The planter class of the South lost the Civil War but won the peace. The attempt by the federal government to impose civil rights during Reconstruction (1865-1877) failed for several reasons.
To begin with, as I noted in my book Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Modern Day, Presidents Andrew Johnson and Ulysses Grant never sent enough troops to truly transform a region of 9.4 million people (5.5 million of them white). There were 87,000 federal troops garrisoned in the South in 1866, and that figure dropped to just 6,000 in 1876. The federal government’s inability to enforce the law allowed terrorist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and Red Shirts to flourish. Their goal was to deny equal rights to newly freed slaves, and that in turn necessitated inflicting terror not only on African-Americans who tried to assert their rights but also on Republican officeholders — many of them newly arrived from the North — who wanted to help them.
As important as the success that white supremacists had in inflicting violence was their success in gaining control of the narrative. Before long, much of the American population, and not only in the South, came to believe the myths of the Confederacy: That the South had superior culture and morals, that its manhood had fought and died for a glorious Lost Cause, and that the South was subsequently raped by corrupt and rapacious Northern “carpetbaggers” and their homegrown collaborators known as “scalawags.”
Recent historical research has shown that none of this was true: that newly installed Republican officeholders were no more corrupt than the secessionists they replaced, and many of them were idealistic and well-intentioned. And needless to say, the Southern cause was not at all glorious — the Confederate armies may have fought bravely and well, but they fought to preserve a way of life founded upon enslaving their fellow human beings.
But reality was quickly trumped by myths spread by such popular works of art as Birth of a Nation (a movie based on Thomas Dixon Jr.’s 1905 novel The Clansman) and Gone with the Wind. In the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, when the South was resisting a new era of civil rights, its leading segregationists harked back to this myth of their ancestors as noble fighters for a lost civilization. That myth was symbolized by the Confederate battle flag which, having once stood for secession and slavery, was now revived to stand for segregation, or in the code words of the day, “state’s rights.”
Mercifully, the South of today is light years removed from those dark days — as a quick glance at the number of African-American officeholders across the region will reveal. And yet many white Southerners continue to cling to the Confederate flag as a symbol of the beloved Confederacy. And it is hardly the only such symbol: There are still countless streets named after Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and other leaders of the Confederacy. In fact just across the river from our national capital can be found Jefferson Davis Highway in northern Virginia.
The Confederate flag has quite rightly come under fire again after the appalling massacre carried out by a white supremacist in Charleston, South Carolina, who murdered nine church goers because they were black. It has become the politically correct stance to assert that the Confederate flag that continues to fly over the grounds of the South Carolina statehouse needs to come down. But just because a position is politically correct doesn’t mean it’s wrong. In this case, it’s right. Not only should the Confederate flag come down, but I believe it’s also time for Southern states to change place names in honor of traitors such as Jefferson Davis.
I know, I know: it’s a slippery slope that could eventually result in taking slaveholders such as George Washington off our currency or even renaming our national capital. But Washington, in spite of being a slaveholder, also helped to create this country as a bastion of freedom. The good he did far outweighed his deplorable participation in the slave-owning customs of his time and place. I can think of no similar redeeming virtues that can be claimed for the likes of Jefferson Davis who helped to plunge this country into a civil war that left as many as 800,000 dead in a fruitless quest to ensure that slavery would remain legal.
I believe it is a calumny to assert that the South of today is unchanged from the 1860s or 1960s. But the South needs to complete its transformation by finally jettisoning the remaining symbols of its dark past.