The Importance of Getting History 'Right' for the Sake of Future Generations

August 09, 2021

Frederick Douglass

I have always been intrigued with the game of basketball. In my latter years, I sometimes watch the NBA, and I particularly enjoy the games and commentary of Kenny, Shaq, and Charles Barkley on the Turner Broadcasting Network. Their commentary centers on the game but often strays into a variety of other topics. One Thursday evening, the conversation wandered into television shows, and since Charles is from the South someone asked him if he ever watched The Andy Griffith Show when he was a kid. Charles, with a look of puzzlement, responded, “When did you ever see a Southern town (North Carolina) in the 1950s where there were no black folk? Come on, Black people were never included in the vision for that show!” 

Charles Barkley’s comment caught me by surprise. I grew up in the 1960s in small rural towns in Arizona, and I had idolized The Andy Griffith Show. We did have a lot of choices of entertainment on television, but Andy Griffith was one we did not want to miss. We loved the interplay between Don Knotts and Sheriff Andy and the rest of the characters in the small town of Mayberry. We had never given any thought to the idea that perhaps what we saw in the show, and the stories that were presented, were not shared by everyone. Charles awakened me to the fact that an entire community of people, black people, living in the segregated South, would not have experienced the show in remotely the same way. They viewed the story as reinforcing the exclusion and isolation they lived through every day. 

Race divides America, and it has so since the founding of the country. Many have discovered, in recent days, that we have often not lived up to our founding ideals. As a historian, I have always believed that, in order to create a better future, it is vital to “tell the truth” about the past. As you probably know, that is not always easy to do. We are people of story, and the stories we tell ourselves provide understanding of our past and also serve to guide our future. Challenges often arise, like today, when the stories are wrong and intended to do harm. 

I am a historian of the Civil War, and when I began my career as a teacher the story of the America that had dominated much of the 20th century was just being displaced by a new generation of scholars. Late in the 19th and early in the 20th century, “storytellers” from the South had sought to rehabilitate its image by creating a myth that came to be known as the Lost Cause. Through the strategic use of what we would today call propaganda, these storytellers argued that the American South was a society concerned about honor and chivalry. It sought to uphold the values of medieval Christianity. Its culture was never really about slavery but was attempting to hold on to an agricultural vision that put it at odds with the growing industrial and mechanized Northern states that were deconstructing everything which was good about the United States. The Civil War, the climax of the battle between these two competing visions, was not about slavery but about the competition between two great economic and cultural systems. This “myth” was idealized in the great book and later Academy Award-winning film Gone with the Wind. It was a story southern whites clung to in the 20th century. 

What I discovered in my historical studies many years ago is what most of you know now: The story of the mythical, romantic South is simply not true. Recently, I was walking through Barnes and Noble and came across a book entitled Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause, by Ty Seidule. I picked it up and read the introduction, and I was immediately drawn in. Seidule was head of the history department at West Point and a general of 36 years of U.S. Army service. In the introduction he noted as a man who had believed the “myth” that he felt betrayed by those who should have known better. He argued that the “real” stories of the South had been hidden from him as a young person. Keep in mind that this author is no “liberal” who is attacking the history of the country. In fact, he noted that it was his goal to “be a Christian gentleman – what better place to become a gentleman than in the midst of the best – Lee, Jackson and others.” This deeply committed army officer, a historian educated at the best institutions and responsible for the education of Army officers, wants to set the record straight. He noted in constructing the book, “I don’t want less history; I want more. The real question is, who chooses history? Is it Jubal Early? The United Daughters of the Confederacy? Politicians? Few choices are more fraught for people than who decides which stories are told to children – or to college students.” 

The stories we tell frame our future. General Seidule clearly shows, for example, that the stories he was told about 19th century Southern leaders were false. Indeed the Confederate monuments that now exist throughout much of our country and the cause of significant debate were not created shortly after the war but early in the 20th century to reinforce segregation, rehabilitate Southern leaders, and to further limits on Black freedom following Reconstruction. Simply put, the Lost Cause Myth, and the Confederate monuments that were are part of its construction, were an attempt to “win” the cultural war that the South had lost in 1865. 

Seidule notes that U.S. Civil war veterans had a  “righteous anger” that lasted throughout their lives against the Southern officers, in particular, who had betrayed their country. James Garfield, the future president, spoke at Decoration Day 1868 at Arlington Cemetery (Lee’s home prior to the Civil War which had been confiscated by the U.S. Government and made the home of U.S. war dead) and noted:

“Seven years ago, this was the home of one who lifted his sword against the life of his country, and who became the great imperator of the rebellion. The soil beneath our feet was watered by the tears of slaves . . . . But, thanks be to God, this arena of rebellion and slavery is a scene of violence and crime no longer. This will be forever the sacred mountain of our capital. Here is our temple.” 

