The 150th anniversary of the Civil War is approaching, and some Southerners want to celebrate. More specifically, they want to throw a party — a secession ball to be exact. But aren’t they celebrating the enslavement of black people in the process?
As the New York Times recently reported, hundreds if not thousands of events will take place over the next four years in honor of the Civil War sesquicentennial. Some confederate groups are planning to commemorate the four-year war — in which 11 Southern states that held my people in bondage decided to break off from the nation and go it alone — with a program of festivities.
There will be a parade in Montgomery, Alabama, with a reenactment of the swearing in of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. The Sons of Confederate Veterans will air TV ads portraying the Civil War as a matter of states’ rights and a fight for independence. “All we wanted was to be left alone to govern ourselves,” says one such commercial.
And a secession ball will be held in Charleston, South Carolina — a former slave port that my ancestors on my mother’s side knew all too well. The ball will be “a joyous night of music, dancing, food and drink,” as the invitation promises. I wonder what the state’s newly elected governor, who is only a hint-and-a-half away from being black herself, will have to say about this.
What is troubling about this glorification of secession, and the efforts to preserve it, is its whitewashing of slavery, if not its total elimination from the equation. “The citizen-soldiers who fought for the Confederacy personified the best qualities of America. The preservation of liberty and freedom was the motivating factor in the South’s decision to fight the Second American Revolution,” the SCV argues on its website. “The tenacity with which Confederate soldiers fought underscored their belief in the rights guaranteed by the Constitution. These attributes are the underpinning of our democratic society and represent the foundation on which this nation was built.”
Is it plausible that all the carnage created during the Civil War was just about states’ rights, about something other than slavery? I suppose anything is possible, if you consider the right to chain up black people in your backyard, force them to pick cotton, rape women and compel them to bear your children a legitimate right.
Yet, in the minds of neo-Confederates and their sympathizers, the war was all about things such as smaller government and taxes, which actually sounds more like a talking point from a Republican Party playbook. This is no accident, given that the ultra-conservative neo-Confederate ideology has made inroads in GOP politics, as it also has found common cause with more radical white nationalists and neo-Nazis, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. And just like the GOP, the neo-Confederates purged themselves of all moderate influences. This is what white supremacy looks like.
The League of the South, another neo-Confederate group, has as its primary goal “the full measure of Southern independence.” and European cultural hegemony. In their support of Arizona’s anti-immigration law, the group says on its website that “The League of the South, the premier Southern nationalist organization, supports the sovereign State of Arizona in its on-going struggle against the Obama regime to protect the lives, liberty, and property of its citizens against illegal immigration.”
The Council of Conservative Citizens, which has claimed a number of elected officials among its ranks, is a modern-day version of the White Citizens Councils that were formed to oppose integration during the Civil Rights movement.
Calling itself “the only serious nationwide activist group that sticks up for white rights,” the white supremacist CofCC has supported the Confederate flag, fought against busing, immigration and affirmative action, and has called the 1964 Civil Rights Act “terrible for America.”
Researcher Euan Hague has written on the false narrative that the neo-Confederates have created regarding the Civil War. In their worldview, confederate leaders such as Jefferson Davis, Nathan Bedford Forrest and Robert E. Lee are venerated as upholders of the U.S. Constitution who prevented Abraham Lincoln the war criminal from revising it.
They view the Civil War as a War of Northern Aggression, an illegal invasion by the North. And the neo-Confederates regard the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause and other fundamental parts of the Constitution as illegal and illegitimate. In the minds of these extremists, America has strayed from the intent of the Founding Fathers, opting for a “multicultural empire” that pushes equal rights for minorities, women, homosexuals and non-Christians.
In their book, The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader: The “Great Truth” about the “Lost Cause”, authors James W. Loewen and Edward H. Sebesta point out that most Americans have misconceptions about the Civil War. Loewen and Sebesta note that two-thirds of Americans, including history teachers, think the war was about states’ rights, mainly because they never bothered to read the historical texts. In a nation with an education crisis, perhaps we should not be surprised.
When South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union, it issued a “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union.” The Declaration lists their grievances against the Northern states, discusses the North’s refusal to “fulfill their constitutional obligations,” and lists the offending Northern states. The Declaration condemned “The election of a man to the highest office of President of the United States whose opinions and purposes are hostile to Slavery.”
According to Loewen and Sebesta, “The only constitutional obligation that concerned South Carolina in 1860 was the fugitive slave clause, which the Declaration proceeds to quote. Delegates then note ‘an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding states to the institution of slavery.’” South Carolina was particularly infuriated over Northern states that allowed blacks to vote, and those who ”’have permitted the open establishment among them of [abolitionist] societies.’ To South Carolina ‘fire eaters,’ Northern states did not have the right to let their citizens assemble and speak freely — not if what they say might threaten slavery. In short, South Carolina was not for states’ rights, but against them.”
The other Confederate states followed the lead of South Carolina in identifying slavery as the reason. For example, Texas, like South Carolina, invoked the Fugitive Slave Clause in its own Declaration. Mississippi’s Declaration states, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world.”
And some states convinced other states to secede. For example, Loewen and Sebesta note that when a Georgia representative made his pitch to Virginia to leave the Union, he asked the question: “What was the reason that induced Georgia to take the step of secession?” He added, “That reason may be summed up in one single proposition. It was a conviction; a deep conviction on the part of Georgia, that a separation from the North was the only thing that could prevent the abolition of her slavery.”
So secession wasn’t merely a little bit about slavery, it was all about slavery — maintaining black people in bondage. And it was a bloody war, to be sure, and someone was fighting about something other than states’ rights, particularly the black soldiers who enlisted. Somewhere between 620,000 and 700,000 Americans lost their lives, including 40,000 “Colored” troops. In the end, about 180,000 African-Americans, including runaway slaves and free men, served in 163 units in the Union Army.
Around 19,000 black men served in the Union Navy, and black women served the Union forces as nurses, spies and scouts. Historical revisionist claim that thousands of black troops fought for the Confederate Army, a matter I shall leave to Uncle Ruckus.
People who would celebrate a slavery-free Civil War are attempting a bait-and-switch on their fellow Americans, especially the descendants of slaves. They are engaging in revisionism, a whitewashing of history that is intellectually dishonest and racially insensitive at best. A Civil War without slavery is like a Klan rally without white sheets and cross burnings. Neo-Confederates, you may celebrate whatever you wish in this free country. Just don’t try to convince us that what you’re doing is acceptable.