Is This the Confession of a Neo-Confederate?

Update: Thanks to William Black for taking the time to respond to this post.

I passed this essay along by William Black last week and have been thinking about it ever since. Black is currently a Ph.D candidate at Rice University in history and writes about his embrace and eventual abandonment of neo-Confederate ideas about role of slavery in causing the war, Reconstruction, and the meaning of the Confederate battle flag. According to Black, had he gone to school with Dylann Roof, “we would have agreed on a lot.”

This essay is well worth reading, but it is not a story of a one-time- or recovering neo-Confederate.

Black may have embraced the tenets of the Lost Cause narrative of the Civil War and Reconstruction, but he points to the crucial ingredient that is missing if we are to grant him his neo-Confederate bona fides:

I’m not the kind of person you’d typically picture as a neo-Confederate. I’m not an alt-right Twitter egg. I don’t own a gun. I’m a liberal, college-educated white guy in my late 20s who grew up in the Memphis suburbs and is currently working on a PhD in history — someone you could point to as evidence for the “purpling” of the South.

The picture that quickly emerges is of a boy with a deep interest in Civil War history, who enjoyed visits to battlefields and stories of brave Confederates fighting a war for noble causes in a desperate struggle. But that these views were reinforced in a high school history class does not make you a neo-Confederate.

Historian Gary Gallagher has talked about growing up in Colorado and learning about the Civil War through National Geographic’s centennial publications. He went on to devour Douglas S. Freeman’s biography of Lee and other reprints about Confederate leaders that were available at the time. He fondly remembers summer trips to Gettysburg that reinforced a narrative that celebrated the prowess of Confederates and downplayed, if not ignored entirely, the role of slavery in the war and the tough questions related to Reconstruction. I suspect that some of you came up through the ranks of Civil War history this way.[fn id=”1″]

That alone does not make you a neo-Confederate. Gallagher, like Black, had come in contact with a Lost Cause narrative that remains quite vibrant throughout much of the country. Both had these early stories reinforced in the classroom.

As you might suspect, I have come across many people over the past few years who sincerely believe that thousands of free and enslaved blacks fought for the Confederacy. That belief alone does not make them neo-Confederates. Most are simply repeating what they learned after doing a quick search on the Internet. Their understanding tends to get bogged down by significant gaps in their understanding of the relevant history and much of what they do claim to know is the result of an inability to properly interpret primary sources or simply factually wrong.

What is missing from Black’s story is the political piece. At no point are we led to believe that Black’s interest in the Civil War and the Confederacy shaped his political views and outlook on race. Black and Roof may have had much in common in how they understand the relevant history, but at some point their views radically diverge.

To me the tell-tale sign of a neo-Confederate is one whose understanding of the past and the present is often indistinguishable. The one informs the other and vice-versa. In fact, in my experience, I find that an interest in history often plays second fiddle to to the current racial and political climate.

Black never appears to have developed this side of the coin. In fact, you get the sense that he grew up in a family that encouraged critical thinking and instilled in him a strong moral foundation. He points to the beginning of his disillusionment with the  Lost Cause at the age of 16 following an SCV meeting, which his father described as “silly”.

Again, I don’t think Black’s story is unusual or a reflection of a brief embrace of neo-Confederate ideology. What we have is an early enthusiastic embrace of the Lost Cause narrative that eventually gave way to a more serious interest in the subject that will hopefully one day culminate in a a rewarding career as a professional historian.

26 comments… add one
  • Victoria Bynum Oct 2, 2016

    Good Morning, Kevin,
    Good essay, and your points are right on. I read William Black’s essay from a different vantage point. To me, Black sought to show the gray area between widespread adherence to Lost Cause history (“slavery wasn’t so bad”) and rabid Neo-Confederates like Dylann Roof, suggesting the banality of evil in the Lost Cause’s origins, its tenets, and precisely because so many nice young people like himself unthinkingly absorb it.

    Vikki Bynum, Moderator, Renegade South

    • Kevin Levin Oct 2, 2016

      Good points, Vikki. I certainly don’t want to suggest that the distinction between a kind of innocent adherence to the Lost Cause and Neo-Confederates like Roof is crystal clear. It is much more complex. I thought Black’s essay, however, didn’t go far enough in drawing this distinction, especially with his reference to Dylann Roof. As far as I can tell Black and Roof occupy two very different spaces.

      • Victoria Bynum Oct 2, 2016

        I agree, Kevin—that level of analysis would have improved his essay.

