Yesterday I posted a rather lengthy piece on how I visited a museum in Atlanta and discovered that, apparently, its curators do not think chattel slavery had any particular impact on the Civil War. Writing that got me thinking about the way the Confederacy is depicted in American popular culture.
White American society has a strange nostalgia for the Confederacy. Confederate soldiers were, by definition, traitors – and yet they are so often lionised, and their cause is romanticised. Today, the Confederate flag is seen as a symbol of defiance and resistance by a sizeable chunk of white Americans, a banner under which rebels and mavericks gather.
The historical record naturally does not bear this out. So why does this school of thinking remain in vogue? Writer Tony Horwitz hit the nail on the head in the opening chapter of his book, Confederates in the Attic: the Civil War has all the trappings of a dramatic underdog story. The Confederacy, with its relatively tiny homespun army and array of West Point-educated generals, held out against the immense Union war machine for four long years! American popular imagination loves that kind of thing.
What this viewpoint erases, of course, is that the Confederacy drew on the forced labour of millions of disenfranchised Black Americans, in order to fight a war which would only serve to further Black suffering. Its supposedly noble, valiant armies were entirely powered by chattel slavery. Enslaved Black Americans dug trenches, prepared food, and carted knapsacks and weapons for white Southern men who would sooner die than support emancipation.
The Confederate States of America, during its mercifully short reign, was a powerful oppressive force in the lives of Black Americans. But its ill-deserved reputation of resourcefulness in the face of want – of being the brave underdogs – sprung up almost immediately after the last shot of the Civil War was fired, and 160 years later it is still espoused by many white Americans who feel shortchanged by their 21st century existences. They too see themselves as underdogs being crushed under the wheels of urban development, outsourcing, and immigration. For them, the Civil War represents a time when “overlooked” Americans gave the government hell, winning widespread accolade.
Of course, we still live in a society where whiteness functions as a protective shield and an economic stepping stone. The Confederate sympathisers of today are no more oppressed than their nineteenth-century predecessors were. They are dangerous, too. The neo-Confederate, white supremacist, faux underdog complex simmering in American society has led to large displays of domestic terrorism, like the Capitol insurrection and the 2017 Charlottesville rally. It has spurred people to do dreadful things, as in the Charleston and Pittsburgh white-supremacist shootings. It hurts millions of nonwhite Americans every day, in ways ranging from subtle slights to grotesque violence.
We’ve got to do away with media which romanticises the Confederacy as valiant in the face of a mighty enemy. If America truly loves an underdog story, why not highlight real ones? Less Gods and Generals and more Hidden Figures, please.