Truth-telling the Confederacy

Posted on August 16, 2017

As white supremacists and neo-Nazis crawl out of the woodwork and try to infest our communities with hate, it is important to contest their revisionist history.

You know that Trumpism is based on white grievance, a series of lies that make non-college educated whites believe they are the victims of discrimination. This story is disseminated by the far-right media to divert attention away from the real culprits—the rich and powerful who, over the past 40 years, have systematically redirected the fruits of American productivity away from workers and into their own pockets, destroying economic security by closing factories, outsourcing jobs, busting unions, abusing customers, and cutting middle-class wages and benefits.

But there is another right-wing story that has received little attention until recently. It is the myth of the Confederacy. And this series of falsehoods does not require the sponsorship of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh or Breitbart—it comes directly from our grade-school history books.

Didn’t your history book say that the Civil War was about “states’ rights” rather than slavery? Might it have referred to the “War Between the States,” a name that implies the two sides were equally to blame? Wasn’t Robert E. Lee described as a kind man who didn’t really believe in slavery? Perhaps the Confederate battle flag was offered as a non-racist symbol of the south? And didn’t your history book assert that Ulysses S. Grant was one of our worst presidents, both corrupt and a drunk? Remember?

All of this—the entire romanticizing of the Confederacy and the demonizing of the Confederacy’s opponents—is fake news. It was invented for political purposes (like white victimhood today) and in no way represents what people thought or said during the Civil War or its aftermath.


The Confederacy was formed and the South started the Civil War in order to protect slavery. Modern historians, referring to the original documents and statements of the time, do not question that slavery was the primary cause of the rebellion. As the Confederacy’s vice president explained in his famous Cornerstone Speech: “The new [confederate] constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution – American slavery as it exists amongst us – the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.”

The name “War Between the States” is propaganda. It was not a war “between the states,” it was a rebellion against the central government—a revolution against the United States of America. The phrase “War Between the States” was not in general use until after the war and not particularly well-known until the United Daughters of the Confederacy promoted the name in the 20th Century. The term, designed to absolve the south of blame, is simply false.

Robert E. Lee strongly supported slavery and was not kind to black Americans at all. In fact, Lee was a rather cruel slaveowner, his army was ruthless to black soldiers and civilians, he publicly and privately supported slavery, he argued that slavery was good for black Americans, and Lee strongly opposed emancipation. He was not kind, understanding or Christian to black Americans.

The Confederate battle flag is a racist symbol. For more than 150 years, it has been used to symbolize anti-black discrimination and violence, the Ku Klux Klan, Jim Crow, segregation, and resistance to desegregation. There is really no debate that its re-adoption and use throughout most of the 20th Century was racially motivated. Non-racists should not display it.

Ulysses S. Grant was not considered a bad president and he wasn’t. My school textbook ranked Grant as the worst president. This is pure fabrication based on the 20th Century writings of pro-Confederacy historians. Modern historians rank Grant in the middle tier of presidents while Americans at the time adored him. His memoir was a massive bestseller and his death in 1885 “brought a tidal wave of emotional eulogizing.” There is no objective evidence that, as a general or president, he was ever “a drunk.”

These myths have helped to fuel the current outpourings of hate. It is time for American governments to step up and tell the truth about our nation’s history.

Yes, take down the statues that were erected to whitewash the Confederate cause and directly or indirectly support white supremacy. Yes, take down the Confederate battle flags that were placed there for the same reason. Yes, rename schools, roads and parks that honor prominent Confederates.

But also, states, cities, counties and school districts should review the lessons currently taught in our schools about the Civil War and its aftermath. Many textbooks still incorporate these politically-motivated lies. Governments should investigate whether Confederate myths are still foisted on our schoolchildren, and when such myths are found, tear them down and in their place build up a foundation for our culture that is based on historical accuracy.

Truth is the best remedy for hate.