Why Doesn’t the Confederacy Just Fade Away?

Historian David Blight has written a little editorial that is making its way around various newspapers today.  The last section caught my attention and I thought it would make for a thought provoking post:

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.

Update: Check out Richard Williams’s thoughtful response to this editorial as well as the comments section.

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5 comments… add one
  • Nat Turners Son Jul 30, 2010 @ 15:18

    Kevin it doesn’t fade because of the Song Dixie
    I wish I was in de land of cotton,
    Old times dar am not forgotten;
    Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie Land.
    In Dixie Land whar I was born in,
    Early on one frosty mornin,
    Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie Land.
    The remaining verses drift into the common minstrel idiom of a comical plantation scenario, “supposedly [depicting] the gayer side of life for slaves on Southern plantations”:[14]

    Old Missus marry “Will-de-weaber,”
    Willium was a gay deceaber;
    Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie Land.
    But when he put his arm around’er,
    He smiled as fierce as a forty-pound’er,
    Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie Land.
    The final verse mixes nonsense and dance steps with the freed-slave scenario:

    Dar’s buck-wheat cakes an ‘Ingen’ batter,
    Makes you fat or a little fatter;
    Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie Land.
    Den hoe it down an scratch your grabble,
    To Dixie land I’m bound to trabble.
    Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie Land.[15]


    We were taught it in School.

  • Ryan Jul 25, 2010 @ 18:54

    I don’t think we can attach one single label to our fascination with the war and the Confederacy. As I read the above entry, I couldn’t help but feel that was what the author was trying to say here.

    Living in Alabama almost all of my life, I can freely say that race continues to be an issue in America and the South. That is beyond dispute. But from my standpoint, having spent time all over the country, it is just as much of an issue everywhere else. Not all racists are fans of Stonewall Jackson or the Confederacy, just as not all neo-cons are racists.

    In fact, I find that the vast majority of people in the South, old and young, have much more of a disconnect with the war than most outsiders think. Sure, we all know what happened and why it happened, but aside from those who love to read about the war, like me, most Southerners don’t really care about it. Those that proudly buy rebel flag gear and put it on display for the most part, have no idea what that flag means other than it incites racial tensions and stands for some vague idea of “tradition.” Most who display the flag here are younger folks and most of those do it because, well, alot of their friends at school did it and its the “country” thing to do, kinda like owning an unnecessarily large truck, or like many “fratty” types wear costa del mars and boat shoes.

    I think there’s a vast disconnect between today’s South, or deep South, and a traditional understanding of neo-con ideology. Aside from the occasional hardcore neo-con, people just don’t talk about it. While most of us are Conservatives, a discussion of the war and Lincoln is usually not brought up in a political debate, except by those of use who know the history.

    Conservativism and nostalgia in the South is, in my opinion anyway, an attempt at staying “Southern” rather than racist or confederate. Yeah there are those types, but my personal experience has been that, outside of a “farb-fest” reenactment, you won’t run into any people like that on a regular basis. I know I feel this way many times. I treasure the history of the South, both good and bad, and I certainly don’t want to see it change. As far as I am aware, we’re the only section of the country that refers to itself as an actual region. I like that uniqueness, and it doesn’t have to include anything racial or anti-government.

    Of course, as we all know, there are big problems in identifying oneself as “Southern” given our history. Its a stigma that all of us deal with when we step across the Mason-Dixon line, whether fair or unfair. But I certainly don’t think that it is a racial thing for us anymore or most of us. I feel a new kind of Southern identity that has begun to transcend such things. We’re not quite there yet but I think we’re working on it. We’re unique, and we like to be that way, from our political views to football tailgating.


  • jh Jul 24, 2010 @ 20:34

    “it because we are irresistibly fascinated by catastrophic loss?” I say this to a large degree. Pluse people wanting to honor their ancestors on all sides

  • Margaret D. Blough Jul 24, 2010 @ 14:24

    Thanks, Kevin. I love Blight’s work. Mosby is an inconvenient Confederate for those who want to deny slavery’s role in causing the Civil War, isn’t he?

    • Kevin Levin Jul 24, 2010 @ 15:36

      I would suggest that the historical record itself is an inconvenience to those who wish to minimize the importance of slavery to the Civil War.

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