By Elaine Magliaro
The Boston Globe has been running a “Divided Nation” series. The series has already touched upon a number of issues—including the wealth gap in Colorado, religious and gay rights in Arkansas, and Marco Rubio’s silence on immigration. Today’s series topic is the split in Richmond, Virginia, over Confederate history. Evidently, there have been calls in the capital of the Confederacy to “properly memorialize the slave trade.”
Michael Kranish, the author of the article, opened his piece talking about Ana Edwards, an African-American and longtime community activist. He told of how Edwards “stood on Monument Avenue, one of America’s most elegant boulevards, and stared with disbelief at the inscription on the 67-foot-tall memorial to Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate government that was based here during the Civil War.” The inscription read, “Exponent of Constitutional Principles. Defender of the Rights of States.”
Kranish said, “There were no words explaining Davis’s role in the enslavement of hundreds of thousands, no hint that much of the nation’s slave trade was conducted here in Richmond, at a time when black lives plainly didn’t matter to many, except as human chattel to be exploited or sold.” Kranish added, “Instead, emblazoned in stone, was Davis’s assertion that he acted ‘not in hostility to others.’”
Edwards had reportedly “driven by the Romanesque colonnade that surrounds the Davis memorial and wondered why it hadn’t been moved to some museum.” Kranish said that Edwards had never bothered to stop “to read the inscription until this day, shortly after a white man who viewed himself as a descendant of the Confederacy allegedly killed nine black members of a Charleston, S.C., church.”
Edwards said, “Right now, truly, these monuments are just literally the grandest things the city shows off, and therefore it represents us. This is hard. It makes you feel like you live in two different places.”
Kranish said that what angers Edwards is the city’s history of inequality—and “its continuing unequal treatment of history, which still highlights the Confederacy more than slavery.” According to Kranish, efforts to build “a National Museum of Slavery in Virginia have failed for years because of lack of funding. He noted that a Richmond slave trail, which includes a statue called “Reconciliation” that was unveiled in 2009, “is a modest effort far from the prestige of Monument Avenue.” He added that there have even been fights “about adding a statue of black tennis star Arthur Ashe, a Richmond native, to Monument Avenue in 1996 and to erecting an Abraham Lincoln statue alongside the former Confederate ironworks in 2003.”
Kranish said that not far from “the majesty of Monument Avenue, evidence has gradually emerged of another side of the Richmond story that was little-chronicled until recently.” He said that a local historian who had been studying an 1810 map of an area called Shockoe Bottom “found a revealing notation. Next to a gallows, the marking said ‘Burial Ground for Negroes.’”
Separate research showed that this part of Richmond was home to a far greater domestic slave market than had been realized. Leading historians estimate that 350,000 slaves were sent downriver from Richmond over a 35-year period before the end of the Civil War. Some suggest that perhaps half of all African-Americans can trace some ancestry to the Richmond slave trade, making Shockoe Bottom one of the nation’s most important places for those seeking a grasp on black history.
But the burial ground had been covered by a parking lot, and developers eyed adjacent parcels, envisioning hotels, shops, and a baseball stadium. Thus began a new battle of Richmond, for the other side of history, one that has taken on even greater meaning as controversy escalates about Confederate flags and statues all over the South.
Only July 1st, James W. Loewen, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Vermont and the author of Lies My Teacher Told Me and The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader, had an interesting article in The Washington Post titled Why do people believe myths about the Confederacy? Because our textbooks and monuments are wrong.
Loewen noted at the beginning of his article that the late William F. Buckley had once said that history is the polemics of the victor. Loewen hastened to add that that was not true “in the United States, at least not regarding the Civil War.”
As soon as the Confederates laid down their arms, some picked up their pens and began to distort what they had done and why. The resulting mythology took hold of the nation a generation later and persists — which is why a presidential candidate can suggest, as Michele Bachmann did in 2011, that slavery was somehow pro-family and why the public, per the Pew Research Center, believes that the war was fought mainly over states’ rights.
Loewen said that the Confederates were able to win “with the pen (and the noose) what they could not win on the battlefield: the cause of white supremacy and the dominant understanding of what the war was all about.” He added, “ We are still digging ourselves out from under the misinformation they spread, which has manifested in our public monuments and our history books.”
Take Kentucky, where the legislature voted not to secede. Early in the war, Confederate Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston ventured through the western part of the state and found “no enthusiasm, as we imagined and hoped, but hostility.” Eventually, 90,000 Kentuckians would fight for the United States, while 35,000 fought for the Confederate States. Nevertheless, according to historian Thomas Clark, the state now has 72 Confederate monuments and only two Union ones.
Neo-Confederates also won parts of Maryland. In 1913, the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) put a soldier on a pedestal at the Rockville courthouse. Maryland, which did not secede, sent 24,000 men to the Confederate armed forces, but it also sent 63,000 to the U.S. Army and Navy. Still, the UDC’s monument tells visitors to take the other side: “To our heroes of Montgomery Co. Maryland: That we through life may not forget to love the thin gray line.”
In fact, the thin gray line came through Montgomery and adjoining Frederick counties at least three times, en route to Antietam, Gettysburg and Washington. Robert E. Lee’s army expected to find recruits and help with food, clothing and information. It didn’t. Instead, Maryland residents greeted Union soldiers as liberators when they came through on the way to Antietam. Recognizing the residents of Frederick as hostile, Confederate cavalry leader Jubal Early ransomed $200,000 from them lest he burn their town, a sum equal to about $3 million today. But Frederick now boasts a Confederate memorial, and the manager of the town’s cemetery — filled with Union and Confederate dead — told me, “Very little is done on the Union side” around Memorial Day. “It’s mostly Confederate.”
In his TPM article titled How The South Lost The War But Won The Narrative, Tony Horowtiz wrote:
In the 20th century, mass culture and commerce spread the Lost Cause nationwide, most notably in movies like Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind. The moonlight-and-magnolia virus grew so strong that the U.S. Senate approved the construction of a Mammy monument in Washington in the 1920s, and after World War II the rebel flag became a faddish adornment on vehicles, beach towels and other products, a generalized emblem of independence, Southernness or good ol’ boyism.
With the Civil Rights struggle, scholars of the Civil War era gave new emphasis to race and slavery, and this trend has continued ever since. The evidence is overwhelming that Southern states seceded and fought to maintain slavery. Don’t believe me; believe the words of secessionists and Confederate leaders. Among the most often cited is Confederate vice-president Alexander Stephens who in 1861 declared the Founders “fundamentally wrong” in judging all humans equal. “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—the subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition.”
The same view was expressed by the secessionist conventions in Southern states that published their reasons for leaving the Union. The authors sometimes couched their declarations in Constitutional arguments about sovereignty, but left no doubt about the state right at issue. Mississippians bluntly declared, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world.” Texans cited a Northern “crusade” against the “beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery,” and Texans’ conviction that bondage “should exist in all future time.”
There are countless such statements, scores of scholarly works documenting the cruelties of the slave economy and how much it was bound up with Southern life and politics…Yet the prevailing popular view of the Civil War still reflects a strong Southern bias: that the Confederacy fought for vaguely defined “states’ rights,” and its battle flag isn’t intrinsically racist, it’s an anodyne emblem of Southern “heritage.”
H/T to bigfatmike for posting a link to Loewen’s WaPo article on Mike Spindell’s post
The Rebel Flag Controversy and the Mythology of the Heroic South.