In New Orleans, Mayor Mitch Landrieu has successfully led a campaign to move four Confederate statues from prominent places in that city. Three of the four were tributes to Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and PGT Beauregard. The fourth was a monument to the 1866 “Battle of Liberty Place” in New Orleans to commemorate the Crescent City White League overcoming a unit of the city’s biracial police force. The monument, completed in 1891, read: United States troops took over the state government and reinstated the usurpers but the national election of November, 1876 recognized white supremacy in the south and gave us our state.”
That monument received just as much support from Mayor Landrieu’s opposition as did the three others. The fact that New Orleans is merely moving the four statues seems to have made no difference to its Confederate “heritage” supporters. One hundred fifty two years after Appomattox, they appear to be all in for white supremacy and celebrating Confederate leaders.
Mayor Landrieu mentioned the Myth of the Lost Cause. He said, “This ‘cult’ had one goal — through monuments and through other means — to rewrite history to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity.” And it was indeed this postwar effort, known as the Lost Cause Myth that promoted the false narratives that most of us grew up to accept as civil war history in this country. The Secession movement of 1860-61 and the US Civil War originated over the issue of the security and permanent status of slavery (in the states, in the US Territories and beyond).
In Charlottesville, VA, statues of Lee and Stonewall Jackson are in the process of being moved from prominent public places and moved elsewhere to demonstrate that Confederate symbols and images no longer reflect America’s ideals and values. The chief symbol of the Lost Cause is the Confederate Flag and Lee has served as the personification of all that was good about the Confederacy. Yet the Lee legend includes substantive legend that often outweighs the facts, including the falsehoods that Lee hated slavery, freed his slaves immediately and was invincible as a general.
After Appomattox, former Confederates were allowed to write their version of the war. Their Lost Cause version emphasized that slavery was not the prime cause of the war. Their version created a pantheon of heroes and martyrs to the cause and established an Edenic image of the antebellum south as a place and culture that raised civilization to its greatest heights, if only for a tiny percentage of southerners.
The Lost Cause myths ignored or marginalized the horrendous institution of slavery and chose to claim that slave owners treated their “property” very well and that slaves were generally happy workers. It claimed that white slave owners were superior Christians raising the black race to where blacks embraced a degree of Christianity up from savagery. The Lost Cause myths also ignored the real history of Confederate disunion and resistance. The fact that nearly 350,000 white men from the slave states fought against the Confederacy in addition to over 100,000 former slaves, plus the immediate and growing resistance to the Confederate Conscription Act in the form of desertion and evasion, played a major role in the defeat of the Confederate armies.
Yet in postwar literature, despite the absurdly false claim that “the winners write the history”, a great portion of the nationwide collective history of the US Civil War – in books, magazines, music, poetry and cinema, over a century after 1865 – promoted this mythological or heroic version of the war. Rather than emphasizing the stark realism of 650,000+ deaths, hundreds of thousands more wounded, millions displaced, the countryside and infrastructure largely ruined and endless disruptions of shortened lives, American children have grown up reading heroic versions of great generals, countless episodes of individual heroic battlefield acts and dedication of Confederate soldiers. This has promoted a lasting but fictionalized devotion to the memory of the Confederacy. It remains organized and forthright in its determination to ignore the realities and emphasize the mythology, regardless of the facts.
In Maryland, a state that was sharply divided but which sided largely with the Union, the Lost Cause mythology retains a strong hold. The Lost Cause version is that it was only the tyrannical grip of Abraham Lincoln that held this state with the Union. Our state song, “Maryland, My Maryland” paints Lincoln as “the tyrant”. Marylanders quickly point out the Baltimore Riots as the first blood drawn in defense of the Confederacy by patriotic Marylanders.
In Talbot County, fifty years after Appomattox, a memorial to the 85 residents who fought for the Confederacy was erected and placed on the grounds of the County Court House. It was decided at that time that the true history of Talbot County in the Civil War would be erased by ignoring the approximately 400 residents who fought for the Union. Two years afterward, in the midst of the rampant Jim Crow era where blacks seeking civil rights as citizens were intimidated, excluded, threatened and sometimes murdered, an addition was placed atop the Confederate memorial – a bronze statue of a Confederate soldier carrying an unfurled Confederate battle flag. This perversion has passed as “history” for over a century, in addition to the stark signal that the Confederate flag still flies as a symbol of public authority in Talbot County, Maryland.
Talbot County should come together with a plan to acknowledge the realities of the Civil War, the Jim Crow era and look to the future. Here is a suggestion. Leave the memorial to the 85 Confederate soldiers in place because that recognizes the sacrifices made by those men to the cause they felt was justified. While I acknowledge that these men fought against their state and several times, against their neighbors who fought for the state of Maryland and the Union, there should be no issue of dishonor. The fact is that Robert Lee indicated that his personal honor required him to support Virginia despite his acknowledgement that “secession was nothing but revolution” against the country whose Constitution he was sworn to uphold as a US Army officer. Lee and his soldiers were absolved of guilt by Grant at Appomattox and that includes the Marylanders who fought.
Let us come together to erect an identical memorial to the 400 Talbot County men who fought for the Union. Place a flagpole for the American Flag to fly between the 2 monuments. Remove the Confederate flag bronze statue from the grounds of Talbot County Court House and place it a few blocks away in the private County Historical Society yard or a local cemetery where some of the Talbot Boys are buried.
To anyone claiming this is a way of “erasing” history, I’d argue that the effort to erase the true history of Talbot County in the Civil War has failed and finally, those 400 brave Union troops will soon receive the recognition they deserve. No one can erase the history of the US Civil War in this country. They can and have twisted it over the past 150 years, but it can never be erased.
This country is moving forward. This past week the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Phoenix, AZ voted overwhelmingly to condemn the racist/white supremacist views of the “Alt-right” movement in this country. This Protestant denomination, among other Southern slave state Christian denominations, was created before the Civil War in order to support and protect the institution of slavery based upon its biblical interpretation at the time. Now, the SBC says “Racism and white supremacy are, sadly, not extinct but present all over the world in various white supremacist movements, sometimes known as ‘white nationalism’ or ‘alt-right’. Southern Baptists “decry every form of racism, including alt-right white supremacy, as antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ” and “we denounce and repudiate white supremacy and every form of racial and ethnic hatred as of the devil.”
Isn’t it time that predominantly Christian Talbot County moves beyond denial that the Confederate flag symbolizes racism and white supremacy nationwide and worldwide? Why isn’t it reasonable to expect that descendants of those 85 Confederate soldiers can honor the sacrifices of their ancestors etched on the memorial stone without requiring the bronze replica of the Confederate flag flying over the memorial? Recognizing the dehumanizing side of our country’s history is important, but celebrating and venerating the Confederate symbol of the effort to maintain slavery does not have a legitimate place in our society today in places of public authority like the Talbot County Court House.
And for those who fear a slippery slope that will eventually remove any and all public recognition of slaveholders dating back to our Revolutionary War days, I say relax. Slaveholders like George Washington. Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and others should forever be American icons. These were people who sacrificed everything to create and build this nation, whereas Confederates sought to sunder the nation permanently to protect and spread slavery. Big Difference.