Confederate Memorial Day Under Assault in the Heart of the Confederacy

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.

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“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

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16 comments… add one
  • russ May 1, 2015 @ 16:31

    This article is rediculous.
    I am tired of political hacks trying to rewrite history. I am proud that my ancestors stood up to the aggression. I don’t appreciate Mr Levin or anybody else stomping on the graves. Lincoln had no problem with slavery until he needed justification for the war. I think 4 of the 9 succeeding states mentioned slavery in their new constitutions… Hardly a quorum on concensus…but anybody that studies the period and THINKS knows the war was not about slavery. I will not try to convince the close minded. The truth is the truth. You cannot make it go away. Even if the Lincoln memorial is
    Doubled in size from the mammoth structure that it is today, those that
    Can think for themselves can find the truth.

    • Kevin Levin May 1, 2015 @ 16:33

      Thanks for the comment. By the way, it’s seceding states and not succeeding states. Nice.

    • Leo May 2, 2015 @ 5:42

      Mr. Levin and those commenting on this topic didn’t stomp on anyone’s grave. Your hyperbole only makes you appear disconnected and desperate for attention. It also casts a negative light upon the very men you say you honor.

      I’m a native Southerner and the direct descendant of a Confederate soilder. I honored my Confederate ancestor at his gravesite in a respectful, family, ceremony. I don’t agree with the cause for which he fought, but I honor his courage and sacrifice. I’m sure Mr. Levin and his readers can respect that.

  • Randy Harvey May 1, 2015 @ 9:46

    Wow some of the comments posted. One day some of you will wake up and thank your ancestors for what they tried to do and not what the Yankee school books say it was. The constitutional government that we did have died with the defeat of the Confederate states of America. Sure Stephens said what he said but read the states of secession and see how many more things are listed than just slavery. Lincoln in his own words didn’t like blacks didn’t want them here and tried to send them back to Africa and south america. Read his response from debate 4 with Stephen Douglas in 1858 then Google Horace Greely and read from Lincoln own mouth how he wanted to preserve the union. Many more things I could point out so if you need more just ask and I will be happy to share more truth. Wake up America! !

  • msb Apr 29, 2015 @ 22:43

    “there are descendants of other Mississippians whose freedom and humanity hung in the balance as this great conflict was decided.”
    Very well said.

  • M.D. Blough Apr 29, 2015 @ 10:47

    That’s why I have always felt that the movie “Ghosts of Mississippi” about the process that finally led to the conviction of Byron de la Beckwith for the assassination of Medgar Evers does not belong in the list of movies that are criticized for recounting events that primarily or at least heavily impacted blacks from an almost exclusively white perspective. “Ghosts of Mississippi” WAS about the white perspective, particularly on how Mississippi’s bloody civil rights past would be dealt with, if at all, by whites. At the time of the assassination, the only thing remarkable about it was that Beckwith was tried and NOT acquitted, attaching double jeopardy. Decades later the bitter fight over whether or not to reopen the case was between those whites who wanted to ignore the uglier parts of the past and whites who believed that the only way Mississippi could hope to move forward in relationship between white and black Mississippians was for whites to first confront and deal with those actions, including accepting white responsibility for the crimes and oppression in Mississippi’s history. It is an uncertain, uneven, and contentious process but I think what it is showing is that there are more white Southerners who actively reject trying to keep a death grip on maintaining the toxic legacy of race in the South.

  • Leo Apr 29, 2015 @ 10:18
  • Kristoffer Apr 29, 2015 @ 7:38

    Sadly, the first comments on The Dispatch’s excellent article are from an antisemite. It’s not a good omen for the response, but the omen could be wrong. I’m guessing the antisemite has never heard of the Zimmerman telegram.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 29, 2015 @ 7:43

      Comment sections that are not moderated are a breeding ground for nonsense. I wouldn’t worry about it.

    • Robert Mark Apr 29, 2015 @ 10:37 Evidently he’s never heard of the German sabotage that exploded Black Tom Island, and he somehow suspects Woodrow Wilson, of all people, of having been seduced by the “Elders of Zion.” He never heard of Leo Frank and has no awareness of the Franco Prussian War or the legacy of the Frankfurt treaties. Most laughably, he labels Shelby Foote a “Jewish” historian because “he had Jewish blood in him from his mother.” Truly remarkable that the paper keeps that kind of Joseph Goebbels stuff up on its site.

  • Leo Apr 29, 2015 @ 6:12

    I agree with your assessment that this change is occurring from within and by Southerners. While I have no particular problem with the holiday, I am not going to cry in my milk if it is discontinued or altered into a more encompassing “Civil War Remembrance Day”.

    I will leave you with a quote from Sam Watkins of the 1st. Tennessee Infantry, CSA:

    America has no north, no south, no east, no west. The sun rises over the hills and sets over the mountains, the compass just points up and down, and we can laugh now at the absurd notion of there being a north and a south. We are one and undivided.

  • cagraham Apr 29, 2015 @ 6:07

    This event happened in Asheville, N.C., last Sunday. It celebrated emancipation, honored local Union veterans, and drew pointed connections between how we remember the war (e.g.-Vance monument) and current social relations in town.

    (Compare to the recent event the commemorate the surrender at Bennett Place, where you could see a display on the Confederate Post Office.)

  • James F. Epperson Apr 29, 2015 @ 5:34

    Maybe there is hope after all …

  • Geo. K. Kluber Apr 29, 2015 @ 4:39

    The end of the Civil war should be celebrated as the rebirth of our nation with the promise of liberty and justice for all, at last.

  • A. Jackson Apr 29, 2015 @ 4:30

    Excellent editorial from the paper in Mississippi. I agree with the sentiments expressed. Here in Virginia we have Lee-Jackson Day, which originally was on MLK Day, until understandable objections were made against celebrating Confederate generals in conjunction with a champion of civil rights. Now Lee-Jackson Day is the Friday prior to MLK Day and is observed with the closing of state offices, and some county facilities as well. I don’t remember Lee-Jackson Day when I lived and worked in Northern Virginia..not sure if I just ignored it or ?? Former governor McDonnell.had to walk back on Confederate Heritage Month before he left office when many of us protested. The Lost Cause is still alive, even if on a respirator in some areas.

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