Update: Brian Beutler doubles down with a follow-up post offering some thoughts as to why even Southern white liberals are hard pressed to agree to the author’s proposal. This is what happens when you report from inside a bubble. Again, as I suggest below, the author would have done well to spend just a little time researching how the Civil War has been commemorated throughout the South over the past few years.

On the eve of the 150th anniversary of Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, an essay in The New Republic by Brian Beutler is getting some traction by calling for the event to be celebrated as a national holiday. Actually, Beutler is not so much calling for a holiday as he is suggesting that “in a better America” and one that was more honest about its past, April 9 would already be acknowledged as such. The essay is worth reading, but like so many other commentaries on how the Civil War is remembered in the South it fails to consider the reality on the ground.

The author proceeds as if memory of the war is both static and uniform throughout the South. What is needed is action by the federal government.

This week provides an occasion for the U.S. government to get real about history, as April 9 is the 150th anniversary of the Union’s victory in the Civil War. The generous terms of Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House foreshadowed a multitude of real and symbolic compromises that the winners of the war would make with secessionists, slavery supporters, and each other to piece the country back together. It’s as appropriate an occasion as the Selma anniversary to reflect on the country’s struggle to improve itself. And to mark the occasion, the federal government should make two modest changes: It should make April 9 a federal holiday; and it should commit to disavowing or renaming monuments to the Confederacy, and its leaders, that receive direct federal support.

As Beutler acknowledges, this call follows a proposal by Jamie Malanowski in 2013 to rename military bases that honor Confederate generals.

These actions on the part of the federal government will, according to Beutler, serve to remedy a regional memory of the war that never should have occurred.

Instead, the North enabled the South by giving it unusual influence over shaping the official mythology of the war. Yes, the South surrendered. The states ratified the 13th Amendment. The Union survived. These facts couldn’t be altered. But memorializing the rebellion as a tragedy of circumstance, or a bravely fought battle of principle—those narratives were adopted in part for the unspoken purpose of making the reunion stick.

It goes without saying that we need to move beyond this overly simplistic narrative of how the Lost Cause evolved and the extent of its influence by the turn of the twentieth century and beyond. There was never an “official mythology” and memory of the war has always been complex and divisive. More importantly, we need to acknowledge that there are no quick fix solutions that can be applied to our current public memory of the war nor is it even helpful to be looking for one. None is needed.

What Beutler seems oblivious to is the fact that memory of the Civil War among white Southerners has undergone a profound shift in recent decades. This blog has cataloged countless examples of this change just over the past few years alone as part of the sesquicentennial. White and black Southerners as well as others are in the midst of a rich regional discussion/negotiation over how the war is remembered in all kinds of public spaces, from the naming of buildings to the relevancy of monuments to the Confederacy.

These discussions are by their very nature messy and often divisive, but they are absolutely necessary in cases where communities acknowledge that their past remains relevant to the present. There is something naive and even dangerous about the way Beutler understands the politics of historical memory.

On Thursday the National Park Service is calling for communities around the country to ring bells in recognition of Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant and the end of the war. Brian Beutler will be happy to learn that many of those bells will be heard throughout the South.

About Kevin Levin

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45 comments add yours

  1. Wow… I’m in awe. It’s sad 2% of our nation’s population was sacrificed and Americans want to erase our history… Should we censor the great George Washington, our founding father, for owning slaves too? Wasn’t he a traitor? I’m really disgusted, I thought only dictators like Hitler, Stalin, and terrorist groups such as ISIS commited similiar acts. Smh… Hopefully, my post won’t be censored too…

    • I’m in awe. It’s sad 2% of our nation’s population was sacrificed and Americans want to erase our history…

      I fail to see what this post has to do with ‘erasing history.’ Certainly Americans constantly debate what is worth remembering and why, but that is quite different than simply brushing something under the table.

      Hopefully, my post won’t be censored too

      As long as your comments are not inappropriate and relevant to the post you have nothing to worry about.

