14 April 2010

The Critics of Confederate History Month Are Right

Over at Down From the Mountain, a buddy of mine takes on the issue of Governor McDonnell's recent proclamation of Confederate Heritage Month in Virginia and the surrounding controversy. While John criticizes the short shrift that the governor gave slavery in the proclamation, he feels that the media fallout from the controversy was unfair to the South and to southerners and that, generally, liberals (which I am) and northerners (which I'm not) more broadly are unfair toward and dismissive of the South and southerners. He also attempts to dispel the idea that the South was the "bad guy" in the US Civil War. Herein, I take issue with several of his main contentions.

First, he accepts arguendo the common refrain that the South is "still fighting the Civil War" but claims that the North is "insistent on pushing their view" today. First, I would argue that attempting to correct the views of pro-Confederate historical revisionists who attempt to downplay the role that slavery played in motivating secession is less "pushing one's view" than "maintaining the accuracy of the historical record." Second, for most of the post-bellum period, the South has LITERALLY STILL BEEN FIGHTING THE CIVIL WAR. This began with concerted low-level campaigns of terrorist violence for nearly a century after the end of Reconstruction and later morphed into the "massive resistance" to Civil Rights legislation and desegregation.

Second, while he acknowledges that southern military leaders were highly supportive of slavery (and doesn't, as far as I can tell, argue that slavery was not the main motivating factor for secession), he argues that most rank and file southern soldiers were motivated by other factors, since only the elites were slaveowners in the antebellum South.

While this is certainly the case, people don't generally engage in this sort of celebration for other extremely questionable causes on this basis. Many soldiers in the Imperial Japanese Army were probably swell guys and just fighting out of a sense of nationalism but Japan isn't having a remebrance month for the Tojo regime. Hell, most of the fighters in Joseph Kony's murderous LRA are just abducted child soldiers but I don't think Uganda, the DRC, South Sudan, or the Central African Republic will be holding Lord's Resistance Army Day anytime soon or that their citizens will go driving around with LRA flags (if they had them) on their pickup trucks. And to be clear, McDonnell wasn't declaring "Confederate Soldier History Month" or "Civil War History Month," it was Confederate History Month.

(As an aside, as far as the motivation of rank and file soldiers throughout history goes, I think Debs pretty much nailed it in the Canton, Ohio speech:

The feudal barons of the Middle Ages...declared all wars. And their miserable serfs fought all the battles. The poor, ignorant serfs had been taught to revere their masters; to believe that when their masters declared war upon one another, it was their patriotic duty to fall upon one another and to cut one another’s throats for the profit and glory of the lords and barons who held them in contempt. And that is war in a nutshell.

A few other points. As Dr. Farley asks, why does "Southern History" have to be about the four years in which the region waged a treasonous war in defense of slavery rather than the other 230 years of its existence? Further, why does it have to be about the group of people who fought against the United States Government and not say, the huge chunk of people (a majority in some states) that the rebels wished to keep enslaved or the areas or individuals that remained loyal to the country?

John closes with what I think is the weakest segment of his post:

The CIA refers to the fallout of reconstruction as 'blowback.' For those who are unfamiliar with the term, it is the result of concerted military/propaganda efforts to shift the cultural, political, or social leanings of a state. And blowback there has been. The reaction to reconstruction and further oppression was violent resistance that lasts to this very day. So yes Mr. CNN bigshot, much like our interference in Afghanistan during their war with the Soviets.

Blowback is usually used to refer to the unintended consequences of a covert action, not of reconstruction. He misuses the term here. First, there was certainly nothing covert about Lincoln et al.'s crushing of the rebellion. Second, blowback is generally something surprising or unforeseen (e.g. we didn't know that helping Ethiopia overthrow the Islamic Courts Union in Somalia would lead to the rise of the far worse Al-Shabab). The southern reaction to Reconstruction was completely foreseeable, which is why the Radical Republicans in Congress enacted such sweeping measures. The reason that southerners were able to "continue fighting" the war (as noted above) is because that Reconstruction program ended following the Compromise of 1877.


  1. usually referred to, but it doesn't have to be.

    And as for "maintaining the accuracy of the historical record" you know as well as I do that the victors write the history books. There is no way to say that slavery wasn't the main motivating factor for secession, but it had more to do with the economic concerns over the possibility of abolition than moral problems with it. Certainly, that played a role, but it wasnt THE ONLY role.

    The massive resistance to Civil Rights was as much of a function of disproportionate effect as anything. In other words, in Northern areas where there were large concentrations of African-Americans they dealt with similar problems. See: Boston Busing riots

    If you read the first part, I said that I didn't think that the south was "the good guy" or "the bad guy" in the Civil War. I only posted that to say that things are more complicated than that. The whole point was that NO ONE even attempts to say "well why do people feel this way." Which is why the title of the blog post was what it is. I had a feeling that just by saying it, I would get someone saying that I was trying to say that the south was right.

  2. P.S. thanks for explaining blowback to me. That is the danger of using terms of art :)

  3. I don't think I ever claimed that:
    -you said the South was the good guy
    -there wasn't resistance to desegregation in other areas or that Northern cities didn't have their own unique race problems

    WRT to historical accuracy, my main point was that the whole Confederate lionization movement has generally tried to deny that slavery was of much consequence in the war.

  4. We can agree on that - but I think we disagree about why that happens.

  5. btw, upcoming post about UK's recruits if you havent been following