To paraphrase yet again that most familiar of observations from William Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun: the past is not dead and buried; in fact, it’s not even past. Expect to hear multiple variations on that theme over the next year and then some, as Americans grapple with the commemoration and legacy of the Civil War begun 150 years ago this April.
This sesquicentennial anniversary of our nation’s bloodiest conflict will unfold in countless commemorative exhibitions and re-enactments over the next four years, with nearly half of all states having formed special commissions and official committees dedicated to that purpose. And while many of the public portrayals and pronouncements will traverse well-worn and undisputed historical terrain, you can be just as sure that the events will also revive dueling historiographies of precisely what happened, and why. Indeed, we were already treated to a taste of things to come last October, when The Washington Post “outed” the Virginia Education Department for its approval of a fourth-grade textbook claiming that thousands of African Americans had fought for the Southern Confederacy during the Civil War – a claim rejected by most professional historians as a bald-faced lie and a gross misrepresentation of history.
Nor was this the first such controversy to embroil the state. As Post staff writer Kevin Sieff recalled:
“Virginia, which is preparing to mark the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, has long struggled to appropriately commemorate its Confederate past. The debate was reinvigorated this Spring, when Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), introduced ‘Confederate History Month’ in Virginia without mentioning slavery’s role in the Civil War. He later apologized.”
Sieff specifically fingered the Sons of Confederate Veterans who, in addition to promoting the myth that thousands of Black soldiers had fought for the South, also dispute the widely accepted conclusion that the struggle over slavery was the main cause of the Civil War. Instead, the group claims, the war was fought by secessionists “to preserve their homes and livelihood.”
This particular perversion of history has long been a point of bitterness for James W. Loewen, a Harvard-trained sociologist and professor emeritus at the University of Vermont whose books include the runaway best-seller, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. For the better part of the past two decades, Loewen has been consumed by an almost compulsive crusade to set the record straight by stripping American history of its most persistent and misleading myths. Now, together with fellow researcher Edward H. Sebesta, he is co-editor of The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader: The “Great Truth” about the “Lost Cause,” published by the University Press of Mississippi. This exceptionally timely work is a hefty collection of key historical documents from the Civil War era, illuminating the reasons why South Carolina, followed by 10 other Southern states, seceded, as well as the debates, letters, speeches and other public pronouncements that ensued.
As Loewen told me when we discussed his book on Talkback!, nearly two-thirds of all Americans, including history teachers, mistakenly believe and perpetuate the myth that the Confederate states seceded for “states’ rights.” But the historical record clearly shows what everyone knew at the time: that the South seceded because they wanted to preserve the institution of slavery. Loewen places the entire blame for that grave historical revisionism squarely on the shoulders of the neo-confederate ideologues who have been busy re-writing the story of what happened and why ever since the collapse of Reconstruction. And as he further explained to me when I asked why any of this even matters:
“The very fact that most teachers and most schools across the United States continue to mis-teach the history of the Civil War shows the continuing power of the neo-confederates because they, rather than historical fact, are determining what we teach about what is certainly the most important thing that ever happened in this country after its formation”.
The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader seeks to right that wrong. It brings together dozens of the most important primary documents of the Civil War era into a single, comprehensive volume that should be an indispensable resource in every home and library. Particularly over the next four years, this reference text will require repeated visits in the search for answers that set the record straight about this most momentous, yet widely misrepresented period in American history.