    • Ryan – I’m neither surprised nor in awe to read an opinion that relies on all the memes and rhetorical traps of the sort that tried to hide behind fear of “majoratism” and employ anti-federalist arguments of nullification originally put forward essentially to avoid equal taxation over a century ago, again employed by opinions such as you advance. You might want to check in on George Washington – he felt morally conflicted in the extreme in regards slavery, and his last will and testament contains a codicil that emancipated his slaves upon his death. Clearly this was not an act taken lightly or in the spirit of thinking slavery an exemplary institution as did John C. Calhoun. Having demonstrated your sparse historical knowledge, you then salt your unenlightened comment with sarcastic standbys of the rhetorical right, attempting to say that any of us who question memorializing the nobility of principles that stupidly nearly brought this nation to ruin are to be compared to Hitler, or ISIS. Why should anyone want to censor or alter your post except perhaps someone who would learn from a casual amount of objective research, that they are ignorant of basic fact and therefore be embarrassed by the ignorance it documents forever on the world wide web for all to see?

  2. “What Beutler seems oblivious to is the fact that memory of the Civil War among white Southerners has undergone a profound shift in recent decades.”

    Indeed.

    I have a student who is a genial southern white boy who enjoys Civil War history, but has few illusions about the Confederate past. Even so, we’re reading Nicholas Lemann’s *Redemption* in class now and he came to me today absolutely crushed. He wasn’t resistant to the story as Beutler might expect: quite the opposite–my student was gut-wrenched by the terrible reality of it all–troubled by the implications it has on the way he personally remembers his own family history of the war. He’ll never be the same, and I can say with confidence that he’s not the only “white Southerner” who has let thoughtfulness, empathy, and humility guide his thinking on the Confederacy “in recent decades.”

    • You get the sense that the author hasn’t spent much time at all researching the current state of Civil War memory throughout the South and that he probably hasn’t spent much time visiting the South.

    • Hi cagraham,

      Do you teach the Civil War only? I am curious about the reactions, to our history, of your white students who are from areas outside of the South. I do not know of an academic work that is comparable to “Redemption”, but I am aware of the documentary “Traces of the Trade: A Story From the Deep North”, in which the Brown family painfully and courageously examines the extensive involvement of their ancestors in the slave trade. Are your white students aware of this history? I would think that they are, and would hope that they are, because if they are not, there you might find the roots of racism as it exists outside of the South. The myth that white Northerners were all abolitionists who held enlightened views, saved the Union, and freed the slaves is as tenacious as the Lost Cause myth. Historians know better. But the public at large–not really. And probably not the white Southern boy in your class, nor the white boys from other parts of the country.

      Also, what do your white students think about how reunited white Southerners and white Northerners then set about to conquer the West? I know what most Lakota and Cheyenne men and women think. I do not know what young, non white students think, or what they are taught.

      My point is that racism is not just a Southern problem. It never has been. I think we all know that. No meaningful dialogue between white men and women can take place until we acknowledge it, however.

      On this day one hundred fifty years ago, Lee surrendered to Grant. But the Civil War did not end. Maybe some day it will. We are definitely getting closer.

    • When I was a teenager in the early 1980s I had a romantic view of the Confederacy, more in line with the “Lost Cause” mythos where they fought for states rights. I’ve also always had a streak of rooting for underdogs. This is what I knew from where I grew up and what was available to me (remember this was pre-Internet days). I knew about slavery and abhorred it even then, but that it was such a foundation for the Confederacy I did not. It was after high school when films like Edward Zwick’s “Glory”, Ken Burn’s “Civil War” and Steven Spielberg’s “Amistad”, among other things, that really started to make it all clear to me on what happened and why the war was fought. In fact, I remember reading Howard Jones’ “Mutiny on the Amistad” (much better than Spielberg’s film) and being quite angry that this event wasn’t in my high school history text. The Internet by far though has done more to dispel the “Lost Cause” in my view than anything else. Original documents, scholarly articles, information about good books on the subject, etc. it’s all out there if one looks for it. Books which were difficult to find or out-of-print before the Internet now can be easily acquired or accessed. I just recently read the journal of John S. Wise, for example, which I never knew existed before! My point in all this is to say that I can understand how and why the “Lost Cause” existed for so long, as well as why it is quickly fading away now like it so richly deserves. It’s all a lie and frankly I feel like I was lied to when I was younger, which really angers me, because of it.

