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.