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Keith Knutson: The Civil War's lost cause

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Keith Knutson

Keith Knutson

I recently returned from a seminar on the Civil War in Charlottesville, VA. The city was in national news four years ago when a Unite the Right rally gathered to protest removal of General Robert E Lee’s statue, and other Confederate heroes. Several weeks before my visit, the equestrian Lee and the others had been quietly relocated out of public view.

The monuments represented what motivated Southerners to secede from the Union and instigate the Civil War — a deeply imbued commitment to white supremacy and slavery as the social institution to control back human beings. The racial prejudice which undergirded these Confederate convictions was not, of course, exorcised from our society, either by the war or its outcomes.

There is an unflattering truth about the United States in the 19th century — this was a country for white people. Racial prejudice was a defining social attitude. We still grapple with it today.

South Carolina initiated the drama leading to Civil War by seceding on December 20, 1860. The state’s declaration complained that slave-holders’ freedom was threatened by President Abraham Lincoln’s intention to limit slavery’s expansion into any new states.

In his first inaugural address on March 4, 1861, Lincoln asked his fellow citizens to call upon their better angels to save the union. Lee spurned his Commander-in-Chief’s call. Upon secession of his home state of Virginia in April, he resigned his U.S. army commission. He subsequently received command of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Like other Confederates, Lee’s identity grew out of a deep desire to dominate and control slaves. The Constitution of the Confederacy for which he fought ensured slavery was legal throughout its land.

As the North’s battlefield fortunes ebbed and flowed through 1862, emancipation became a useful policy in prosecuting the war. By the war’s end in 1865, it provided a foundational understanding of what a reunited nation fought over.

The South’s aims were therefore completely defeated. Yet former Confederates immediately began construction of a Lost Cause attachment to their short-lived slave-holding Republic.

They even denied the truth about their efforts. The man who served as President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, wrote “The existence of African servitude was in no wise the cause of the conflict.”

In Lost Cause remembrance the Rebels had fought insurmountable odds in a noble war to maintain their freedom. Confederate armies, soldiers, and generals — especially Lee — personified the idea of heroism.

Before his death in 1870, Lee had advised not building monuments memorializing the Confederate war effort. Yet, as Reconstruction ended in 1876, Southern states substituted Jim Crow segregation for slavery, and they disregard their hero’s advice.

Confederate statues provided the public tangible attachments to the Lost Cause of defending their Confederacy. These monuments proclaimed white supremacists’ determination to maintain their social, economic, and political domination, even by violence reminiscent of their slave holding legacy. Between 1890 and 1920 a Black American was lynched in this country on average every three to five days.

Pertinent for our politics today, Southern states found a variety of ways to prevent Black men from voting — poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses were all used to restrict voting rights.

Davis’s lie about Civil War causes is comparable to Donald Trump’s current lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him. Some of Trump’s insurrectionists at the Capitol on January 6 displayed the Confederate battle flag. They were attempting to thwart our Constitutional order in a manner consistent with the flag they displayed.

Two dozen state legislatures are currently restricting voting access in the tradition of Jim Crow. Here in Wisconsin members of our state legislature are still attempting to overturn the legitimate presidential election result of almost one year ago. All these efforts to transgress, even break the Constitution, are instigated by fear of sharing our democracy with all of our people, no matter their identity.

Just as in the Civil War, the continued existence of our constitutionally grounded political institutions today requires constant vigilance, and truthful understanding of our circumstances.

Keith Knutson is a professor in the Department of Ethics, Culture and Society at Viterbo University.

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