  3. Kevin, I hope you recall my comment on your April 5 post and the one on your April 3 post. I want to be clear that I am no Confederate apologist or a member of a heritage group. I personally find these groups embarrassing and counterproductive.

    However, I am a native Mississippian with more Confederates in my family history than I can list, and I am disturbed by Beutler’s suggestion relating to how the Civil War should be remembered. It reeks of self-righteous arrogance and it is just as stupid as erecting a 40-foot battle-flag along the interstate.

  4. Kevin, I live in the South and yes–there are many southerners who do not have a purely “romanticized” and non-reality based perspective on the Civil War and the South’s role. Perhaps I would feel better if more would regularly read your blog, but sorry–that’s not likely to happen in significant numbers. I have no problem on a civic level with STATES or localities commemorating Confederates, but I agree with Beutler’s point that the Federal government has no business subsidizing or participating in these commemorations. Is it possible Kevin, just possible, that you too may be living in a bit of a bubble??

    • Of course, it’s possible, but I suggest that the content of my blog reflects a much more nuanced understanding of how the Civil War is currently being remembered/commemorated than what Beutler offers.

      I have no problem on a civic level with STATES or localities commemorating Confederates, but I agree with Beutler’s point that the Federal government has no business subsidizing or participating in these commemorations.

      My whole point in this post is to suggest that white Southerners are engaged in a discussion/debate over these issues. We are in a completely different commemorative space than what was seen 50 years ago. Just look at what took place in Richmond this past week to mark the city’s fall and liberation. Beutler appears to be unaware of any of this. The question of whether the federal government should change the names of military bases is beside the point. He seems to believe that in doing so the federal government can kick start a much needed discussion where one is already taking place. The overwhelming number of Americans couldn’t identify 90% of the men whose names are attached to military bases.

      No one needs to read my blog to make anything happen. The changes have already taken place. Just ask anyone in a Confederate heritage organization.

      • I have an old friend from high school who now lives near FT Hood and had no idea of the origin of the name. He was shocked and I can assure all that he is a political conservative. After living in the south for 20 years, I still find myself shocked at what I see as alternative versions of the war coming from Confederate heritage societies. But it is not just in the south that we see a romanticized version of the war, slavery, the generals, etc., as popular culture seems to glorify the losing side as well. Ask the average person about Grant and the association is going to be to a bottle of booze. Some who may be slightly more knowledgeable might mention a troubled presidency. Lee, by contrast, is seen as one of nature’s nobleman literally on a white horse.

        • My concern with some of this is where does it stop? Military strategists will be studying Confederate leaders like Lee, Jackson or Stuart for many years to come so it’s not too surprising to me that they have some bases named after them. We have Union generals who can be tarred as well by this standard, if not during the Civil War then certainly afterwards. What Sherman and Sheridan did during the Indian Wars of the 1870s and 80s is not something to be proud of either. On the other hand, anything with the name Nathan Bedford Forrest on it I’m perfectly willing to see changed, or bulldozed. Take your pick. Ah the New South, so full of contradictions I know… 😉

          • Military strategists will be studying Confederate leaders like Lee, Jackson or Stuart for many years to come so it’s not too surprising to me that they have some bases named after them

            I’m sure we all be welcoming Camp Mao, Camp Guderian, Camp Manstein, and Camp Yamamoto, then, correct? Given the “they’re enemy leaders, so we study them” standard?

