How Southern socialites rewrote Civil War history


Listen to how this textbook describes slavery. “The master often had a barbecue or a picnic
for his slaves. Then they had a great frolic. Even while working in the cotton fields they
sang songs. The beat of the music and the richness of
their voices made work seem light.” Yikes. That’s from History of Georgia, a textbook
published in 1954 that was taught across junior high schools in Georgia for decades. That sort of language is part of an intellectual
movement called the “Lost Cause” — a distorted version of American Civil War history
that’s been prevalent in the South for a long time. It took shape soon after the defeat of the
Confederate States in the war, when Southern historians like Edward Pollard and former
Confederate Gen. Jubal Early started preserving the South’s perspective through their writings. They framed the Confederate cause as a heroic
defense of the Southern way of life against the overwhelming forces in the North. That narrative has a few basic tenets: the
glorification of Confederate soldiers who died for a cause they believed in, the belief
that slavery was a benevolent institution, and, maybe most importantly, that slavery
was not the root cause of the war. The Lost Cause is one of the most notoriously
effective efforts to rewrite history, and it was done by the losing side. So how did it become so deeply rooted in Southern
memory? Blame the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The UDC was founded in Nashville in 1894 to
preserve Confederate culture for generations to come. The women who made up the group descended
from elite antebellum families and they used their social and political clout to spread
the pro-Southern version of the war as “real history.” You’ve probably seen their efforts to honor
the Confederacy, but maybe you didn’t know it was the UDC. They’re the ones who covered the Southern
landscape with memorials for Confederate leaders and soldiers. They used their fundraising and lobbying skills
to pressure local governments into erecting monuments in prominent public spaces like
courthouses and state capitols. Installed here next to the state Capitol by
the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The United Daughters of the Confederacy donated
this memorial to the city back in the ’30s. They put them along roadsides and in parks. Any place that was remotely relevant to the
Confederacy was memorialized. By the early 20th century, the UDC had 100,000
members in chapters spread all over the country, but mostly in former Confederate states. And there’s a reason they grew so quickly
during that time. So we’re talking about roughly three decades
after the end of the war, and the Confederate veterans themselves are beginning to die off. So there is this push to find ways to commemorate
it. Because the big challenge by 1900 was there’s
a new generation of white Southerners being born and they never experienced the war years. That push is visible. Most of the Confederate monuments were erected
during the UDC’s height of influence. There’s a rhetoric around monuments — that
we want to get this thing built before all of that generation has died off. And Dr. Karen Cox wrote the book on the UDC, and
I asked her if it was fair to say the group established the Lost Cause as historical fact
in the South. Oh, my God, yeah! They were the leaders of the Lost Cause into
the 20th century, and they made it a movement about vindication. Just to give you an idea of how effective
they were: They successfully lobbied for a Confederate Memorial in Arlington National
Cemetery, which US President Woodrow Wilson proudly unveiled to a cheering crowd. Now that’s influence, right? Monuments are the least of what they did. I mean they are the most visible and tangible,
but the work with children was far more influential. It turns out, a central UDC objective is shaping
how children think about the war and their Southern heritage. One of their most powerful tools? Textbooks. Take a look at this pamphlet, called “A
Measuring Rod for Text-Books.” It was written by “the illustrious Southern
Historian Miss Mildred Rutherford” an educator, orator, and an author of Southern history
textbooks. She was also very pro-slavery. The pamphlet announced the formation of a
textbook review committee featuring prominent Southerners, like five former Confederate
generals. This group was committed to spreading the
“truths of Confederate history” so they instructed school boards to reject any textbooks
that did not “accord full justice to the South.” And they urged libraries to deface every book
in their collection that didn’t measure up by writing the words “Unjust to the South”
clearly on its cover. This pamphlet was shared widely with school
boards throughout the South, and UDC-backed committees closely monitored history books
to make sure “Northern influence” never reached classrooms. So the core language of an approved textbook
aligned precisely with that of the Lost Cause. You know, stuff like “The Confederacy lost
in the War between the States. But Georgia never forgot to honor her Confederate
soldiers…” History of Georgia was on the UDC’s approved
list. It was also written by E. Merton Coulter,
a self-described “Southern historian” and historian-described white supremacist. They understand that how you educate — who
wins the writing game, who wins the battle over history — ultimately wins the war. That’s the big fight for the UDC. But their work with children went further
than the classrooms. The UDC formed an auxiliary group called the
Children of the Confederacy, which was designed to get kids born in former Confederate states
to actively participate in their version of history. Group leaders had kids recite call-and-response
“truths” from something called the “Confederate Catechism.” Children, up to the age of 18, would compete
and be rewarded for memorizing long passages of Lost Cause rhetoric. So it would be like an after-school thing,
you know, like that was your club. You would go after school to the meeting of
the Children of the Confederacy and your leader might teach you songs of the South like “Dixie”
or other songs that were considered Southern patriotic songs. They would have them write essays, go visit
the veterans, and learn this catechism. Children were also the centerpiece of their
community’s monument unveilings, like this “living flag” at the dedication of the
Stonewall Jackson monument in Richmond. Yes, those are schoolchildren. The UDC’s efforts shaped the identities of
children who grew up with the Lost Cause. They made history personal, and that made
their story last longer. Generations of generations of children learning
that narrative in a variety of ways grow up to be, you know, segregationists in the ’50s
and ’60s. Because that’s been drilled into them since
they were children. After World War I, the UDC started losing
steam. But the damage was done. The monuments were in place and the textbooks
they wrote remained in Southern classrooms until the late ’70s. And the women’s group did it all without
the right to vote or participate in politics. You can still get glimmers of this Lost Cause
memory of the war And I think the UDC, to a great extent was
— that was their goal. So the next time someone says the Confederate
monuments are about just know that that’s exactly what the United
Daughters of the Confederacy wants you to think.

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