More than 150 years later, the conflict that raged across the United States from 1861 to 1865 still haunts U.S. political discourse. The city of Charlottesville, Virginia, made international headlines as Americans battled and even killed each other in a controversy related to how the war is remembered.
While the U.S. media blames a variety of different figures, one factor that is absolutely worthy of blame is the irresponsible efforts to keep controversies related to the war alive. Though the confederates surrendered in 1865, many forces in U.S. society have continued to propagate a false historical narrative that is sympathetic to the southern insurgents.
The controversy which resulted in widespread political violence in Charlottesville revolved around a statue honoring Confederate soldiers. Activists who call themselves “white nationalists” and “alt-rightists” assembled to defend the monument against calls for it to be taken down.
The supporters of the monument argued that removing the statue was offensive to southern white Americans as the confederate uprising was a part of their history that was worth celebrating. In the fighting, a young woman named Heather Heyer was killed by a “white nationalist” who rammed his car into a crowd of protesters.
Hollywood and politicians promote false history
The Civil War between the U.S. Federal government and the secessionist “Confederate States of America” formally ended on April 9, 1865. In the hopes of restoring the unity of the country, the Union Army did not follow the standard military practices, and even allowed southern General Robert E. Lee to keep his sword and horse after he signed a document of surrender.
Various events between 1865 and today can be credited for keeping the myths and controversy surrounding the war alive. First, in 1877, the Federal troops who had been protecting the rights of African Americans were withdrawn from southern territories. This allowed the infamous “Jim Crow” system, in which African-Americans lived as second class citizens, to be established and maintained until the 1960s.
The second event that prolonged the controversy was the release of the full length movie “The Birth of a Nation” by Hollywood in 1915. The film was screened at the White House, and quotations from U.S. President Woodrow Wilson were shown on the screen. The film retold the history of the war, portraying African-Americans as naturally inferior, the war as unjustified, and the previously outlawed Ku Klux Klan terrorists as heroes. The film served to politically strengthen the Democratic Party, which at that time castigated Republicans for hiring Black Americans to government jobs.
Another Hollywood movie, “Gone With the Wind” played a similar role two decades later. While this film, released in 1939, did not directly glorify the Ku Klux Klan, it still retold the war from a pro-southern point of view. The still widely viewed film portrayed a family of slaveholding whites who were cast into poverty after being stripped of their position by the war.
Even up until the 1960s, Hollywood continued to glorify a pro-confederate criminal named Jesse James. James was a murderer and thief who espoused pro-confederate views in the period following the war. Many former slave-owners praised Jesse James for his robberies targeting banks and railroads owned by corporations based in the northern part of the country. A large number of Hollywood western movies portrayed James sympathetically, as if he was a kind of Robin Hood figure.
Because of endless efforts to rewrite history by irresponsible film-makers and political figures, all across the United States, the “rebel flag” used by the Confederates is displayed. The flag has become associated with white Americans who hold racist contempt for African-Americans. Often this once illegal symbol is displayed by low income white Americans living, not in southern states, but in places like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan.
The confederacy was bad for almost everyone
The reality is that the slave plantation system in the south was a disaster, not only for the millions of African Americans who were deprived of their human rights, but for the majority of southern white people as well. Most southern whites were not slave owners, but workers who received very low wages in the context of widespread unpaid slave labor.
During the Civil War, impoverished southern whites were forcibly conscripted to defend the slave system. The rate of desertion among southern soldiers was astronomically higher, as many of them had no real motivation to fight. Most slave owners were exempt from military service by the Confederate government.
The London Stock Exchange certainly favored the slaveholders, as the cheap cotton from southern plantations was essential to creating Britain’s textile industry. Many Wall Street firms were also involved in the cotton trade, insuring the ships that transported it to Britain.
Regardless, the forces who opposed slavery in the United States were victorious. The slave-owners, who left the United States in order to maintain a primitive, barbaric system, were defeated. Yet, certain sections of the U.S. power structure continue to propagate myths about the war.
Though almost all white Americans benefitted from the end of slavery, demagogues have ceaselessly tried blaming their current hardships on the war’s outcome. Richard Nixon famously employed a “southern strategy” of racially coded rhetoric. When Ronald Reagan launched his 1980 Presidential campaign with the words “I believe in States Rights,” many understood this to be a subtle pro-confederate statement.
After 150 years, Americans must come to terms with their history and cast aside illusions. The plantation owners who held human beings as property, and sacrificed the lives of 110,000 American lives in the hopes of maintaining it were a negative force in U.S. history. Monuments glorifying them should be taken down, and all Americans should both embrace the defeat of slavery as a step forward for the entire country.
Caleb Maupin is a journalist and political analyst who resides in New York City focusing on U.S. foreign policy and the global system of monopoly capitalism and imperialism.