Understanding the LMA and UDC

With Memorial Day upon us we are no doubt going to be inundated with stories about the the work the United Daughters of the Confederacy is doing to mark the graves of Confederate soldiers.  Most of the news items say nothing about the organization’s history or how they worked to shape our understanding of the Civil War at the turn of the twentieth century.  The UDC was very active in controlling the content of textbooks, which included the standard accounts of happy slaves and a war over states’ rights.  The best book on the UDC is Karen L. Cox’s Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture (University Press of Floriday, 2003)  Less known is the UDC’s predecessors, the Ladies Memorial Association, which operated in the immediate postwar period, at a time when Confederate veterans were unable to march openly.  It was the LMA who organized the first Decoration Day celebrations here in Virginia.  I highly recommend Caroline Janney’s new book, Burying the Dead, But Not the Past: Ladies’ Memorial Associations and the Lost Cause (University of North Carolina Press, 2008).  Janney on the LMA’s:

There is such a dual legacy about these women, and I’m really torn about how I feel about them,” she says. “On the one hand, I feel they are responsible for some of the racist sentiment that is attached to the Confederacy, and they put in motion this romanticized image of the Confederacy today. Yet these are incredibly high-spirited, passionate women who engaged and fought for what they believed in. Historians will need to consider the good and the bad when examining them.

Click here for the rest of the interview.

4 comments add yours

  1. High-spirited, passionate people who fight to maintain racism and hatred are simply not admirable in any way. Do we experience this kind of equivocation about decorating Nazi graves? What these women believed in was terrible. There is no need and no way to honor them.

  2. Kevin,

    Thank you for pointing this out. I’ll have to put it on my reading list. I really don’t know that much about the LMA but I suspect they aren’t all that different from the UDC, considering I feel the same way about the UDC that Janney does about the LMA.

  3. Hi Kevin,
    I share your interest in the UDC, for personal reasons. My mother in law joined the UDC a few years ago, and has been quite active in a chapter in Knoxville, Tennessee. They preserve and interpret a Civil War era home there (Bleak House, served as Longstreet’s headquarters during the siege). She has also been very active in DAR for many years- genealogy is her hobby. I think that will strike many of your readers as a puzzling dichotomy- membership in both of those organizations. But, those ladies simply don’t see it that way. My mother in law is also a retired high school teacher and lifelong educator. She understands slavery and the root causes of the war as well as anyone, but she still chooses to use those two organizations to educate and preserve memory.

    Let me also say, however, that for every member like my mother in law, I have also know four or five absolute crackpots. I suppose that is the human condition for you.

    I guess this hits very close to home for me. I admire my mother in law tremendously for her lifelong commitment to history and education. It is unfortunate that the LMA and UDC have shaped our understanding of the past in damaging ways, but I think we will always struggle with these two opposing aspects.

    Please keep up the great work. Your blog is the most intelligent one out there.
    Charles

  4. Charles, — I think the important thing to keep in mind about the history of the UDC is that their primary mission is not to educate along the lines of what professional historians have in mind, but to inform the public of their preferred memory of the war that has been inherited from the 1890s. This, of course, leaves open the possibility that individuals such as your mother-in-law will join, but it makes it more likely that the organization’s profile will come down along the lines you describe. The same thing could probably be said about the SCV.

    Finally, thanks for the kinds words re: the blog. It’s always nice to hear from you.

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