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An Earlier Big Lie: The Lost Cause



When I was in elementary school-- PS 197 in Brooklyn-- the principal once called a general assembly and introduced the whole school to a very old frail-looking woman. She was born a slave. This was around 1961 or 1962. I have a feeling we were among the last people to ever heard her tell her first hand experience of having been a slave. I feel lucky to have heard her speak, passionately, about the topic in the first person. All these decades later and I've never forgotten it.


Earlier this evening we took a look at how gullible someone has to be to believe the crap fed to them by Hate Talk Radio, Fox and the GOP. It's hardly a new phenomenon. Last week, The Atlantic published a long essay by Clint Smith, Why Confederate Lies Live On. Smith, who is Black, visited a Confederate memorial in Blandford, Virginia recently and asked his tour guide how many of the visitors to the cemetery today are Confederate sympathizers? The guide responded that "there’s a Confederate empathy. People will tell you, 'My great-great-grandmother, my great-great-grandfather are buried out here.' So they’ve got long southern roots."


Smith decided to travel around America "visiting sites that are grappling-- or refusing to grapple-- with America’s history of slavery. I went to plantations, prisons, cemeteries, museums, memorials, houses, and historical landmarks. As I traveled, I was moved by the people who have committed their lives to telling the story of slavery in all its fullness and humanity. And I was struck by the many people I met who believe a version of history that rests on well-documented falsehoods. For so many of them, history isn’t the story of what actually happened; it is just the story they want to believe. It is not a public story we all share, but an intimate one, passed down like an heirloom, that shapes their sense of who they are. Confederate history is family history, history as eulogy, in which loyalty takes precedence over truth."


He asked Ken's supervisor if she was concerned that by presenting Blandford in such a positive light, it might be distorting its connection to a racist and treasonous cause. She told him that a lot of people ask why the war was fought. "Well," she tells them, "you get five different historians who have written five different books; I’m going to have five different answers." She told Smith that from the perspective of her ancestors, "it was not slavery. My ancestors were not slaveholders. But my great-great-grandfather fought. He had federal troops coming into Norfolk. He said, 'Nuh-uh, I’ve got to join the army and defend my home state.'"



