We Need to Confront Civil War Falsehoods


The philosopher George Santayana stated, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” While that is true, the memory of the Civil War also shows that the misuse of history can be as damaging as the failure to remember it. Those who can control the memory of the past can manipulate it to control both the present and the future. To understand the lessons and legacy of the Civil War, one must acknowledge its causes.

Opposition to slavery was partly inspired by the North’s initial involvement in the Civil War. As the fighting progressed, Northerners increasingly became committed not only to abolition, but also to racial equality. The North’s victory and Reconstruction seemed to promise that black Americans would be included in America’s democracy.

However, the Redeemers, those who sought to reestablish white rule in the South, crushed the possibility that racial equality would be an outcome of the conflict. After the war, the Redeemers embraced the “Lost Cause” ideology, which portrayed the Confederate cause as a battle over states’ rights, not slavery. One way that the Redeemers promoted this new narrative was through the construction of Civil War monuments.

According to the Historical Marker Database, the Civil War is the most memorialized conflict in American history, with at least 13,000 public markers and monuments dedicated to it scattered across the country. As a result, Civil War memorialization has had a tremendous impact on the way Americans have interpreted the war’s meaning. After the war, the Redeemers began erecting monuments that minimized the significance of slavery as a cause of the Civil War, and instead depicted the conflict as one between the North and the South’s irreconcilable views on federalism. In their eyes, the war was not fought over slavery, so they had no obligation to promote equality as atonement for slavery in its aftermath. Using their monuments, the Redeemers falsified and distorted history in order to skew America’s perception of the war.

One such monument is in Colfax, Louisiana. According to an article by Richard Rubin in The Atlantic, in 1873, a group of Redeemers surrounded black Americans who were attempting to assert their political rights and slaughtered them. The Colfax monument describes the event as follows: “On this site occurred the Colfax Riot in which three white men and 150 negroes were slain. This event … marked the end of carpetbag misrule in the South.” By remembering black Americans’ attempts to vote as “misrule” that was valiantly ended with a mass killing, this monument, and others like it, justified further discrimination. Armed with the false idea that “misrule” was synonymous with the granting of rights and power to black Americans, white America became comfortable with the rise of Jim Crow. This monument still stands as of 2015. We should remove it and other such memorials because they pervert the past and the present. A museum contextualizing the monument within the history of American racism would be a better location for this memorial.

Misguided historical memories often promote modern injustice. It raises the question: Should we remove the Jefferson Memorial because he owned slaves, or rename Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School because he was a racist? The impulse to do so is understandable, but this could cause people not to learn from our past. Moreover, when a monument is not a purposeful distortion, but instead honors complex but flawed figures like Jefferson and Wilson, it would be better to encourage contextualization, education and conversation around these memorials rather than erase them.

To do so, memorialization societies — groups that organize reenactments and promote public commemoration of the war — as well as museums and other public educational institutions should emphasize the role racial injustice had in igniting the Civil War and the fact that the Union hoped that the outcome of the war would improve race relations. Moreover, simply placing placards that identify all of the war’s causes next to existing monuments might hinder the spread of the Redeemers’ myths.

Lastly, another approach would be to build monuments that recognize the significance of slavery and racial justice in connection with the war. This has already been done. For example, Augustus Saint-Gaudens built a majestic memorial to the Massachusetts 54th Regiment. This monument, which is located in a place of honor across from the Massachusetts State House, commemorates a regiment of valiant black soldiers who fought for the freedom of enslaved black people.

In a similar fashion, in the Chamberlain Freedom Park, located in Brewer, Maine, monuments constructed in 1996 celebrate the Civil War as a struggle not simply over federalism, but also as a battle for freedom and racial justice. This park has statues honoring the Gettysburg hero and Maine resident Joshua Chamberlain. However, it goes even further by presenting a statue of a slave striving for freedom on the Underground Railroad within the context of the Civil War.

The past is not forgotten. It is all around us. You can open newspapers today and see history’s lingering hand in discussions like the recent ones about the contemporary use of the Confederate flag and in events like the resurgence of white nationalism in Charlottesville last summer. Because the “Lost Cause” lingers, the struggle to promote a different interpretation of the Civil War must persist. This is the only path to a just future.