Friday, November 16, 2018

Discovering the Lost Cause

     A few years ago my daughter transplanted to Raleigh, NC, where on May 20, 1861, state representatives voted to secede from the Union. Meanwhile, I recently moved to Pennsylvania, near a number of historic sites memorializing the Underground Railroad -- including Oakdale in Chadd's Ford, the first stop north of the Delaware line on the pre-war journey to freedom.

     So my daughter and I have become interested in the Civil War (even though we do not have ancestors who were involved in any way). We're not experts, believe me, but we visited the Petersburg, VA, battle sites, and we have both read a number of books and taken a few classes.

     A couple of weeks ago, while my daughter was in New Orleans, she stopped in to see the Louisiana Civil War Museum. She was disappointed, however, because it isn't really a museum of the Civil War. It is a museum of the Confederacy. It displays Confederate uniforms, weapons, documents, memorabilia -- and virtually nothing about the cause of the war or the experience of the black population.

     For my own trip south, my daughter gave me a book called Denmark Vesey's Garden by Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts. Denmark Vesey was a free black man who led a slave rebellion in Charleston, SC, in 1822. The rebellion failed before it even got started, and Vesey and more than 30 co-conspirators were swiftly tried, convicted and executed.

     The book is not about the rebellion itself. It's about the legacy of slavery, and how the Lost Cause movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries molded our view of history -- and to this day influences our understanding of the Civil War and the South.

     We know that African Americans were freed in the Civil War and soon after were able to take part in civil affairs. By the end of the 1860s South Carolina had a black majority in its state legislature.

     However, in 1877 when the government removed federal troops, the white planter and commercial interests took back power. Reconstruction was over, and a series of Jim Crow laws segregated the South for another hundred years -- and one could argue that much of the South, as well as the rest of the country, is still segregated today.

Charleston's Confederate Museum
     But the point of the book is that along with taking over the government, the white power class hijacked the history of the South and of slavery itself -- and thus was born the myth of the Lost Cause.

     The Lost Cause presented the Civil War as a battle between the underdog South and the much larger North, for states rights and the preservation of the traditional Southern way of life. Slavery was rarely mentioned, and when it was, it was blamed on the North, since most slaving ships came from New England. Besides, this version went, even some blacks themselves had slaves, and plantation owners were paternalistic and supported African Americans with room and board and everything else.

     For a long time, up until the 1960s and into the 1970s -- and even in certain respects up until today -- the history of Charleston, and the South in general, was told by white Southern families. Historical sites mostly included Confederate statues and historical homes once owned by wealthy planters and traders. As tourism became a bigger industry in the 1900s, the picture presented to visitors from the North and elsewhere was a Gone with the Wind version of the South.

     Even today, the tallest statue in Charleston shows slaveholder and secessionist John C. Calhoun towering over Marion Square, which itself is named after another slave owner, Revolutionary war general Francis Marion. The Confederate Museum stands at one end of the historic old Central Market. And like the Louisiana Civil War Museum, it focuses on the Confederate army and the Confederate cause.

     The Charleston museum is owned and operated by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which makes a point of denouncing hate groups, but affirms that "Confederate memorial statues and monuments are part of our shared American story and should remain in place." So you can take that for what you will.

The Old Slave Mart Museum
     Since the 1970s the African-American side of the story has slowly emerged from the mists of time, both in Charleston and around the rest of the South. The Old Slave Mart in Charleston was purchased by the government and reopened in 2007 to focus on the city's role in the domestic slave trade, and present a more realistic view of slavery. In 2014 a statue of Denmark Vesey was erected in Charleston's Hampton Park to commemorate his resistance to the slavery laws. And an International African American Museum is scheduled to open in 2020, built on the waterfront where "more enslaved African captives arrived in the U. S. and were sold than any other location."

     Tourism is Charleston's biggest industry. As a tourist, I'll appreciate getting the full story of South Carolina's history, not just the antiseptic version that was created to make Southerners and white tourists feel better about themselves.

     As Kytle and Roberts conclude, we should not be held responsible for the moral failings of our European ancestors, nor should Americans today feel guilty for the sin of slavery. But getting the past right and remembering slavery honestly will inform our approach to race and inequality today. This honesty can help us understand the people whose ancestors felt the pain of the whip and the shame of servitude, and make us appreciate the resiliency of those who for generations have fought for freedom and equality.
 

16 comments:

gigihawaii said...

