Kevin M. Levin, a writer and educator, has long been interested in how cultural influences cause Americans to view the Civil War in different ways. So he was eager to read my recent cover story about a descendant of Confederate soldiers who is devoted to defending the legacy of Old Dixie.
But Levin found the piece disappointing. On his blog, Civil War Memory, he wrote: “If you do make your way through the entire piece you may end up feeling like I did. I finished reading it convinced that 30 minutes of my life had just been wasted.” The story, he argued, “offers nothing new.” As for its central character, a Virginian named Frank Earnest, Levin declared: “We need to stop taking these people seriously.”
When I called him at his home in Boston to talk about his criticism, Levin echoed a complaint expressed by other readers: Earnest is a fringe figure who shouldn’t be given a national platform to espouse his beliefs. “Frank Earnest is irrelevant to the discussion in America today” about the Civil War, Levin said on the phone. “Certainly we should acknowledge him in some way. But he’s a relic. He tells us much more about where we’ve been as a country than where we are and where we’re going.”
To Earnest and his comrades in the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the Civil War was a righteous uprising by Southern patriots to throw off the yoke of federal tyranny. Slavery had almost nothing to do with it, in their minds. As I noted in the story, this myth of the Lost Cause was fixed in popular thought for much of the 20th century. Levin told me that publishing 7,000 words on the topic “reinforces the stereotypes many people have about Southerners. When you ask about the South, they immediately picture a Frank Earnest.” In reality, he said, “there’s a diversity of voices” in the New South “that are now defining the public conversation” about the sins of the past and the hurtful racial message of Confederate iconography, especially statues. “We should pay more attention to them,” he argued.
I said I agreed with him, somewhat. It’s true that Earnest’s whitewashed rendition of history was debunked by scholars decades ago, and that he and his fellow travelers are “part of a rear-guard action that is growing weaker and weaker,” as Levin put it. I told him that in writing the piece, I wrestled (as did my editors) with the same issues he cited in his critique. But we came to a different conclusion: The quarrel about the racial meaning of Confederate imagery has escalated in recent years, along with demands for the removal of monuments all over the South. Like it or not, Old Dixie apologists are at the forefront of that debate. My goal was to trace the genesis of Earnest’s beliefs — to explain the rise of Lost Cause ideology — without seeming to validate his views. So I pushed back at him in the story, arguing with him whenever I thought he was wrong. Which was often.
Levin, who has written and lectured extensively about the war’s legacy and holds training seminars for history teachers, wasn’t sold on my response. He said the story of how the Lost Cause myth developed has been told ad nauseam and that it’s “time to move on.” Then I recounted a little test I conducted in the newsroom: Before finishing the piece, I asked a few of my well-educated colleagues what they knew about the origin of Confederate pseudo-history, the false nostalgia born of postwar Southern resentment and nurtured by the architects of Jim Crow. I told Levin that I got nothing but shrugs, and he chuckled, conceding, “I have to remind myself that I do this for a living, and there are plenty of people out there who have never given any thought to someone like Frank Earnest.”
Still, he said, the story looked back when it should have looked forward: “As someone who has spent the last 15 years thinking and writing about Civil War memory ... it seems to me that as a nation, we have finally transitioned to the point where a lot more people, especially African Americans, now have the means to make public their own views about the war.” With so many fresh voices eager to be heard, Levin told me, old-timers like Earnest belong in the dust bin.
Paul Duggan is a Washington Post staff writer.