figures of the Confederacy are carved into the north face of a huge granite outcropping: Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davies.

What is also interesting about Stone Mountain are the historical markers and plaques placed around the outcropping. In all these various bits of historical literature, not once was the Civil War mentioned. Instead, the great conflict that took place between 1861 and 1865 is referred to as “The War of Northern Aggression.” It’s also interesting to note that Stone Mountain was the initial meeting place of the second version of the Ku Klux Klan in 1915.

And I remember that my main thought that day was, “Wow. These people have a really big problem with historical revisionism.”

It has always puzzled me why so many Southerners, and their sympathizers in other places around the country, are so intent on linking their “heritage” to a bunch of racist losers. Because that is what the Confederacy was. A group of racist losers. But the whole idea of racism, indeed the whole idea that the Confederacy was crushed, seems to have been vanished from this pro-Confederacy narrative, better known as the “Lost Cause.”

The Lost Cause was one of the greatest propagandistic public relations efforts ever conducted. It did not begin until after the Civil War was over. The government in Washington, reeling from the loss of Abraham Lincoln and trying to deal with the inadequacies of his successor Andrew Johnson, was busy trying to put things back together. Meanwhile southern supporters of the Confederacy saw their chance. They invented the story that went something like this: slavery was on its last legs anyways, it would’ve died of its own weight, and the real fight was about states’ rights. All Confederate leaders were great men, who really didn’t believe in slavery.  As the website “Essays in History” notes:

“Specifically, they celebrated the South’s natural beauty and idyllic plantations, supported a white supremacist racial hierarchy in southern society, claimed liberty as a southern principle and the American Revolution as southern heritage, wrapped their sectionalism in a constitutional theory of state sovereignty, and nostalgically glorified the southern past.  In pushing these ideas, these postwar “Lost Causers,” such as former Confederate president Jefferson Davis and the then-famous Virginia journalist Edward Pollard-whose 1866 book, The Lost Cause, probably coined the phrase with its title-picked up where earlier white southern advocates had left off, working to construct a public memory that would sustain earlier white southern advocates’ vision of an ideal South and white southerners.”

This is of course nonsense –  any legitimate reading of history shows that. There are numerous statements by Confederate leaders, religious leaders, newspapers of the day (you’ll find some in the links below) made during the Civil War that document the Confederacy was fighting to retain the right to own slaves.

The numerous Confederate statues that sprung up in places like Richmond, Virginia and New Orleans, Louisiana are just one outcropping of this propaganda battle. But they’re more than that. I think New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu really hit the nail on the head in the speech he gave the other day after his city removed the last of four statues of Confederate figures.

“First erected over 166 years after the founding of our city and 19 years after the end of the Civil War, the monuments that we took down were meant to rebrand the history of our city and the ideals of a defeated Confederacy. It is self-evident that these men did not fight for the United States of America, They fought against it. They may have been warriors, but in this cause they were not patriots.

“These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for. After the Civil War, these statues were a part of that terrorism as much as a burning cross on someone’s lawn; they were erected purposefully to send a strong message to all who walked in their shadows about who was still in charge in this city.”

The message of who is still in charge. And that is the real meaning of these monuments. It was a way for the racists who had lost the Civil War to continue to terrorize the African-Americans they had fought to enslave. And they did so for almost another century. And modern day supporters of the Confederacy have made little effort to learn the true story – or have deliberately ignored it. Almost every white supremacist group flies the Confederate flag when demonstrating.  The ‘heritage’ they are celebrating is a whites-only one.

It’s time for them to go. All of them. Stone Mountain. Monument Alley in Richmond, all the statues of all the Confederate figures scattered throughout the cities and towns of the South. And holidays that celebrate the Confederacy, like the one in Virginia known as Lee-Jackson day. Because it’s time people who claim that the statues and things like that Confederate battle flag are their heritage face the truth: they are honoring a group of men who fought to enslave other human beings for purely racist, monetary reasons. Plain, pure, and simple.

And by claiming this is your rightful “heritage” you make yourself no better than they were.

Copyright Tom Regan 2017

Contact Tom Regan:  motnager@gmail.com

LINKS
Confronting Slavery and Revealing the “Lost Cause”  https://www.nps.gov/resources/story.htm%3Fid%3D217
Origins of the Lost Cause: The Continuity of Regional Celebration in the White South, 1850-1872

http://www.essaysinhistory.com/articles/2011/6
Read New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s Remarkable Speech About Removing Confederate Monuments:

http://www.esquire.com/news-politics/a55218/new-orleans-mayor-speech-confederate-monuments/

Watch New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s speech:

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Tom Regan Tom Regan is a journalist in the Washington, D.C., area. He worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and with the National Film Board in Canada, and in the United States for the Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe, and National Public Radio. A former executive director of the Online News Association in the U.S., he was a Nieman fellow at Harvard in 1991-92, and is a member of the advisory board of the Nieman Foundation for journalism at Harvard.

Return to Tom Regan’s page 

 

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