Rewriting the history books

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Maddy Fry examines how the efforts of a little known group of women have contributed to keeping racism alive in the southern US.

Few sayings are less applicable in the American South than ‘history is written by the victors’. The events of the last half-decade have made this old adage seem almost as laughable as the feted line from the film The History Boys that history is merely ‘one thing after another’.

More than 700 statues of military and political leaders from the era of the Confederacy pepper the landscape of (mostly southern) America, honouring what was undoubtedly the losing side in the civil war. 

They range from the mountainside carvings in Georgia of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson to Tennessee’s statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest (who went on to be the first leader of the Ku Klux Klan), occupying elevated spaces which in many countries would be reserved for those who had triumphed in battle. 

Given the role played by the southern states in keeping black Americans in bondage, a legacy that laid the foundations for many present inequalities, it’s perhaps unsurprising that such statues are seen today as symbols of oppression, glorifying a violent past which fuels a fractious present.

Yet to many of those who want to stop the monuments being pulled down by members of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, issues of culture and identity are intrinsically fused with the history of the South, shaped by the way many southerners view the Confederacy. 

Black Lives Matter protest

What has often gone unnoticed is the unlikely role of one particular group in erecting these monuments, and the narratives that defined it – a group that started in an era when its members had no right to vote or hold political office. 

The United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) were formed in 1894 with the aim of remembering and venerating the veterans who had fought for the southern states, many of whom were dying off and leaving their progeny with the hanging question of how to remember the war – especially in a world where they were increasingly seen as having been on the wrong side of history.

Most of the major battles of the 1860s had been fought in the southern states, leaving swathes of people displaced and the southern economy in tatters. After the war, the North controlled everything, with the South being divided up into militarised zones.

Crucially, this was because the South was branded as traitor territory, with many of the more radical members of the Republican party (which, at the time, was associated with the pro-Union, anti-slavery cause) wanting to punish the South as much as possible during the era of Reconstruction. 

Although the compromises introduced in 1877 by President Rutherford B. Hayes allowed for some autonomy in the states of the former Confederacy – including the introduction of the notorious Jim Crow laws, which blighted the lives of freed slaves and their descendants for nearly a century – many in the predominantly rural South had lost their farms and their wealth, and nursed a sense of grievance at what they saw as their unjust treatment at the hands of the northern states. 

The result was that nostalgia and buried animosity became an intrinsic part of the southern psyche.

Kelsey Hanf, a history teacher in New York, highlights how this was a crucial way of redefining the war: “In the 1860s people knew they were fighting about slavery. Confederate declarations that were drawn up made it clear that it was a conflict about the right to own slaves. However, by the 1920s the UDC had reframed it by promoting the idea of the ‘lost cause’, or of some noble culture having been tragically destroyed.”

This glorification of the ‘lost cause’ will be familiar to anyone who has watched the opening credits of the epic civil war drama Gone with the Wind. Yet the southern states were hardly a paradise lost. Their economy was dominated by a number of high-ranking antebellum families evoking a regressive, aristocratic ideal that harked back to medieval England, with allusions to land-owners and serfs being widespread and deliberate. This world of privilege and make-believe was underpinned by the brutality of the plantations, where slaves lived in deprivation and misery.

Chains in slavery

It was this grim reality that the United Daughters of the Confederacy, most of whom came from such elite groups, sought to glorify and romanticise, in ways that were lasting and profound. 

Although women played a prominent role in civic projects during and after the civil war, without the franchise their ability to be involved in politics was limited. To justify their activities, women’s groups would focus on children and families as a way to link their campaigning to their domestic duties. 

Some of these causes had progressive elements, such as push-back against child labour and the temperance movement, which many women saw as a battle against male domestic violence brought on by excessive drinking.  

Yet in the case of the UDC, the cause was deeply regressive. Their lobbying efforts saw the first wave of statues go up between 1894 and 1914, erected in prominent public spaces such as courthouses and parks. These activities inspired the erection of later Confederate monuments in the 1950s and 1960s – many decades after the civil war ended, and often as an aggressive reaction to the growing momentum of the civil rights movement. 

Karen L. Cox, Professor of History at the University of North Carolina, described how raising funds to erect Confederate monuments was the least of the UDC’s efforts.

“The statues are the most visible and tangible, but the work with children was far more influential. They formed the Children of the Confederacy, which was like an after-school club – you would go to a meeting and your leader might teach you songs of the south. You would sing patriotic songs, write essays and go and visit civil war veterans and learn all this as a catechism.”

