At the age of two, four years before I was baptized, I was inducted into the Children of the Confederacy, the children’s auxiliary of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. I have always found the order of those events a poignant example of the importance of the Lost Cause. One faith I was required to choose on my own and declare publicly while the other claimed me before I knew my own name.
White Southerners’ belief that Confederate monuments accurately reflect and honor the true history of the South is so widespread that it feels almost congenital, the kind of thing a white Southerner is born knowing. But that belief was spread through generations of coordinated educational efforts, political lobbying and strategic monument-building — all efforts carefully orchestrated by Confederate lineage organizations such as the UDC.
The recent Circuit Court ruling preventing the city of Charlottesville from shrouding or removing Confederate statuary from local parks reminds us how deeply and legally, organizations such as the UDC have implanted the Lost Cause’s falsified version of history across the landscapes of the South.
It began with its founding in 1894 when the UDC forcefully advocated for a pro-Confederate interpretation of Southern history that it calls “a truthful history of the War Between the States.” Drawn from the region’s middle and upper classes, the UDC’s founders were educated, well-connected and politically active.
Rallying behind powerful women such as Mildred Lewis Rutherford, the UDC relentlessly lobbied legislatures for public school textbooks that presented a pro-Confederate version of regional history and successfully blacklisted those that were “unjust to the institutions of the South.” They paired the educational campaign with an aggressive building spree erecting monuments dedicated to the Confederacy throughout the country (even Montana received a UDC monument) ensuring their take on history would be inescapably stamped upon the landscape.
The fact that their formal organization and public campaigns occurred simultaneously with the rise of Jim Crow, disenfranchisement and lynching of African Americans meant that the UDC’s strategic rehabilitation of the Confederacy faced little effective opposition and vigorously reinforced the new racial order. UDC’s version of Dixie was only filled with bronze facsimiles of Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson endlessly polished by the effusive praise of public speakers and handpicked textbook authors. Black voices and valiant efforts to defend their families were purposefully ignored.
The end product of their efforts was a public narrative that made generations of white Southerners feel good about their ancestors and self-satisfied that regional conditions were an appropriate and natural outgrowth of an honorable, if ill-fated, Old South. This feel-good fiction was shared openly, sanctified by state and local government via school naming or monument erection, and introduced to each new generation at the earliest possible age.
It was incredibly effective. I should know. I spent my childhood learning at the feet of their enthusiastic disciples and was educated in institutions that reflect their success.
I graduated from Robert E. Lee High School in Jacksonville, Fla., the same institution that produced Lynyrd Skynyrd. I attended the University of Mississippi, home of the Ole Miss Rebels, where I studied slavery and race under noted historian Winthrop Jordan. I am one of millions of white Southerners who have spent their lives fascinated by the legends of Generals Lee and Stonewall Jackson as well as the countless battlefields where they and our ancestors fought.
At Children of the Confederacy meetings, we were taught the UDC’s approved version of Confederate history, which emphasized states’ rights and constitutional disputes over tariff policy as the reasons that Southern states left the Union. We frequently discussed Jefferson Davis as an unfairly maligned Confederate president, while ignoring his home state of Mississippi’s secession proclamation, which boldly proclaimed “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world.”
Slavery, if discussed at all, was vehemently denied as having played any role in secession. Race was also avoided. Racial epithets were never used to describe African Americans or any nonwhite people; the meetings were rituals of middle-class propriety where children learned to be proper ladies and gentlemen, contrary to caricatures of white Southerners in popular shows such as “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Dukes of Hazzard,” or “Deliverance.” Love, not hate, made their lessons stick.
I remained an active member of the Children of the Confederacy into high school, when I grew tired of the formal meetings. But something else unsettled me that I couldn’t reconcile. The schools I attended were always integrated, evenly divided between white and black students from largely working-class backgrounds. But Confederacy meetings were the opposite: all white, decidedly middle to upper-middle class, with an emphasis on the Confederacy’s cultural superiority. I was unable to square the history I learned with the real world I inhabited and the diverse relationships I had formed.
So I never challenged the fairness of black students attending a school named after Robert E. Lee. I had been taught he was a man who had no love for slavery, demonstrated genius and bravery and sought an honorable peace in defeat. I couldn’t imagine who would be ashamed or uncomfortable at attending a school honoring such a man.
In college, the trusted church members who had led my Children of the Confederacy chapter and Confederate education since infancy were replaced by professionally trained historians. Their new lessons drew upon scholarly literature and original documents such as Mississippi’s secession statement that I had never seen before. I had professors, some wielding exquisite southern accents, who demonstrated the overwhelming documentary evidence that there was no war without slavery and that its perpetuation was, as Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens proclaimed, “the cornerstone” of the Southern Confederacy.
Such new truths were reinforced by my own undergraduate research, countless conversations with fellow history majors, a roommate from Ohio, fraternity brothers from across the nation and a Chicago-born girl who became the love of my life. At times, the contradictions between what I was taught as a child and what I discovered as a college student left me with intellectual whiplash and feeling saddened or even betrayed. But facing such compelling factual ammunition, the Lost Cause lost its power over me.
Which is why the current debate remains personal and vitriolic. Who do you believe when confronted with conflicting interpretations: the people who tucked you into bed at night and taught you right from wrong or those who tell you in classrooms that such lessons are inaccurate at best and, at worst, deliberate lies concocted to deny African Americans freedom and preserve white supremacy? What does that say about the people you love?
For many, that’s a chasm they cannot cross. It should not be surprising that many flinch or outright resist rejecting lessons learned from loved ones in favor of accepting painful historical truths.
This was the genius behind the UDC’s efforts. By targeting the region’s middle- to upper-class children, they ensured an army of future teachers and leaders would carry forward and defend their message for decades to come. Embedding their version of Confederate history into the sacred spaces of Southern society (the home, cemeteries, churches, city squares, street names, colleges and schools) made erasing it physically difficult and personally painful.
As Charlottesville’s recent history demonstrates, not all defenders of the Confederate commemorative landscape are unaware of the white supremacist intentions of those who erected monuments. Torch-bearing mobs chanting “Jews will not replace us!” are clear about their motives. Others, however, have taken positions in support of Confederate monuments because of honestly believed, long-held views learned at home, church and school. As a result, the long overdue conversation we must have will force people to reassess core aspects of their identity.
While I do not believe society ought to continue to celebrate a false understanding of history, I do understand some people’s persistence in clinging to the Lost Cause. For many, it came as mother’s milk.