In 1907, Mosby drove a dagger into the heart of Lost Cause mythology about slavery: “I am not ashamed that my family were slaveholders. The South went to war on account of slavery. I am not as honored for having fought on the side of slavery – a soldier fights for his country … the South was my country.” Why doesn’t the Confederacy just fade away? Is it because we are irresistibly fascinated by catastrophic loss? Or is it something else? Is it because the Confederacy is to this day the greatest conservative resistance to federal authority in American history? Or is it that nothing punctuates the long and violent story of white supremacy in America quite like the brief four years of the Confederate States of America?
Is it really all about federalism? Or the honoring of ancestors? Or valor and loyalty? Or regional identity? Or about white racial solidarity in an America becoming browner and more multi-ethnic every day? In 1951, in an essay probing how and why Americans have a difficult time facing their racial past, AfricanAmerican writer James Baldwin left a telling observation: “Americans have the most remarkable ability to alchemize all bitter truths into an innocuous but piquant confection and transform their moral contradictions, or public discussion of such contradictions, into a proud decoration, such as are given for heroism on the field of battle.”
We should decorate our battlefield heroes, and we have been doing so for a century and a half. We can only wonder whether this time, during the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, we can finally face the past and probe the real causes and consequences of that conflict, or whether we will content ourselves again with unexamined moral contradictions and piquant confections in our public memory. If we do it better this time, we will need stronger verbs than “involved,” and a good dose of Mosby’s candor.