To Celebrate Confederate Heritage?

Published:April 8, 2008 by Brendan Wolfe

We are now smack in the middle of Confederate Heritage Month, and in honor of the occasion, the Atlantic magazine blogger Matthew Yglesias noted the following: “Why one would want to celebrate a heritage of violent rebellion against a democratically elected government in order to perpetuate a system of chattel slavery is a bit hard for me to say.”

He’s not from the South.

Yglesias’s hundreds of commenters were no different, however, railing nearly in unison against the mythologizing of history. The Lost Cause is a delusion, they cried, and a lie. And as an editor whose business is history, I am tempted to agree. But I have always been persuaded otherwise by something Bruce Catton wrote in Reflections on the Civil War (1987) about the legend of Robert E. Lee. This is written by a Northerner, mind you, and (judging by E. B. Long’s slightly defensive introduction) a man who wanted to be judged not as a beloved cultural figure (c.f. Shelby Foote), but as a historian.

Catton observed that, while a civil war, of all wars, is most likely to engender “irreconcilably angry feelings” and “incurable hatred,” that did not happen in the United States. There was peace after Appomattox, and there continues to be peace.

I think the chief reason for this is the legend of Robert E. Lee and the heroic Confederate soldiers. For this legend was the channel though which pent-up emotions could be discharged. The essence of the legend of Lee and the dauntless Confederate soldiers was that they suffered mightily in a great but lost cause. The point is that this very phrase accepts the cause as having been lost. There was no hint in this legend of biding one’s time and waiting for a moment when there could be revenge. This was the lost cause; something to be cherished, to be revered, to be the outlet for emotions, but not to be the center of a new outbreak of violence.

Catton suggests that a legend (or a story or a myth) surrounded Lee & His Men, that, by its very nature perhaps, it was not historically accurate, but that, by its very nature, it had a purpose. It was like a salve, protection from a pain too great to otherwise face. Of course, it didn’t just protect Lee and his losers. To an even larger extent, it protected the winners, too. Catton continues:

In that sense, I think the legend of the lost cause has served the entire country very well. The things that were done during the Civil War have not been forgotten, of course, but we now see them through a veil. We have elevated the entire conflict to the realm where it is no longer explosive. It is a part of American legend, a part of American history, a part, if you will, of American romance. It moves men mightily, to this day, but it does not move them in the direction of picking up their guns and going at it again. We have had national peace since the war ended and we will always have it, and I think the way Lee and his soldiers conducted themselves in the hours of surrender has a great deal to do with it.

This is, I think, an amazing admission from a historian: that a legend—the facts of which are not, in fact, facts, but exist outside the historian’s purview, snubbing their nose at him even—is important.

IMAGE: Let Us Have Peace, 1865 by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1920), courtesy Virginia Historical Society


3 Comments on “To Celebrate Confederate Heritage?”

  1. Jesse Dukes

    When I moved North (to Maine) and West (California, Oregon) after growing up Virginia, I found that the upside of a celebratory history of the confederacy was not something that most non-Southerners got. Catton’s point resonates with me deeply (as somebody not steeped in the Confederate mythology). I remember Howard Dean’s comment about wanting to get the guys with the rebel flags on their trucks into his political party, and the flack he drew from that. Dean’s position seemed heroic and transformative–not racist.

    On the other hand, there’s something problematic about celebrating a perhaps inaccurate view of history. I’m not sure that the point of history should be to salve, but instead, to teach.

  2. Jennifer Snow

    I find it tragic that freedom from tyranny was a lost cause. I am from the north (New Jersey) and the part of history that I find is inaccurate is the deification of a tyrant (Lincoln) who even went so far as to have his soldiers in our polling places to ensure his reelection. Not to mention throwing the press in jail if they disagreed with him, deporting sympathizers, and opening fire on people who were protesting an unjust war.

    How is it that the Encyclopedia Virginia has caved in to the propaganda about The War of Northern Aggression? Isn’t this the state that Patrick Henry was from? There was no war when Massachusetts seceded. How can anything about reconstruction be justified?

    We Were Wrong.

    I am woman enough to admit that I am ashamed of what my country did to another sovereign nation in the name of “union”. And I am so sorry for what we did.

    A “civil war” by definition is the attempt to overthrow an established government; The South did not do this, they merely wanted to leave peacefully. We (as Americans) condemned the Soviet Union for not letting people leave, so why all the lies to justify what Lincoln and his Republicans did?

    Please, just open your eyes and look at the Confederacy objectively, circumspectly. You may just find that you too are saddened by the fact that freedom from tyranny is considered a lost cause when it applies only to certain groups of people.

  3. Brendan Wolfe

    Thanks for your comment, Jennifer. I disagree that Encyclopedia Virginia has caved in to propaganda. We are involved in the business of history here, and historians (North and South, I might add) have reached a broad consensus about the Civil War and about Lincoln.

    Surely that consensus suggests that Lincoln was not a tyrant but that many of his actions — the suspension of habeas corpus in Baltimore, for instance — pushed and even crossed the boundaries of executive power. Did his means justify the ends? Most historians seem to agree that his rather limited abuse of executive power was warranted. Perhaps this is hindsight, but it is but one part of a remarkable presidency.

    I don’t have a dog in this fight, regardless. I’m not interested in holding up any Virginia tradition here; I’m not beholden to Patrick Henry or his memory. That, again, is not the business of historians.

    I appreciate, though, that you see it differently. And thanks again for the comment.

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