Tony Horwitz is the author of “Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War” and “Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War.” He is currently at work on a book about the South in the 1850s.
The Confederate undead have a way of rising, zombie-like, to haunt the American landscape. First as ghostly hooded Klansmen right after the Civil War, and now as battle-flag-waving hate groups, rallying round a statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville. The last Billy Yank passed quietly in Minnesota in the 1950s, but the spirit of Johnny Reb refuses to let go.
Even so, it appears we’re nearing the end of the Confederacy’s interminable after-life. The white nationalists in Charlottesville may not have known or cared much about Robert E. Lee. But in using his statue as a pretext for bigotry and violence, while wrapped in the rebel flag, they’ve demonstrated, yet again, that the Lost Cause can’t be cleansed or cloaked as benign “Southern heritage.”
In fact, racists in Charlottesville may have unwittingly given America a truer image of the Confederacy than the 150-year fiction of the Lost Cause. When Southern states seceded, they baldly stated their reasons, including Northern hostility to the “beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery,” and the “undeniable truths” that Africans “were rightly held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race.” Or, as Confederate vice-president Alexander Stephens said of his new government: “Its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man.”
Efforts to sanitize the Confederacy began soon after Lee’s surrender in 1865. As white Southerners struggled to make sense of devastating loss, they forged a potent mythology that endures to this day. The Civil War wasn’t about slavery. Rather, the South seceded and fought to defend its sovereignty against Northern aggression and federal tyranny. Confederates made a sublime sacrifice, knowing they would be overwhelmed by the North’s manpower and industrial might. The war was inevitably lost, but the cause was right.
White Southerners etched this faith on monuments to their many martyrs. “No nation rose so white and fair; None fell so pure of crime” reads an inscription in Augusta, Ga. At the head of this blameless legion rode Lee, a marble avatar of Southern honor and allegiance to homeland.
The Lost Cause, as this creed became known, was embroidered with nostalgic paeans to a plantation society of genteel masters, hoop-skirted belles and happy “servants.” As wartime hatreds waned, and the nation turned to sectional reconciliation rather than racial justice, Northern whites bought into the South’s chivalric fictions. In 1923, the Senate even authorized a statue in Washington “in memory of the faithful slave mammies of the South.” It wasn’t built, but then came “Gone With the Wind,” a novel and movie that infected millions with the romance of the antebellum South.
This love affair soured in the Civil Rights era, when Southern politicians and the Ku Klux Klan brandished the rebel battle flag as a totem of segregation and white supremacy. Civil War historians put new emphasis on the role of slavery, and beginning in the 1980s, African Americans led the first concerted push to remove Confederate symbols, particularly the rebel emblems atop Southern capitols.
Defenders of the flag regrouped and fought back with a repackaged version of the Cause in the 1990s. The mantra of this resurgent movement was “heritage, not hate.” In this telling, the Klan and other hate groups hijacked the flag and unfairly tainted the many white Southerners who saw it solely as a symbol of the courage and sacrifice of their ancestors.
The heritage movement lost as many battles as it won, but managed, like Lee in 1864, to bring about a grinding stalemate. Until, that is, Dylann Roof murdered nine African Americans in a Charleston church in 2015, in hopes of sparking a race war. He had posted pictures of himself at Confederate and slave sites and waving a rebel flag. Thereafter, South Carolina removed the flag from its capitol grounds, and cities and states across the South began debating the removal of other symbols.
The white supremacists in Charlottesville appear to have finished the demolition work Roof began, by recharging the movement to take down symbols of the Confederacy. In the days since the violence, leaders in several other Southern cities have stated their intention to remove rebel statues, and Baltimore took down four of its monuments in the night.
As the debate over Confederate memory continues, it may be worth heeding the words of Robert E. Lee himself: “I believe it to be the duty of every one to unite in the restoration of the country. I think it wisest not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the example of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife.”