TPM Cafe: Opinion

How The South Lost The War But Won The Narrative

AP Photo / Danny Johnston

It now appears that Roof’s fusillade backfired. Seeking race war, he’s instead spawned racial reconciliation and calls for the rebel flag to be removed from the capitol grounds in South Carolina, from shelves in Walmart, and from the annals of Ebay. But listen carefully in coming days as legislators and others debate the flag’s fate. You’ll hear over and over again that the flag represents “heritage, not hate,” and that if the banner must now be furled, it’s because Roof, the Klan, and other extremists have hijacked and tarnished its meaning. What you’re unlikely to hear, at least from whites, is an honest and historically accurate reappraisal of the Cause for which Southerners fought.

Some of those who invoke the “heritage, not hate” mantra are disingenuous. On the day of the shooting, I was in rural east Texas, touring a small town with a businessman who displayed the rebel flag on his truck. After telling me “it’s heritage, not hate,” he proceeded to refer to a black neighborhood as “Niggertown” and rant against the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday.

Most flag defenders, however, are sincere when they say they cherish the banner as a symbol of their ancestors’ valor. About 20 percent of white Southern males of military age died in the Civil War. In South Carolina the toll was even higher, and thousands more were left maimed, their farms and homes in ruins. For many descendants of Southern soldiers, the rebel flag recalls that sacrifice, and taking it down dishonors those who fought under the banner. No one wants to be asked to spit on their ancestors’ graves.

Flag defenders also note, correctly, that what we now call the rebel flag served only as a battle standard in the Civil War. The political flag of the Confederacy had a different design, and in any event, it flew over Southern statehouses for only four years. The Stars and Stripes, by contrast, waved above government buildings during the 80-plus years that slavery was legal and Constitutionally protected in the United States.

In the decades after the Civil War, the rebel battle flag appeared mainly at historical and memorial events honoring Confederate veterans and the dead. Not until the 1940s did it frequently serve as a baldly racist banner, brandished by segregationist Dixiecrats and by the Klan and other groups during the Civil Rights era. It was also at this time that the flag appeared atop Southern statehouses, first in South Carolina and then in Alabama, where Governor George Wallace raised it ahead of a hostile meeting in 1963 with Robert F. Kennedy, then U.S. Attorney General. A few months earlier, Wallace stood beside a rebel flag as he took his oath of office at the precise spot where Jefferson Davis was sworn in as Confederate president.

“From this Cradle of the Confederacy, this very Heart of the Great Anglo-Saxon Southland,” Wallace declared, “I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

Raymond Roberts (left) raises a large confederate flag on the back of a pickup truck across the street from the federal building in Meridian, Miss. on Monday, Oct. 9, 1967.

Thereafter, no amount of historical parsing could cleanse the flag of its association with white supremacy and defiance of federally-mandated integration. It would take several decades, but black-led opposition to the flag finally forced it from atop Southern statehouses. Only in Mississippi, where the rebel flag is part of the state flag’s design, does the distinctive cross of the Confederacy still fly above a capitol. House Speaker Philip Gunn has now called for it to be taken down. And after Nikki Haley’s speech this week, it’s likely to be removed altogether from the capitol grounds in South Carolina, where secession and the Civil War began.

This is a welcome and long-overdue development. There’s no justification for displaying a flag on capitol grounds that’s hateful to African-Americans, almost a third of the state’s citizenry. Should the flag be retired, I suspect most white South Carolinians will also be pleased, if only because they’re weary of a debate that’s been a distraction and taint on the state’s reputation for decades.

But a deeper problem remains, and not just among those who cherish the Confederacy. Nationwide, Americans still cling to a deeply sanitized and Southern-fried understanding of the Civil War. More often than not, when I talk to people about the conflict, I hear that it was about abstract principles like “state sovereignty” and “the Southern way of life.” Surveys confirm this. In 2011, at the start of the war’s sesquicentennial, the Pew Research Center asked more than 1500 Americans their view as to “the main cause of the Civil War.” Only 38 percent said the main cause was slavery, compared to 48 percent who answered states’ rights.

This belief also seems to be growing. According to Pew, respondents 30 and younger were the likeliest to cite states’ rights, by a margin of 60 percent. And there was no difference between northern and southern whites in the plurality citing states’ rights as the war’s main cause.

It would take a book to explain the history behind this belief, and some excellent ones have been written (to name one, David Blight’s Race and Reunion). The very short version is that white Southerners lost the war but won its aftermath and the battle for how the conflict would be remembered. Violent Southern intransigence and Northern war-weariness killed Reconstruction; the nation chose regional reconciliation over racial justice; and ex-Confederates constructed a potent ideology—the Lost Cause—that romanticized plantation life and cast the war as a noble, doomed defense of Southern freedom and an agrarian way of life.

In the 20th century, mass culture and commerce spread the Lost Cause nationwide, most notably in movies like Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind. The moonlight-and-magnolia virus grew so strong that the U.S. Senate approved the construction of a Mammy monument in Washington in the 1920s, and after World War II the rebel flag became a faddish adornment on vehicles, beach towels and other products, a generalized emblem of independence, Southernness or good ol’ boyism.

With the Civil Rights struggle, scholars of the Civil War era gave new emphasis to race and slavery, and this trend has continued ever since. The evidence is overwhelming that Southern states seceded and fought to maintain slavery. Don’t believe me; believe the words of secessionists and Confederate leaders. Among the most often cited is Confederate vice-president Alexander Stephens who in 1861 declared the Founders “fundamentally wrong” in judging all humans equal. “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—the subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition.”

The same view was expressed by the secessionist conventions in Southern states that published their reasons for leaving the Union. The authors sometimes couched their declarations in Constitutional arguments about sovereignty, but left no doubt about the state right at issue. Mississippians bluntly declared, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world.” Texans cited a Northern “crusade” against the “beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery,” and Texans’ conviction that bondage “should exist in all future time.”

There are countless such statements, scores of scholarly works documenting the cruelties of the slave economy and how much it was bound up with Southern life and politics. Most textbooks follow suit. Yet the prevailing popular view of the Civil War still reflects a strong Southern bias: that the Confederacy fought for vaguely defined “states’ rights,” and its battle flag isn’t intrinsically racist, it’s an anodyne emblem of Southern “heritage.”

I’m not very optimistic that the debate over South Carolina’s flag will bring a deeper reckoning. Furling the statehouse flag may bring temporary relief to South Carolinians, but what we truly need to bury is the gauzy fiction that the antebellum South was in any way benign, or that slavery and white supremacy weren’t the cornerstone of the Confederacy. Only then, perhaps, will we be able to say that the murdered in Charleston didn’t die in vain, and that the Lost Cause, at last, is well and truly lost.

Tony Horwitz is the author of two books about the Civil War era, Confederates in the Attic and Midnight Rising, and is at work on a third.