  • Greg Rowe Oct 2, 2016

    I have written a few things about my own evolution as a “reformed Confederate apologist” when I was running the “American Civil War Essays & Reaearch” blog. I read Black’s essay when you posted it and think he falls into the same camp. There was little challenge to our Southern sensibilities in the history classroom and it has taken a deeper study to make us question those. Now that I have begun to question those perceptions, for me at least, I kick myself for those years of intellectual stubbornness. I have ancestors on both sides of this conflict, but I cannot abide that people today attempt to use 19th-century reasoning to suppress a 21st-century issue. I have changed my thinking for two reasons. First, I want to better understand how history affects modern day dynamics of race. Second, by doing that, we can move toward a truly equal society. This is how I view Black’s essay — as an attempt to explain an evolution of thinking that leads to reform, first in a person; then in a society.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 2, 2016

      From what I can tell at a young age Black fell for stories of battlefield glory and was the victim of some bad classroom teaching. Black admits that he was already questioning this Lost Cause view by the time he was sixteen. He seems to have enjoyed challenging certain authorities, but I don’t see much of the “intellectual stubborness” that appears to have defined your intellectual trajectory.

      • Andy Hall Oct 2, 2016

        “Black admits that he was already questioning this Lost Cause view by the time he was sixteen.”

        There is a well-known heritage advocate on Facebook who periodically posts that famous Faulkner passage about Pickett’s Charge from Intruder in the Dust (“For every Southern boy fourteen years old. . . .”), and avers how he gets choked up with emotion every time he reads it. Faulkner, though, called it for what it is — an adolescent fantasy.

        • Julian Oct 3, 2016

          Yes, Faulkner framed that passage about Pickett’s Charge as every adolescent Southern boys’ fantasy and made that framing very clear, but it is also a wonderful piece of poetry and captures the imagination as such. The series of word pictures are beautifully drawn, and they are full of a yearning for what might have been, and a vast ambitiousness and a fantasy, out of proportion quality, which again marks it as quintessentially adolescent. The quality of the writing has made that passage very famous and resonate far beyond the Lost Cause . I tend to see it as a mythopoeic account of how often desire teeters and falls into failure, and as a passage that refuses the upbeat clichés of success in modern corporate motivation speak.

          … of course Faulkner, like Penn Warren penned portraits of the South that was complex, and engaged with more negative aspects, whilst painting a vivid picture of local specificity … it is the skill and complexity, as well as the humanist wisdom, that their writing embraces, which differs from much present day “heritage” writing. I feel that the South deserves advocates with a more complex intellectual and cultural grasp. On the other hand modern social and creative constructs paint a picture of a more one dimensional para-Nazi barbarism, different from those interwar and mid century viewpoints.

          I am currently rehearsing Handel’s 1746 oratorio Judas Maccabeus. I constantly think back to you, Patrick, Kevin and many of the regulars on Kevin’s blog … for it raises issues about public commemoration in art and endorsement of moral values in public in the past and the present – often discussed here … the work is a major piece of classical music, and full of brilliant choruses and arias. However it was written to honour “Butcher Cumberland” the Duke of Cumberland and his recent victory over the clans at Culloden (a major trigger for emigration to North America in the mid 18th century of displaced Scots, and other survivors arrived against their will in the American colonies as prisoners in punishment for treachery ) … in public memory now Culloden is often seen as particularly brutal battle, with rumours of massacres of civilians and for the 18th century ISIS style people displacements … so should a work honouring the commander in charge of this campaign and glorifying his deeds be seen as tarnished by this history? Do we stop performing this work? Interestingly Handel’s Judas has a very prominent position in the history of Jewish studies, as the oratorio is one of the first artworks to present Jewish history to a non Jewish audience without any customary Anti-Semitic references to the Crucifixion or to the Blood Libel and other such matters that were usually invoked when treating Jewish themes. An Israeli prepared a Hebrew edition of the libretto in the 1930s for performance at the Maccabi Games, and this version is still performed today

          So when does an artwork become complicit in its own backstory, when can it escape that back story or when is that backstory made anew?