She told me that she’d attended a Sons of Confederate Veterans event once but wouldn’t again. “These folks can’t let things go. I mean, it’s not like they want people enslaved again, but they can’t get over the fact that history is history.”
Founded in 1896, the Sons of Confederate Veterans describes itself as an organization of about 30,000 that aims to preserve “the history and legacy of these heroes, so future generations can understand the motives that animated the Southern Cause.” It is the oldest hereditary organization for men who are descendants of Confederate soldiers. I was wary of going to the celebration alone, so I asked my friend William, who is white, to come with me.
The entrance to the cemetery was marked by a large stone archway with the words our confederate heroes on it. Maybe a couple hundred people were sitting in folding chairs around a large white gazebo. Children played tag among the trees; people hugged and slapped one another on the back. I felt like I was walking in on someone else’s family reunion. Dixie flags bloomed from the soil like milkweeds. There were baseball caps emblazoned with the Confederate battle flag, biker vests ornamented with the seals of seceding states, and lawn chairs bearing the letters UDC, for the United Daughters of the Confederacy. In front of the gazebo were two flags, one Confederate, one American, standing side by side, as if 700,000 people hadn’t been killed in the epic conflagration between them.
...More than a few people turned around in their seat and looked with puzzlement, and likely suspicion, at the Black man they had never seen before standing in the back of a Sons of Confederate Veterans crowd. A man to my right took out his phone and began recording me. The stares began to crawl over my skin. I had been taking notes; now I slowly closed my notebook and stuck it under my arm, doing my best to act unfazed. Without moving my head, I scanned the crowd again. The man in front of me had a gun in a holster.
A man in a tan suit and a straw boater approached the podium. His dark-blond hair fell to his shoulders, and a thick mustache and goatee covered his lips... “I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I like it,” he said, before reading aloud the account of a ceremony that took place on April 25, 1866, in Columbus, Mississippi, when a group of women “decorated the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers.” Those soldiers, he continued, had “earned their rightful place to be included as American veterans. We should embrace our heritage as Americans, North and South, Black and white, rich and poor. Our American heritage is the one thing we have in common.”
Gramling’s speech was strikingly similar to those at Memorial Day celebrations after the end of Reconstruction, when orators stressed reconciliation, paying tribute to the sacrifices on both sides of the Civil War without accounting for what the war had actually been fought over.
Gramling then turned his attention to the present-day controversy about Confederate monuments-- to the people who are “trying to take away our symbols.” In 2019, according to a report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, there were nearly 2,000 Confederate monuments, place names, and other symbols in public spaces across the country. A follow-up report after last summer’s racial-justice protests found that more than 160 of those symbols had been removed or renamed in 2020.
Gramling said that this was the work of “the American ISIS.” He looked delighted as the crowd murmured its affirmation. “They are nothing better than ISIS in the Middle East. They are trying to destroy history they don’t like.”
I thought about friends of mine who have spent years fighting to have Confederate monuments removed. Many of them are teachers committed to showing their students that we don’t have to accept the status quo. Others are parents who don’t want their kids to grow up in a world where enslavers loom on pedestals. And many are veterans of the civil-rights movement who laid their bodies on the line, fighting against what these statues represented. None of them, I thought as I looked at the smile on Gramling’s face, is a terrorist.
Gramling urged all who were present to understand the true meaning of the Confederacy and to “take back the narrative.” When his speech ended, two men in front of William and me started swinging large Confederate flags with unsettling fervor. Another speech was given. Another song was sung. Wreaths were laid. The honor guard then lifted its rifles and fired into the sky three times. The first shot took me by surprise, and my knees buckled. I shut my eyes for the second shot, and again for the third. I felt a tightening of muscles inside my mouth, muscles I hadn’t known were there.
“I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I like it”-- I kept coming back to Gramling’s words. That comment was revealing. Many places in the South claim to be the originator of Memorial Day, and the story is at least as much a matter of interpretation as of fact. According to the historian David Blight, the first Memorial Day ceremony was held in Charleston, South Carolina, in May 1865, when Black workmen, most of them formerly enslaved, buried and commemorated fallen Union soldiers.
Confederates had converted Charleston’s Washington Race Course and Jockey Club into an outdoor prison for captured Union soldiers. The conditions were so terrible that nearly 260 men died and were buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand. After the Confederates retreated, Black men reburied the dead in proper graves and erected an archway bearing the words martyrs of the race course. An enormous parade was held on the track, with 3,000 Black children singing “John Brown’s Body,” the Union marching song. The first Memorial Day, as Blight describes it, received significant press coverage. But it faded from public consciousness after the defeat of Reconstruction.
It was then, in the late 1800s, that the myth of the Lost Cause began to take hold. The myth was an attempt to recast the Confederacy as something predicated on family and heritage rather than what it was: a traitorous effort to extend the bondage of millions of Black people. The myth asserts that the Civil War was fought by honorable men protecting their communities, and not about slavery at all.
We know this is a lie, because the people who fought in the Civil War told us so. “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world,” Mississippi lawmakers declared during their 1861 secession convention. Slavery was “the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution,” the Confederate vice president, Alexander Stephens, said, adding that the Confederacy was founded on “the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man.”
The Lost Cause asks us to ignore this evidence. Besides, it argues, slavery wasn’t even that bad.
The early 1900s saw a boom in Confederate-monument building. The monuments were meant to reinforce white supremacy in an era when Black communities were being terrorized and Black social and political mobility impeded. They were also intended to teach new generations of white southerners that the cause their ancestors had fought for was just.
...Some people say that up to 100,000 Black soldiers fought for the Confederate Army, in racially integrated regiments. No evidence supports these claims, as the historian Kevin M. Levin has pointed out, but appropriating the stories of men like Poplar is a way to protect the Confederacy’s legacy. If Black soldiers fought for the South, how could the war have been about slavery? How could it be considered racist now to fly the Dixie flag?
One Confederate general, Patrick Cleburne, actually did float the idea of using enslaved people as soldiers, but he was scoffed at. A senator from Virginia is reported to have asked, “What did we go to war for, if not to protect our property?” General Howell Cobb was even more explicit: “If slaves will make good soldiers, our whole theory of slavery is wrong.” In a desperate move just weeks before General Robert E. Lee’s surrender, the Confederacy approved legislation that would allow Black people to be used in battle. But by then it was too late.
...[A random Confederate backer,] Jeff, told him that “We call it the ‘War Between the States’ or ‘of Northern Aggression’ against us,” he said. “Southern people don’t call it the Civil War, because they know it was an invasion … If you stayed up north, ain’t nothing would’ve happened.”
When Jeff said “nothing would’ve happened,” I wondered if he had forgotten the millions of Black people who would have remained enslaved, those for whom the status quo would have meant ongoing bondage. Or did he remember but not care?
...Many white southerners who did not own enslaved people were deeply committed to preserving the institution. The historian James Oliver Horton wrote about how the press inundated white southerners with warnings that, without slavery, they would be forced to live, work, and inevitably procreate with their free Black neighbors.
The Louisville Daily Courier, for example, warned nonslaveholding white southerners about the slippery slope of abolition: “Do they wish to send their children to schools in which the negro children of the vicinity are taught? Do they wish to give the negro the right to appear in the witness box to testify against them?” The paper threatened that Black men would sleep with white women and “amalgamate together the two races in violation of God’s will.”
These messages worked, Horton’s research found. One southern prisoner of war told a Union soldier standing watch, “You Yanks want us to marry our daughters to niggers”; a Confederate artilleryman from Louisiana said that his army had to fight against even the most difficult odds, because he would “never want to see the day when a negro is put on an equality with a white person.”
The proposition of equality with Black people was one that millions of southern white people were unwilling to accept. The existence of slavery meant that, no matter your socioeconomic status, there were always millions of people beneath you. As the historian Charles Dew put it, “You don’t have to be actively involved in the system to derive at least the psychological benefits of the system.”
...[T]he Whitney is different. It is the only plantation museum in Louisiana with an exclusive focus on enslaved people. The old plantation house still stands-- alluring in its decadence-- but it’s not there to be admired. The house is a reminder of what slavery built, and the grounds are a reminder of what slavery really meant for the men, women, and children held in its grip.
On a plot of earth tucked into a corner of the property, between a white wooden fence and a redbrick path, are the dark heads of 55 Black men, impaled on silver stakes. Their eyes are shut, their faces peaceful or anguished. They’re ceramic, but so lifelike that the gleam of the sun could as easily be the sheen of blood and sweat. These heads represent the rebels in the largest slave revolt in American history, which took place not far from here in 1811. Within 48 hours, local militia and federal troops had suppressed the uprising. Many rebels were slaughtered, their heads cut off and posted on stakes lining the Mississippi River.
...But so many Americans simply don’t want to hear this, and if they do hear it, they refuse to accept it. After the 2015 massacre of Black churchgoers in Charleston led to renewed questions about the memory and iconography of the Confederacy, Greg Stewart, another member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, told the New York Times, “You’re asking me to agree that my great-grandparent and great-great-grandparents were monsters.”
So much of the story we tell about history is really the story we tell about ourselves. It is the story of our mothers and fathers and their mothers and fathers, as far back as our lineages will take us. They are the stories Jeff tells as he sits watching the deer scamper among the Blandford tombstones at dusk. The stories he wants to tell his granddaughters when he holds their hands as they walk over the land. But just because someone tells you a story doesn’t make that story true.
Would Jeff’s story change, I wonder, if he went to the Whitney? Would his sense of what slavery was, and what his ancestors fought for, survive his coming face-to-face with the Whitney’s murdered rebels and lost children? Would he still be proud?