        • This sees to yearn for the disappearance of any pro-rebel tradition. Since that’s unlikely, why not dismiss pro-CSA reverence as superstition? Or, instead, study the pro-rebel tradition, not for more refutations, which don’t persuade their targets, but to understand how CSA-reverencing can exist in the light of the cultural resources here in America? For myself, I believe that much of the emotion behind CSA reverencing is southern sectional resentment. The CSA reverencers express this resentment, needle southerners about it, and present themselves champions of southern feeling. [N.B. in the present context context “southerners” means mainly “white southerners”, even though I ordinarily use the term to mean anybody who answers “yes”, to the question, “Are you a southerner?”]

  5. “This is what happens when you report from inside a bubble.”

    Yes indeed. I encounter folks like this from time to time. They find the South far more complex than they are comfortable with, and so they usually retreat to their bubble.

    Both essays strike me as someone who really does not understand the subject, and is approaching it more from an emotional standpoint than anything else.

  6. Just one more national holiday I’ll have to work. Pass. I can’t imagine the South wanting the Federal Gub’mint to tell them how to celebrate either.

    • Try not to lose sight of the author’s main point. The reason Beutler is calling for a national holiday is because he assumes that memory of the war in the region needs a kickstart. My point is that this reflects very little understanding of the relevant facts surrounding how the war is being commemorated.

      • I think he goes a bit overboard — I’m all for the gravestones and the monuments. But I would like to see monuments to the lynchings and riots too and a national celebration of Juneteenth rather than the surrender at Appomattox (which was pretty anticlimactic in my view, the South was completely crushed by then). Even as a boy I never understood the naming of army bases after the generals that lost the war (but the army and navy were filled with officers who were the sons of rebels after the war). Bragg — really? He rates something named after him!? I think we are stuck with it though. The other part is that this is generational and the old Birchers, clan members, lost causers are fading away and the younger generations have been learning, eating, playing together since the end of segregation and the biased/racist attitudes are much less prominent (its going to take generations to whittle that down to negligible). I wish I lived back East so I could have seen the 150th events. Being there has no substitute.

        • Well said, Jerry. Having read James Loewen’s “Lies Across America”, I’d like to see many historical markers reexamined and possibly changed (where warranted) as well. I believe you’re right that with generational changes, as well as the rapid exchange of information via the Net, this country will see it happen eventually.

  7. “My point is that this reflects very little understanding of the relevant facts surrounding how the war is being commemorated.”

    Exactly. Too bad I couldn’t come up with the proper words. 🙂

  8. An unintended consequence of Beutler’s holiday idea would likely be to push moderates into the camp of the heritage extremists, or at least, to give new life to the shrinking heritage movement.

    The vast majority of Southerners accept the documented history of the Civil War and its causes. I dare say most don’t even think about the Civil War at all. Daily life gives us enough to worry about without having to dredge up the distant past.

    It is only a vocal minority who live in the make-believe world of hoop skirts and gentlemen discussing plantation business in the parlor. Beutler desperately needs to get out more and stop reading neo-confederate blogs because he appears to base all his ideas of the South on outmoded stereotypes and the antics of a few bigots who haven’t cracked a history book in 30 years.

  9. Actually, Beutler is not so much calling for a holiday as he is suggesting that “in a better America” and one that was more honest about its past, April 9 would already be acknowledged as such.

    Well, I don’t think this is wrong, per se. But if we get to imagine better Americas, one might also imagine one that avoided the Civil War entirely, going with some kind of compensated emancipation scheme and avoiding Jim Crow. Or better yet avoiding slavery entirely. I mean, hell, if we’re fantasizing…

    I think your point about how the views of (white) Southerners regarding the war have changed in the recent past is a good one, certainly. I read your blog, so I’m not surprised you took that stance.

    • I think his heart is in the right place, but I would never want to substitute a radical solution for the kinds of community discussions that are at the heart of these kinds of issues and necessary if we have any hope of coming to terms with our past.

      • A truly AMERICAN holiday celebrating national reconciliation taking the place of of a completely ignored holiday for Columbus who has been well documented as at the very least an unsympathetic actor in world history—THIS is a “radical” solution? Why can’t you see it as a way to further the “community discussions that are at the heart of these kinds of issues…” I think your heart is indeed in the right place but I also think you are over-reacting to Mr. Buetler’s commentary. And just because most citizens are ignorant of who the people were that the military installations are named after does not make it acceptable that they are named after them. THAT is not intellectually honest either…

        • Why can’t you see it as a way to further the “community discussions that are at the heart of these kinds of issues…”

          Because Beutler at no point signals that a discussion is necessary nor is he even aware that one is already taking place.