          Should we stop looking at Degas ballet pictures because Degas is a cousin by marriage of a great-nephew of Jefferson Davis, and he had at least two relatives who fought for the CSA (one more in a commercial and espionage capacity than actual military action) and I believe close relatives of the artist were involved in the Battle for Liberty Place after the war – commemorated in the controversial obelisk in New Orleans

          • London John Oct 7, 2016

            “However it was written to honour “Butcher Cumberland” the Duke of Cumberland and his recent victory over the clans at Culloden (a major trigger for emigration to North America in the mid 18th century of displaced Scots, and other survivors arrived against their will in the American colonies as prisoners in punishment for treachery ) … in public memory now Culloden is often seen as particularly brutal battle, with rumours of massacres of civilians and for the 18th century ISIS style people displacements … so should a work honouring the commander in charge of this campaign and glorifying his deeds be seen as tarnished by this history? ”
            The Jacobite rebellion is another much-sentimentalised “lost cause”, and “public memory” is not to be trusted. Handel’s work was commissioned because most British people whose opinions were heard were extremely relieved that Jacobites had been defeated. The rebellion was an attempt to restore the Stuarts to the throne of the whole of Great Britain, and if they had succeeded they were expected to impose French-backed absolutism. Highland landlord/chiefs could treat their tenants as private armies, and there were more armed men in the highlands than in the British regular army. Cumberland may not have been exactly the “Conquering hero”, but he was on the same side of history as, for example, the Patriots of the American Revolution.

            • Julian Oct 10, 2016

              yet there are a lot of people globally for whom these myths resonate. Many people would link the Jacobites and the American revolutionaries … as I think the 1995 Rob Roy film implies to a degree, raising the familiar classic cinematic spectre of the “red coat”.

              All nationalisms and self determinations around the world are to a great degree self serving fictions and all have their victims of various colours and faiths, however the way that we tend to think about identities in the current era sometimes glosses over these instabilities

        • CL Sublette Oct 4, 2016

          A big part of the problem with those poetic, nostalgic and adolescent cloud dream lines of Faulkner’s is that Shelby Foote, a novelist, not an historian, employed them to such effect in his three volume “history” of The War of the Rebellion, as General and President Grant, and Lincoln’s administration referred to that war.

          His history was written like fiction, and like a novelist, he created words that he put in the mouths of his characters to illustrate they thought as he wished to them to think, despite their own primary documents and actions contradicting what he said they thought and said.

          The Burns’s PBS Civil War series featuring Foote as such a prominent talking head expert did more to keep this false history going than almost anything else in the last decades.

          • Julian Oct 10, 2016

            I would actually suggest that it was the charismatic personalities of many of his interviewees that has kept Ken Burns series so live in public memory, and indeed confirmed his stellar career as documentary maker – and a style that is imitated widely even today by aspiring filmmakers and television companies – but perhaps Foote was the most charismatic of all. Again the Lost Cause could be seen as self-justifying, but it also retains traction due to its mythopoetics, which I think are not necessarily directly political. Insisting upon the functionalities of politics is itself making a choice and a censorship of a sort.

            • Julian Oct 10, 2016

              I also think Foote has an unheimlich value as a sort of trickster outfoxing modernity and logic …

  • Andy Hall Oct 2, 2016

    I don’t believe Mr. Black was ever what we might consider a “neo-Confederate.” That term might apply (in my experience) to folks who, as you suggest, have a view of the events of 1861-65 that is completely and inextricably bound up with their own, modern views on culture, politics, and religion. What Mr. Black experienced is undoubtedly much more commonplace, given that the Lost Cause continues to influence heavily the popular perception of the war. In that sense, at least, Jubal Early and Mildred Lewis Rutherford won the battle that Lee, Jackson, and Hood could not.

    The Confederate Heritage folks have done a very good job of using a fictional view of the past to validate their own, modern views and beliefs on a wide range of issues. That’s why they tend to be incorrigible on matters of the historical record — they have too much personally bound up in their view of the past to even consider the possibility that what they believe is not correct. That is why they are largely unreachable and unteachable.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 2, 2016

      Agree entirely.

  • Shoshana Bee Oct 2, 2016

    My understanding of “Neo-Confederacy” is a work in progress, so that I try to read anything and everything that may reveal something new about this strange brew. I have commented previously on this article, but I wanted to excerpt this passage, as it defines to me what the article was really about:

    Black’s article is a story of how we learn: We continually cast off old ideas and replace them anew — much like a snake sheds his skin and replaces it as he grows. Should we fail to evolve, intellectually, than we become constrained and eventually imprisoned by our inability to accept facts, especially when they invalidate all that we thought we knew.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 2, 2016

      I think most reasonable people will agree with the thrust of your comment.

  • Josh Liller Oct 2, 2016

    I was never a Lost Causer, but until I started to read serious (and more modern) works on the causes of the Civil War I didn’t realize the primacy of the slavery issue.

    In retrospect, I’m pretty sure I knew several peers in high school and college of who were non-Southerners of above average intelligence who I think would be classified as “casual Lost Causers.” They were not Neo-Confederates, but they were swayed by the Lost Cause Myth and/or they were anti-authority types for whom the myth resonated with. If you’re a budding teenage anarchist, libertarian, or general troublemaker the Confederates probably seem quite charming to you because you fancy yourself a “rebel” against “tyranny” and “oppression.”