Not a mention of how all these people he met and spoke with and watched are all Trump supporters who are not only perpetuating the myth of the Los Cause but are also perpetuating Trump's Big Lie about the 2020 election and the 1/6 insurrection/failed coup.


Meanwhile, today NY Times in-house conservative columnist David Brooks told NPR that "You have to lie to qualify to be a Republican." Dan Rather noted that Trump's "Big Lie led to violent insurrectionists storming the United States Capitol, attempting to stop final certification of election results. It has led to Republican state representatives falling over themselves to try to cut back on voting rights. And how do they try to justify it? They say their supporters have lost faith in the voting system. But that is because their supporters have been lied to by the same politicians who are now using that as an excuse to stifle democracy. Propaganda and authoritarianism play on in a destructive feedback loop... [W]ho thrives in such an environment? Craven opportunists like Elise Stefanik. You would think this Harvard-educated congresswoman from upstate New York would know better about the Constitution and the ridiculousness of the Big Lie, but she long ago pegged her future to prostrating at the altar of The Donald. And now she is poised to replace Cheney in Republican leadership. Some conservative groups are grumbling that Stefanik’s voting record is far more “liberal” than they would like, but Trump broke whatever tenuous links the Republican Party had to a consistent ideology. It’s now a cult of personality, not a political party. And fealty is prized over all else. Of course as many associates of Trump have learned over the years, loyalty for him is like most streets in Manhattan-- it only goes one way... Republicans desperately want the mainstream press to cover the daily news cycle through the lens of traditional party politics. At the same time, they go on their propaganda channels and stir up their base against the mechanics of fair and open elections. They spread the poison of illegitimacy to attack the Biden Administration. On Fox News you get a concerted and coordinated attack. Outside of that echo chamber you get what was once the normal news diet of a spectrum of different stories. But this is not a normal news environment. This is an attack on American values, and our ability to continue to function as a government that represents the will of the majority of Americans. The Big Lie is everything right now and the press and the American people must not provide safe harbor for it to continue to metastasize."