An invented 'heritage'
At the Washington Post
, Prof. James Loewen writes that the reason so many people believe false things about the Civil War and the Confederacy is because many of our textbooks teach those wrong things to this day.
Teaching or implying that the Confederate states seceded for states’ rights is not accurate history. It is white, Confederate-apologist history. It bends — even breaks — the facts of what happened. Like other U.S. history textbooks, “Journey” needs to be de-Confederatized. So does the history test we give to immigrants who want to become U.S. citizens. Item 74 asks, “Name one problem that led to the Civil War.” It then gives three acceptable answers: “slavery, economic reasons, and states’ rights.” If by “economic reasons” it means issues about tariffs and taxes, which most people infer, then two of its three “correct answers” are wrong! No other question on this 100-item test has more than one “right” answer. The reason is not because the history is unclear, but because neo-Confederates still wielded considerable influence in our culture and our Congress until quite recently, when a mass of politicians rushed to declare the Confederate flag unsuitable for display on government grounds.
Loewen also reiterates a point that cannot be made often enough: Modern notions that the Civil War was fought over ephemeral notions of "states' rights" or other high-minded considerations, as opposed to an unapologetic battle for the right to keep human slaves, is a product of segregationist forces in the civil rights era. It's hardly a coincidence that so many memorials of the war date conspicuously to the days of George Wallace, rather than Jefferson Davis.
For example, South Carolina’s monument at Gettysburg, dedicated in 1965, claims to explain why the state seceded: “Abiding faith in the sacredness of states rights provided their creed here.” This tells us nothing about 1863, when abiding opposition to states’ rights as claimed by free states provided South Carolinians’ creed. In 1965, however, its leaders did support states’ rights. Indeed, they were desperately trying to keep the federal government from enforcing school desegregation and civil rights. The one constant was that the leaders of South Carolina in 1860 and 1965 were acting on behalf of white supremacy.
It's a good read, and a reminder that we shouldn't be surprised that a good chunk of the public doesn't think the Civil War was fought over slavery when a half-century effort has sought to whitewash that history and give it a more noble-sounding sheen. But yes, maybe that ought to be the next thing we take a good, long look at.