    • Mike Musick Oct 3, 2016

      With regard to Mr. Black, I would say that Brooks Simpson’s preferred term (as opposed to “Neo-Confederate”) of Confederate Romantic suited him when he espoused his earlier beliefs.

      • Kevin Levin Oct 3, 2016

        Nice to hear from you, Mike. I agree that “Confederate Romantic” does a much better job of describing Black and others who fall under the sway of the Lost Cause at a young age.

      • Lyle Smith Oct 5, 2016

        I concur. The telltale sign of a Neo-Confederate should be if they support the enslavement of blacks.

  • London John Oct 5, 2016

    A couple of questions. First, does the arrangement of flags in the header picture signify that that is a Confederate pick-up that has been captured by the United States?
    Second, do you consider that non-Southern “Confederate Romantics” might have been partly influenced by the “romance of defeat” – in a nation that never lost a war, the Southern experience seemed perversely fascinating?

  • William Black Oct 5, 2016

    Thanks for the thought-provoking critique.

    I admit I went back and forth about whether to call myself neo-Confederate in the piece. Was it honest to use that word? Was I just using it to get clicks? When I first saw the headline, I was somewhat taken aback and thought, “Well, now, I wasn’t *that* kind of neo-Confederate.”

    But then I felt like a moderate white southerner who thinks he isn’t racist because he’s not in the Klan. Because though I never wore Confederate iconography or marched with the SCV, I agreed with the historical ideas held by those who did. If I had disdain for those people, it wasn’t because I disagreed with them but because I thought they were tacky. (I’m reminded of when Atticus Finch scolds Scout for saying the n-word because it’s “common.”) I didn’t want to let myself off the hook because I believe the less outspoken, less “tacky” apologists for the Confederacy help make the more rabid neo-Confederates possible.

    The word “neo-Confederate” is slippery. And you’re right that my neo-Confederate ideas didn’t shape my political views on, say, criminal justice or gay rights or the budget deficit. But I do think my adolescent self wasn’t just a Confederate Romantic–a useful term I learned from the commenters. It sounds like Confederate Romanticism is ostensibly apolitical. And I can see how that was the case for young Gary Gallagher reading Douglas Freeman. But in 2000s Memphis, it was hard to have any half-thought-out opinion on the Civil War and not see it as political. The Confederate battle flag and the Nathan Bedford Forrest monument were (and remain) live political issues, issues that my peers and relatives discussed with great interest. And when I espoused my opinions on these issues in the classroom or the cafeteria, especially in the presence of African-American students, that was as much a political act as anything perpetrated by the Virginia Flaggers.

    A respondent to my piece writes about how her “liberal NorCal AP US History class also taught the Civil War was fought over taxes” and how “as the lone Black girl [she] had no recourse.” She “knew what happened to [her] ancestors and hated that so many white people refused to listen.” “All I saw,” she writes, “was the denial of my family’s history.” (https://twitter.com/QueenOfRats/status/781883495673061376)

    I picture myself a decade or so ago in her classroom, and imagine what I would have “explained” to her. And I doubt that from her perspective this would’ve looked like naive, apolitical Confederate Romanticism.

    Still, the piece would’ve certainly benefited from a discussion of what “neo-Confederate” and “Lost Cause” do and don’t mean. Though I’m not sure I could’ve done that so well without having participated in this conversation first.

    • James Harrigan Oct 6, 2016

      William Black, thanks for your original piece and this thoughtful comment. What I liked in the original is how clearly you explain the white supremacist roots of your naive youthful views. I always find it revealing when people like your young self refer to “the Southern point of view” or “Southern pride”, when of course what they mean (often not even consciously) is white Southern.

  • Gregg Kimball Oct 6, 2016

    I’m glad that you mentioned Charles Dew’s new book The Making of a Racist
    in your footnote, Kevin. He spoke at the Library of Virginia a few weeks ago to a very large audience. I do think that he sees the racism and glorification of the Confederacy that saturated his early life in Florida as a much deeper and more insidious thing than a naive romanticism. It should be required reading on this topic. Also, I agree that “the Southern point of view” is implicitly and explicitly the ideas and concerns of white Southerners and not just on the subject of the Civil War. For instance, “Southern Gospel” has long been used as a code term for Gospel music made by white Southerners, which is incredibly bizarre when you think about it. No more bizarre, I supposed, than the “brothers war” narrative that I learned growing up in New Hampshire that grew out of the reconciliation movement and always referred to white people shaking hands “over the bloody chasm.”

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