Last week, I talked about the fact that, in popular memory in the South, the Civil War was not “really” about slavery – even though the documents from the time show that pretty much everyone on both sides, at the beginning of that war, agreed it was being fought over slavery. I can assure you that, among professional academic historians (who are specifically trained to study and evaluate the documents of the past), it is almost universally agreed that the primary cause of that conflict was slavery.
And yet, in 2011, the 150th anniversary of the war, national polls indicated that 48 percent of Americans cited states’ rights as the main cause of the Civil War, with only 38 percent saying slavery. Another set of polls, in 2015, were a little bit closer, divided almost down the middle, but according to the Washington Post (Aug. 6, 2015) white people, people over 60, and Republicans were more likely to oppose slavery being taught in schools as the main reason for the war. Still, a significant minority of non-white people, Northerners, and Democrats felt the same way. Now, to me, saying the Civil War was about states’ rights is like saying the Civil Rights movement wasn’t about racism – it was about states’ rights to be racist or not. It’s a moot point. Slave-holding states were for states’ rights when those rights protected slavery and against them when it did not. Southern politicians were op-posed to the right of newly-forming states to decide for themselves whether to allow slavery or not or the rights of Northern states to decide whether or not to return runaway slaves.
It is important to note that the Confederacy and the South were not necessarily always the same thing. About one-third of white Southerners supported the Union. When you count the slaves, almost half the population in the South was against the Confederacy. Tennessee, by the way, provided the most Union troops of any Confederate state. But do you know where Union sentiment was highest? In Appalachia – where you can’t grow cotton, and the population was not dependent on slave labor. That speaks volumes.
The fact is, after the war – when slavery was ended – was when many Southerners started saying the conflict had not been over slavery, something they all basically agreed was the cause in the beginning. Many Southern leaders, artists, and intellectuals started developing what historians call “the Lost Cause Ideology.” That ideology has several components: that slavery was not the main cause of the war, that slavery hadn’t really been that bad anyway, and that the Confederacy had been a noble lost cause to protect a better way of life. I assure you, none of those things were true – especially if you did not happen to be rich and white.
But the truth was ugly, and most people didn’t want to face it. They preferred, instead, to make up a mythology about a chivalrous, beneficent world where even the slaves were happy. Have you ever noticed how, in “Gone with the Wind,” none of the black people are ever mad about anything until the mean Yankees show up and disrupt their idyllic world?
In recent decades, that perception has gone beyond the borders of the South – just as you are now likely to see Confederate battle flags being waved in places that were firmly anti-Confederate, from New England to the West Coast. Claims that Confederate mythology and imagery is history and heritage coming from people who are not Southern seems strange and indicates there is more going on than regional pride.
The Lost Cause version of the Confederacy is not tethered to fact and reality. It is an exercise in making up a story that makes you feel good –or at the very least doesn’t make you feel bad – rather than learning from the past. And passing laws to prevent anybody from questioning that story is not “protecting history” – it is protecting your own feelings.
--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.