The other day I solicited your thoughts about the winners and losers of the Civil War sesquicentennial. The post generated a very helpful discussion, which I very much appreciate. One thing is clear: the Lost Cause narrative of our war is on the defensive and will likely continue to be the case as we move forward. There are any number of places that you can look for evidence of this development from city councils distancing themselves from publicly acknowledging certain holidays to refusing to display the Confederate flag in public places.
This pressure is not emanating from outside Southern communities, but from within. It’s a community that includes new transplants from other parts of the country and beyond, but it also includes individuals who can claim direct ancestors from the war. It’s an organic process that has nothing to do with erasing the past and everything to do with clarifying how a community draws meaning from the past.
Yesterday the staff of The Dispatch (Mississippi) published an editorial condemning the state’s commemoration of Confederate Memorial day. It contains no surprises, though it is the first time that I have seen a reference to ‘revisionist history’ used to describe one element of the Lost Cause.
The U.S. Civil War ended 150 years ago this month and Monday, Mississippi celebrated Confederate Memorial Day.
The war is long ended. So, too, should be this holiday.
Confederate Memorial Day is the only free-standing state holiday observed in the state. State offices and offices in some cities — including Columbus — were closed.
In addition, Robert E. Lee’s birthday and Jefferson Davis’ birthday are also officially recognized as state holidays but are held in conjunction with the federal Martin Luther King and Memorial Day holidays.
That Mississippi’s three official holidays share an obvious common theme speaks to the strange fixation we have for the Civil War, at least in Jackson, where such decisions are made and sustained.
In this regard, we are reminded — yet again — of an observation by William Faulkner: “The past is never dead; it’s not even past.” The line should be our state motto, so often do events compel us to remember it.
In the early years of the holiday, the occasion held much symbolism: The South may have been defeated and decimated, but it remained defiant. Some element of that attitude persists today.
Defenders of Confederate Memorial Day argue that the Civil War was very much a part of our state’s history, perhaps the most significant event in our history. Dispensing with the holiday would be tantamount to ignoring our history.
Second, many Mississippians count among their ancestors men who fought for the Confederacy. They maintain that it is good and proper to remember the valor and sacrifice of their ancestors.
Finally, they argue there is nothing shameful about Mississippi’s role in the war because it was not what has been portrayed to be.
The revisionists tell us the war was an act of economic aggression on the part of the industrial North and an assault on the rights of a state to govern itself without federal interference. We still hear much of that latter concept on certain issues emanating from Washington.
Disposing of this relic of Southern obstinance does not dishonor those ancestors who fought and died in the Civil War. There is nothing to prevent those so inclined from setting aside time to remember their valor without the state’s official sanction. After all, we already have a day of remembrance for our brave soldiers who fought and died in uniform. It’s called Memorial Day.
On that day Americans everywhere pause to honor our fallen soldiers from every war. Mississippians fought and died in those wars, too.
Is it not strange then that it is only the Confederate soldier whose sacrifice should be remembered apart from all others?
Finally, the efforts to sanitize the Civil War to make it more acceptable is affront to the history it purports to honor.
There is nothing ambiguous to be found in the state’s declaration of secession, which states plainly, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery.”
So let’s not delude ourselves: While soldiers may fight for any number of reasons, the perpetuation of human bondage was among them.
Remember, too, that for every Mississippi solider who fought and died to maintain what Lincoln called “this peculiar institution,” there are descendants of other Mississippians whose freedom and humanity hung in the balance as this great conflict was decided.
We doubt seriously any of those Mississippians were inclined to celebrate Monday and neither should the rest of us, if we are to claim any meaningful progress as a people.