Historian David Blight once said that “The civil war sits like the giant sleeping dragon of American history ever ready to rise up when we do not expect it and strike us with unbearable fire.”
It’s been 152 years since Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant in the front parlor of Wilmer McLean’s home in Appomattox Court House, Virginia. But in recent days, with Ed Gillespie defending a monument of Lee during his closing argument in the Virginia governor’s race and the White House chief of staff curiously praising the Confederate general, that sleeping dragon of history has risen up once again.
The Civil War remains the seminal episode in the American experiment – a cataclysmic eruption when more than 700,000 men were killed out of a nation of 30,000,000, to settle on the battlefield what couldn’t be hashed out in Congress. In its wake of destruction there was a “second founding” that broadened the meaning of freedom and redefined equality.
But in 2017, the Civil War is seminal still, because the Confederacy’s cause continues to be misrepresented and exploited in ways that are as damaging to our memory of history as they are to our ability to forge progress in the present.
Ed Gillespie’s get-out-the-vote effort in Virginia is the latest example.
One of Gillespie’s closing ads shows a split-screen image of a Robert E. Lee monument next to Gillespie’s Democratic opponent, Ralph Northam. Gillespie says I’m for “keeping them up” ― a not-so subtle-message to the darkest forces in Virginia, where a few months ago an act of domestic terrorism took an innocent life amidst a white nationalist rally ― that Gillespie will guard the statues of men who fought against loyal Americans to create a slave empire and tear apart the Union.
Lost Cause mythology may romanticize a benign, Confederate aim of protecting a southern way of life, but the Confederate cause was enshrining slavery “forever,” as Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy made clear in 1861. The very people Gillespie hopes will turn out as a result of his ad understand that the Confederacy was about forming a government whose foundations “are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”
We struggle in the 21st century to build broad coalitions and address issues of criminal justice, poverty, and economic opportunity because we still have leaders appealing to fringe segments that are stirred up by the raw emotion and racial animus that divided us in the 19th century.
In 1871 Frederick Douglass presciently expressed concern that a new, misleading and dangerous narrative (the Ku Klux Klan’s reign of terror against former slaves had recently begun) was forming about why southern states seceded in the first place: “We are sometimes asked, in the name of patriotism, to forget the merits of this fearful struggle, and to remember with equal admiration those who struck at the nation’s life and those who struck to save it.”
Gillespie’s focus on “keeping them up” has the veneer of decency, not of memorializing white supremacy, because when the Democratic Party roared back to power shortly after the Civil War, it reinvented the Confederacy’s purpose just as it passed Jim Crow laws across the south. The new construct was perpetuated by multiple schools of historians in the 19th and 20th centuries that re-engineered the historiography of the conflict and by Hollywood producers who churned out films like “Birth of a Nation” and “Gone with the Wind” that told a friendlier version of the antebellum south.
And yet despite setbacks, there has been progress. Former governor of South Carolina Nikki Haley, now the U.S. Ambassador to the UN, did the noble thing in 2015 when she urged her state’s legislature to remove the Confederate flag from statehouse grounds in the aftermath of the murder of nine African-American parishioners by a white supremacist. As Haley said at the time, “My hope is that by removing a symbol that divides us, we can move forward as a state in harmony.”
Until more leaders in public life are honest about the history of the Civil War, and what its symbols project today, moving forward in harmony will be that much harder.
Especially if Ed Gillespie is elected governor.