          • I see your point Kevin…well I for one want both a national holiday of reunion and to have the organic local discussions to continue. And thank you for your site!

  10. Hi Kevin,

    One day and counting.

    White Southern liberals don’t need liberals or conservatives telling them what it is all about, particularly if you are a white Southern liberal of a certain age and can remember George Wallace and his infamous segregation speech, along with whatever personal insults you might have endured for being a white Southern liberal when it was anything but popular. As far as African American Southerners go, young or old, liberal or conservative, they definitely know what it is all about down here in the South, so thanks, Kevin, for not engaging in stereotypes.

    The scene in Richmond was remarkable. It took a long time to get there.

    What bothers me about Beutler’s piece is his patronizing tone. He seems to be saying let us enlightened ones embrace you poor, racist Southerners. That is an old, worn trope, and gives the rest of the nation a pass. White Southerners have their own distinct form of racism. It is clear, evident and has a well documented history. White Northerners and Westerners have their own distinct form of racism, too; it is just not as well documented or known, but it is there.

    I was glad to see the focus on the USCT in Richmond. That is where the focus and congratulatory sentiments belong, one hundred fifty years after the fact.

    I don’t think that anyone is going to ring a bell in my town tomorow, but I am going to light a candle. Peace.

  11. I think Butler misses a greater point as well, that history is a moving target and how humans view their collective past is, and never can be, settled.

  12. Kevin, I’m curious what you have in mind when you say that you see “something naive and even dangerous about the way Beutler understands the politics of historical memory.” Dangerous?

    • Hi Bruce,

      Surprised no one called me on that sentence earlier.

      My concern is with what appears to be an unstated assumption that memory can be easily shaped by instituting a new holiday. The kind of fix that Beutler imagines functions to impose memory from the top-down rather than allowing it to evolve organically on the local level.

      • Most people certainly do manage to incorporate other national holidays into their belief systems. It’s not as though people spend the Fourth of July in discussion groups on the Declaration of Independence. I can imagine Appomattox Day featuring TV specials about the wise, moderate, Christian, patriotic deeds of Robert E. Lee and his spotless Southern Honor, etc. There are some things a holiday definitely won’t fix!

  13. The dismissal of Columbus Day tends to be a facil neglect of history, multiculturalism and immigration by the natve born.

  14. The “dismissal” of Columbus Day is not facil –it’s creation was…as an American of Italian heritage I have no problem acknowledging that it was created as a political sop to the burgeoning Italian American voting bloc. Kevin’s argument that creating a national holiday is an attempt to impose memory “from the top down” could be used against almost all our holidays, for example Martin Luther King Day. “Reunion Day” need not be triumphalism nor gloating, instead simply a recognition of our “new birth of freedom.”

    • Let me be clear, I am not anti-holiday. They serve an important function. What I have a problem with is the way Beutler employs it as a quick fix to something that he clearly knows very little about.

      • Fair enough Kevin, but sometimes good ideas come from bad places 😉 Let’s embrace the good and discard the bad AND keep “the discussion” going!

        • I am not sure what you mean. Beutler’s idea is a bad one for the reasons I suggested in the post. Nothing you or anyone else has said has convinced me otherwise.

          • My point is that there’s no reason creating a national holiday of reunion must or will stop the organic discussions on a local level. Would you end your blog if this holiday was created? What evidence or clues do you have that would portend this outcome? I again use MLK Day as a great example of a holiday fostering discussion about it’s meaning…

            • My point is that there’s no reason creating a national holiday of reunion must or will stop the organic discussions on a local level.

              I understand this point and agree. Once again, my problem is that the author of the article proceeds as if there is currently no local discussion taking place. That is the flaw with his central argument.

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