Today in the Civil War Memory course we discussed the introduction of Brown’s The Public Art of Civil War Commemoration. To start the class I shared a very recent news story out of Huntsville, Arkansas. The proprietors of the Faubus Hotel decided to raise a Confederate flag in response to Barack Obama’s recent victory. I could conceivably teach the entire course by having my students follow news items related to the Civil War and modern politics/culture. Luckily, only a few students had to be reminded of Orval Faubus’s importance to the story, which added another layer to our interpretation.
Brown’s introduction covers the various stages of memory and commemoration, including a brief outline of the Lost Cause. We looked at a number of images that reflect the emphasis on states rights as opposed to slavery/race when addressing the cause of the war and the Confederacy generally. I also showed the class postwar images of important Confederate leaders to point out the importance of understanding Confederate defeat as simply the result of overwhelming numbers and resources. In emphasizing the popularity and pervasiveness of the Lost Cause I used the “Mission Statement” found on the Dixie Outfitters website. A few students noticed immediately the badge in the upper left stating, “Preserving Southern Heritage Since 1861” and wondered why they chose such a late date given that the history of the South goes back well into the 17th century. That made me feel pretty good. There is a “short history lesson”, which reads as follows:
Just as the War for American Independence of 1776, the War for Southern Independence of 1861 was fought over “taxation without representation.” The North was constantly trying to raise taxes on Southerners through high tariffs on imported goods in order to protect the inefficient big businesses in the North. These big businesses could not compete with manufactured goods from England and France with whom the South traded cotton. The South did not have factories and had to import most finished products.
The Industrial Revolution allowed England and France to produce and ship across the Atlantic products that were cheaper than the products of Northern manufacturers. When Lincoln was elected President, he and the U.S. Congress immediately passed the Morrill Tariff (the highest import tax in U.S. history), more than doubling the import tax rate from 20% to 47%. This tax served to bankrupt many Southerners. Though the Southern states represented only about 30% of the U.S. population, they paid 80% of the tariffs collected. Oppressive taxes, denial of the states’ rights to govern their states, and an unrepresentative federal government pushed the Southern states to legally withdraw from the Union. Since the Southerners had escaped the tax by withdrawing from the Union, the only way the North could collect this oppressive tax was to invade the Confederate States and force them at gunpoint back into the Union. It was to collect this import tax to satisfy his Northern industrialist supporters that Abraham Lincoln invaded our South. Slavery was not the issue. Lincoln’s war cost the lives of 600,000 Americans.
The truth about the Confederate Flag is that it has nothing to do with racism or hate. The Civil War was not fought over slavery or racism. We at Dixie Outfitters are trying to tell the real truth via our art and products in regards to the Confederate Flag. We hope to educate people about the Confederate Flag and stop the divisiveness caused by ignorance and emotion.
A number of my students who have taken U.S. History and/or my course on the Civil War were dumfounded by this interpretation of the war. They asked where the discussion of slavery was to be found, while another student made the connection betwen history and contemporary politics and the concern with big government. One student asked if they sold anything with the image of a black individual, so we looked but couldn’t find anything apart from some wonderful images of H.K. Edgerton. We will come back to H.K. at a later date for a more thorough analysis of how he fits into our broader narrative of the war. I don’t mind saying that a few jaws dropped when they saw him in full gray uniform along with his Confederate flag. From there we briefly explored the “Legends of the Confederacy” products and discussed the importance of Lee, Jackson, Forrest and other notable Confederate heroes. Obviously, we have much more to do in understanding the formation and evolution of memory as it relates to a whole host of issues, but it’s encouraging as a teacher to be able to take advantage of so many different types of sources.
By the way, at the end of the class one of my students asked, “So, if Dixie Outfitters believes the “Confederate flag has nothing to do with racism”, than how do they explain the incident at the Faubus hotel?” My response: “Welcome to the world of Civil War Memory. See you tomorrow.