The author was particularly frustrated with the mythic cult of Robert E. Lee, which portrayed Lee as a great general who sided with his state to preserve Southern culture but not slavery. Again, Seidule corrects the historical record and shows that Lee continued to run his father-in-law’s plantation until it was no longer possible, and in a letter to his son in 1868 Lee provided advice to his son which showed his position on Black freedom: “You will never prosper with the blacks, and it is abhorrent to a reflecting mind to be supporting and cherishing those who are plotting and working for your injury, and all of whose sympathies and associations are antagonistic to yours . . . our material, social, and political interests are naturally with the whites.” (Letter to his son 1868, from Seidule, p. 241)

It was the architects of the “Lost Cause Myth” that created the image of Lee as victor and attacked the true heroes of the War – Lincoln and Grant. I loved his summary of Lee – “Because Lee fought so well and for so long hundreds of thousands of soldiers died. No other enemy officer in American history was responsible for the deaths of more U.S. Army soldiers than Robert E. Lee. In the last year of the war, Lee’s army killed more than 127,000 U.S. Army soldiers” (p. 216-217). The truth is, he said, that Lee fought and fought and fought until the bitter end, surrendering only because Grant whipped him (p. 236). Further, it was not Lee who stopped the mob violence of the Klan, many elements of which were led by his former officers, but Grant who employed federal troops to engage in warfare with the Klan in an attempt to bring its terror against the freedman to an end.

Congressional leaders were so upset with West Point officers who betrayed their country in the Civil War that they created a new oath that now reads: “I ‘your name’ do solemnly swear that I will support the Constitution of the United States, and bear true allegiance to the National Government; that I will maintain and defend the sovereignty, or fealty I may owe to any State or country, whatsoever; and that I will at all times obey the legal orders of my superiors.” Lee and others who had taken an oath to defend the Constitution betrayed their country. They were not honored by those that lived at the time of the war and for 50 years after. In fact, Confederate soldiers were barred from burial in Arlington Cemetery, one of America’s most sacred spaces. 

I would encourage you to read the book. You will learn why some of America’s most significant military posts are named after failed Confederate generals and why no living Union soldier would have tolerated the display of the Confederate battle flag. You will also learn about segregation and the tragic history of lynching in our country. What is most important in his book is his emphasis on the stories we tell to our young people. Rather than crafting stories of a failed effort to retain a slave republic, there are other stories of those who had a vision for a different society that need to be told more clearly.   

As Seidule conducted his research on his alma mater, Washington and Lee, he discovered that John Chavis, the first African American to graduate from college in the United States, was an alumnus of Washington Academy, the forerunner of Washington and Lee. After Chavis completed his studies he became a Presbyterian minister and founded the Chavis School, which educated free African American children and children of elite white families. One of his graduates was Willie P. Mangum, who became the senator for North Carolina in the mid-19th century. Chavis’ life and achievements were direct testimony to the importance of African-American freedom and a refutation of all of the myth of the Lost Cause. In more than 200 years of the history of Washington and Lee, Chavis’ story had not been told. 

One of the greatest leaders of the 19th century was the freed slave, Frederick Douglass. His works should be read and his story told. Douglass predicted early as a minority of Americans sought to honor the cause of the South in 1870 that “Monuments to the ‘Lost Cause’ will prove monuments to folly in the memories of a wicked rebellion . . . a needless record of stupidity and wrong”  (p. 246). In 1871, at the same celebration that Garfield addressed at Arlington, Douglass noted:

“When the dark and vengeful spirit of slavery, always ambitious, preferring to rule in hell than to serve in heaven, fired the Southern heart and stirred all the malign elements of discord, when our great Republic, the hope of freedom and self-government throughout the world, had reached the point of supreme peril, when the Union of these states was torn and rent asunder at the center, and the armies of a gigantic rebellion came forth with broad blades and bloody hands to destroy the very foundations of American society, the unknown brave souls  who flung themselves into the yawning chasm, where cannon roared and bullets whistled, fought and fell. They died for their country.” (Decoration Day, 1871, Arlington Cemetery) 

Finally, for those who constructed the myth of the Lost Cause, there were none more “evil” to them than the northern Christian abolitionists who they gave the name “radicals.” They wanted them to be viewed as outsiders who wished to destroy the country. In reality, this group more accurately understood what was at risk for the country but more importantly for the cause of Christ. In Boston, in 1854, William Lloyd Garrison, editor of The Liberator, decried the institution of slavery: 

“The abolitionism which I advocate is as absolute as the law of God, and as unyielding as his throne. It admits of no compromise. Every slave is a stolen man; every slaveholder is a man stealer. By no precedent, no example, no law, no compact, no purchase, no bequest, no inheritance, no combination of circumstances, is slaveholding right or justifiable. While a slave remains in his fetters, the land must have no rest. Whatever sanctions his doom must be pronounced accursed. The law that makes him a chattel is to be trampled underfoot; the compact that is formed at his expense, and cemented with his blood, is null and void; the church that consents to his enslavement is horribly atheistical; the religion that receives to its communion the enslaver is the embodiment of all criminality. Such, at least, is the verdict of my own soul.

But, if they are men; if they are to run the same career of immortality with ourselves; if the same law of God is over them as over all others; if they have souls to be saved or lost; if Jesus included them among those for whom he laid down his life; if Christ is within many of them ‘the hope of glory’; then, when I claim for them all that we claim for ourselves, because we are created in the image of God, I am guilty of no extravagance, but am bound, by every principle of honor, by all the claims of human nature, by obedience to Almighty God, to ‘remember them that are in bonds as bound with them,’ and to demand their immediate and unconditional emancipation ….”

In his attempt to explain the impact of slavery on the American Republic in his second inaugural address, Lincoln noted that the war may “continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two-hundred-and-fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword . . .” In many ways, the war continues. Seidule reminds us that we live with the implications of a nation founded with slavery at the core of its culture. In order to create a better future it is necessary that we present the truth, the best we know how, to the next generation so that they can be freed to design a different future.