James W. Loewen, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Vermont, writes in the Washington Post about the Falsehoods propagated by Southerners about the Civil War. He is the author of “Lies My Teacher Told Me” and “The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader.”
History is the polemics of the victor, William F. Buckley once said. Not so in the United States, at least not regarding the Civil War. As soon as the Confederates laid down their arms, some picked up their pens and began to distort what they had done and why. The resulting mythology took hold of the nation a generation later and persists — which is why a presidential candidate can suggest, as Michele Bachmann did in 2011, that slavery was somehow pro-family and why the public, per the Pew Research Center, believes that the war was fought mainly over states’ rights.
The Confederates won with the pen (and the noose) what they could not win on the battlefield: the cause of white supremacy and the dominant understanding of what the war was all about. We are still digging ourselves out from under the misinformation they spread, which has manifested in our public monuments and our history books.
Take Kentucky, where the legislature voted not to secede. Early in the war, Confederate Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston ventured through the western part of the state and found “no enthusiasm, as we imagined and hoped, but hostility.” Eventually, 90,000 Kentuckians would fight for the United States, while 35,000 fought for the Confederate States. Nevertheless, according to historian Thomas Clark, the state now has 72 Confederate monuments and only two Union ones.
I bet you did not know that one. And there is more.
Perhaps most perniciously, neo-Confederates now claim that the South seceded over states’ rights. Yet when each state left the Union, its leaders made clear that they were seceding because they were for slavery and against states’ rights. In its “Declaration of the Causes Which Impel the State of Texas to Secede From the Federal Union,” for example, the secession convention of Texas listed the states that had offended the delegates: “Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa.” Governments there had exercised states’ rights by passing laws that interfered with the federal government’s attempts to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act. Some no longer let slave owners “transit” across their territory with slaves. “States’ rights” were what Texas was seceding against. Texas also made clear what it was seceding for — white supremacy:
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.
States rights, my foot!