I recently discovered an excellent blog written by a graduate student in history who is very interested in issues related to the Lost Cause, public history, and memory. One particular post on Michael Hardy’s blog, North Carolina and the Civil War, really caught my attention. The writer applauds Hardy for his sincere interest in researching his Confederate ancestors who fought in the war, but expresses concern over his failure to acknowledge the centrality of slavery to the war on a number of different levels. There are very few references to race and slavery and the few that do reference it buy into the myth of loyal slaves and black Confederates. The writer concludes with the following:
All of this is a lot of lead up to say something very simple: MH is not a wild-eyed crazy person. It is easy to dismiss people
who say insane things, but the myth of the Lost Cause does not always
come wrapped in the Stars and Bars. From what I have read on his blog, H is a considerate, well-intentioned person who is interested in
research, history, and honoring his forebears. Still, he is not at all
interested in slavery and posts information about black Confederates on
his blog without commenting on the history of this debate.
problem is that H’s vision of the Confederacy is a gentler, more
reasonable version of the insidious Lost Cause ideology. When our focus
is on honoring the men who fought and died, no doubt bravely, without
ever really grappling with what they were fighting for, we don’t learn
anything. When we implicitly deny the horror of slavery and the
continual betrayal of African-Americans during and after the war, we
are setting ourselves up to accept racist fantasies in the present.
When we fawn over Southern leaders like Lee and Jackson as models of
American manhood, what we are really doing is yearning for a white,
Christian, patriarchal past in which women and slaves knew their places
and real men were subordinate only to God.
I realize that
everyone has interests and doesn’t necessarily have time to explore all
of the problems that attend those interests. I don’t have a problem
with MH if he wants to write primarily about military
history. Still, his blog is a reminder of how the soft power of the
Lost Cause myth continues to inhabit our mental landscapes.
I should say at the outset that while I don’t link to H’s blog I do on occasion read and enjoy it. He has an impressive list of books to his credit and I am sure they earn positive reviews.
My guess is that the above description can be applied to most people who claim to be interested in their "heritage." Those who write have a tendency to be led by an emotional need to see the past in a certain way whether it is in writing about "friendly" slaveowners or perfectly moral Confederate Christian Warriors. The problem, as the writer above notes, is that the need to identify on a
personal level lends itself to distorting the past in a way which makes
it more palatable. Their work tends to be void of serious historical analysis and/or an understanding of historiography. For the most part they are harmless. They fail to see history as an ongoing dialog between interpretations and tend to label those historians they disagree with as "liberal", "revisionist", etc., but as I’ve stated many times before this has more to do with their own agenda than anything having to do with history.
As one of my friends who works in the field suggested at a recent conference, the more extreme examples of this distortion can be likened to a "Confederate Taliban." What he had in mind are those organizations such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans and others who actively work to control the historical landscape and maintain its overly narrow and historically inaccurate depiction of the past. They see the past as static and any revision – be it subtraction or addition – is interpreted as a sacrilege as if any one group has the right to decide how public spaces ought to be utilized for remembering our collective past. Worse yet, they assume that they alone have a monopoly on how the Confederacy ought to be remembered as if the waving of Confederate flags constitutes some type of membership in an exclusive club. They resist the changing of the names of buildings such as schools as well as additions to the public landscape in the form of a statue of Lincoln and his son and Arthur Ashe on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia.
I tend to think that most people are driven by what the writer describes as the "soft power of the Lost Cause myth." They yearn to identify with a personal past and need that past to be honorable and one worth remembering. That past must be instructive on some moral level or provide an alternative to our own present troubles/concerns all of which can be empathized with. But at what place does this "soft power" shift into something more hideous be it in the form of racism and the distortion of the past?