This ‘catechism’ included repeating call-and-response mantras that affirmed the southern view of the war, including the glorification of Confederate solidiers, the belief that slavery was fundamentally benevolent, and that the war was primarily about states’ rights.

Slavery was seen not as a major facet of the war, but as part of a wider tapestry that defined southern life. 

“They claimed that slavery was more costly than it was beneficial, and that it was an intrinsic part of southern culture, which amounted to a defence of slavery that was divorced from the racism at the heart of it,” adds Hanf. 

History text books and pamphlets by pro-slavery writers such as Mildred Rutherford and E. Merton Coulter were promoted by UDC-backed review committees as a way to ensure that ‘northern influence’ did not reach southern schools. They included Truths of History written by Rutherford in 1920, and A History of Georgia published in 1954 by Coulter.

The oft-overlooked contribution of women meant the group’s influence was harder to quantify and detect, and thereby resist. As Professor Cox puts it: “The many generations who learned that narrative in a variety of ways grew up to be segregationists in the 1950s and 1960s, because of what had been drilled into them since they were children.”

The image of white southern racists beating and abusing black protesters during the civil rights era has become an iconic aspect of 20th century history. Yet the UDC’s wider impact on how US history continues to be taught is more complex.

The group might have genuinely believed that their work was about tradition, community and remembrance; however, there can be no doubt that it legitimised problematic aspects of southern heritage in a way that helped give a veneer of respectability to racism. As Hanf highlights, this can make life difficult for any history teacher who cares about accuracy and balance. Although this is less of an issue in the northern parts of the USA, it has become a huge point of controversy across parts of the south. 

“The ‘lost cause’ has become a really big part of the narrative of American history and an established part of the way things are taught, even if not all the people teaching in this way are racist. There are fights between parents and school boards in the South about keeping these aspects in textbooks, often because it’s the way earlier generations were taught and it makes our country look better.”

Children learning about American history.

A telling example of this was a poll published in 2011 by the Pew Research Centre, which showed that 48 per cent of those surveyed thought the civil war had been about states’ rights, while only 38 per cent thought it was about slavery.  

Hanf also cites the example of how the era of Reconstruction directly after the civil war has often been depicted in schools as one of corruption and decadence. The fact that it had many successes, which despite Jim Crow included the extension of more equalities and freedoms to black Americans, gets little attention. 

Furthermore, events such as the Texan uprising against the Mexican leader Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna in 1836, known as the Battle of the Alamo, are taught in American schools as being about freedom versus despotism. Yet a facet of the story that often gets excluded is that Santa Anna, whatever his shortcomings, had tried to prevent the Texan rebels, many of whom had emigrated from Confederate states, from owning slaves. Mexico had abolished the practice in 1829. 

Schools in the state of Oklahoma have recently started teaching the history of the 1921 Tulsa massacre, where hundreds of black citizens were killed by a white mob. Yet they might soon be breaking the law, given that Oklahoma is one of a number of states to have approved a raft of new laws designed to stop students being taught about racism. Florida has followed suit by banning any teaching of the idea that ‘racism is not merely the product of prejudice but … is embedded in American society’. 

The question all of this poses is exactly what purpose history should serve. For many it is rarely just about truth or facts; more often than not it is about telling a version of events that serves an agenda firmly anchored in the present. 

Many countries tell narratives that glorify their own history. These do not always have to be nefarious, so long as they are met with scrutiny and rigour. 

Yet it’s hard not to see the UDC’s legacy as an abuse of history. Numerous households across the southern USA don’t see a contradiction in having both an American flag and the flag used by Robert E. Lee’s battalion – now widely regarded as a catch-all symbol of the Confederacy – in their backyard, even though, as Hanf argues, ‘the South were traitors who fought their own countrymen to defend a horrific practice’. She concedes that ‘the sleight of hand by the UDC is that they made the Confederacy palatable’. 

It serves as a sober warning to the ‘winners’ of history not to be complacent. The battle over how things are remembered can all too easily obscure or delegitimize the efforts of whoever triumphs. Who wins, and who loses, are not always as straightforward as we might hope.

For better or worse, the defenders of the Confederacy have understood that for over a century, shown by the many who want America’s monuments to stay exactly where they are. 

The UDC and their legacy will be with us for a long time yet. 

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