My Japanese American teacher was married to a Japanese American football coach, who was very tanned. When they traveled to the south, her husband was told to sit in the back of the bus, whereas she was allowed to sit in the front. A tan can make all the difference in the world.

Wisewebwoman said...

Thanks for this post Tom, the history sanitized and made palatable. Just like the so-called "famine" in Ireland which was in actual fact a deliberate genocide of millions.

We need to know the truth. Always. And really analyze the writers of history and their personal slants and biases.

XO
WWW

Tabor said...

When we hide from the truth we cannot move forward in a fair and honest manner. We are all guilty, some less than others, but only when we say: "No more." are we truly free.

Barbara - said...

I always say, Yes, the Civil War was about state's rights-namely the right of the states to keep slavery and demand that the northern states return escaped slaves. A simple reading of a secession document is a frightening thing.

DJan said...

I remember the movie "12 Years a Slave" and was both horrified and educated about much of this from seeing it. If you have not seen it I recommend it highly.

Dick Klade said...

Excellent commentary. You've hit right into the heart of the matter concerning long-standing distortions about what really inspired the Civil War--slavery. I was educated in the far north of the U.S. in early years and later at a Midwest university. Much of our information about U.S history painted the South with sympathy, and the North as a sort of big brother oppressor. You put it all in a proper perspective very effectively.

Tom Sightings said...

Wisewoman, I had an ancestor starved out of Ireland, circa 1850, although I don't know why he wasn't in the Civil War ... possibly because he wasn't a citizen. But maybe it explains why I never much liked the English.

Barbara said...

Yes, it is true. We in the South have sanitized our version of history. I believe I act and speak in an enlightened manner. However, I love statutes and I hate to see them removed. I will probably never get to Europe to see the great cities and their stoneworks. I'm sure that some of those statues are of terrible people who did terrible things and they have not been removed. I love the confederate statues for the art not for the bigot they represent. With all the talk about tearing down statues, I have thought about this conundrum and cannot figure out a way to keep the art without keeping the politics behind the figure. I don't want to insult anybody so if they go, I'll understand but I will miss the statues as art pieces, not the reverence for Southern military and slave owners.

Diane Dahli said...

I'm Canadian, and very interested in all things American. I'm impressed with your article, Tom, and the commentary that followed. It is tremendously important to try to get to the truth about our history—we can't completely understand people unless we accept and understand their history.

Janette said...

I think healing may begin when the North and the South take on the true history of slavery. The North did not have slaves- but they sold them and got rich off of them. They also took in freed slaves and gave them ghetto housing and the lowest of wages(which still exists in many places)- making them slaves once again.
I was privilege to work in 700 school in the country. The poverty of the Northern generationally freed slave was not much different then the poverty of the southern generational freed slaves. I would say the worst I worked with was rural Richmond or Missouri and city center Chicago or Baltimore.
There is no "holier then thou" in this case. People will not understand the reason to give compensation until they hear the entire story. (Including that Oregon would not legally let a black person live there until 1922). We, now, have ways to trace actual slave ancestry....it is time to work this issue. Recognizing that not all families supported slavery in that era is also important.

Great, thought provoking post.

Jono said...

I have sometimes heard of it referred to as the War of Northern Aggression, but we do need to understand that it is all part of our national history along with internment camps, etc. We have been both great and awful. It is who we are.

Retirement Confidential said...

We lived in Charleston years ago. When we first moved there, we took the carriage tour, and the guide pointed out Fort Sumter. My husband said, "Ah, yes, where the treason began."

DUTA said...

I visited South Africa many years ago when apartheid was in its final stages, and yet horrific. When I came home, I realized that I was shocked not only about apartheid but also of the mere presence of europeans there. Why were they there? As someone who believes in God and in his Creation, I believe that He gave every race a territory, and Africa was given to the blacks.

America belongs neither to the europeans nor to the africans, but to the native indians. History should begin not from the north-south war but from these natives that were robbed of their land. No chance the museums are doing the right job telling all the truth.

Tom Sightings said...

Well DUTA, that's a whole 'nother story. I read "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" last summer, after my trip out west, and the more I read the more appalled I became. The irony is that the hero generals of the Civil War inclu. Sherman, Sheridan and Custer, were all brutal and merciless when they trained their guns out west against the Native Americans. I'm not sure I go for your "every race a territory" theory; but I do agree that westward expansion was a horrific experience for the Indians.

olynjyn said...

Next time you are on Rte 81, get off on Front Street and follow the signs to the Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, PA. You should also visit Gettysburg with your daughter especially during July 4th week when they set up their encampments for reinacting the battles.

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