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From the cemetery to the big screen, a 150 year old push to rewrite American history.
JACK HITT: Last week while we were working on the latest episode of the show, something kind of incredible happened.
GENERAL JOHN KELLY: "I would tell you that Robert E. Lee was an honorable man. He was a man that gave up his country to fight for his state, which in 150 years ago was more important than country. It was always loyalty to state first back in those days. But the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War."
JH: That is White House Chief of Staff John Kelly on Fox News, and his arguments that the cause of the Civil War was a failure to compromise, and that Robert E Lee was an honorable man--those are not new arguments. They’re the achievement of a PR campaign that goes back 150 years. It all began right as the Civil War ended. At that point, three things were absolutely clear to everybody:
The Confederates had left the union to keep slavery.
Their leaders had failed.
And the soldiers had lost the war.
CK: But then in this massive campaign that went on for decades, that story was entirely reversed--and a different version of the story emerged…
And it goes like this:
The war was about states rights.
The leaders were great Christian martyrs.
And the soldiers were triumphant heroes.
JH: Historians call this version of the Civil War “the Lost Cause.” And today we’re going to punch it in the face.
JH: I’m Jack Hitt.
CK: I’m Chenjerai Kumanyika.
JH: And this... is Uncivil
CK: Where we ransack America’s history…
JH: And show that the past… ain’t what it used to be.
JH: So, picture this--it’s April 1865, the tail end of the Civil War. Robert E. Lee has just lost a quarter of his army and Union soldiers are running the rest of them ragged, chasing them around Virginia.
Lee knows he’s done. He has to raise the white flag. So he meets with Union general Ulysses S. Grant at a house in Appomattox, Virginia to work out the terms of surrender. Back at their encampments, confederate soldiers have handed over their weapons and await word from their leader.
Once the meeting with Grant is over Lee sits down and finalizes his last order to his men, a kind of farewell address. You would think that Lee might express regret that he and his men lost the war. Over 300,000 Confederate men have died. But he doesn’t.
Instead, he says something kinda weird.
CJ: Defeat was not their fault....
JH: That’s Caroline Janney, professor of history at Purdue
CJ: ….defeat was at the hands of a - a union that had superior northern material and manpower. So it wasn't so much that the Confederacy had been defeated as it had been overwhelmed.
CK: And this was the first play of the PR campaign to spin Confederate history-- that the Confederacy’s loss was not their fault. Lee’s message spread through the ranks. His men made copies of the order and passed it around.
CJ: And some of them go to Lee and have it signed and they take that home. So this does become part of of the explanation that is shared, and they can say, “Look, this is this is what Lee--the most important, most influential of all Confederates--has told us it was about.”
JH: Wow so there was already — like the first thing that happens at Appomattox is that there's like, practically a hand out for the Lost Cause.
CJ: In many ways. That's one way of looking at it, for sure.
JH: And the myth gets set down in print in 1866 when a book comes out called: The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates.
CK: But as Lee’s men are spreading this myth, families back home are facing their new lives as defeated enemies.
For example, the families of Confederate soldiers who were buried in federal cemeteries were not allowed to decorate the graves of their loved ones, and in some cases they couldn’t even enter to visit them.
Think about it -- Southern slaveowners were used to being in power, they had been since the Revolution. It was the ultimate disrespect.
JH: So Confederate women decided to create their own cemeteries. And that set into motion the next step in this PR campaign. Here’s Caroline Janney:
CJ: They wanna create a resting place to give Christian burials, in their words, to these confederate soldiers. So they're purchasing land for these reburials. They're putting ledgers in local stores, and saying things like “If you know where any Confederate soldiers are buried please list it here, and well we will go disinter them.”
JH: And they organized into groups all across the South.
CJ: Ladies memorial associations are popping up anywhere there had been a Confederate battlefield, or Confederate hospital. So throughout Virginia, but also in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia.
JH: These weren’t just any women, these were traditional ladies of the south. They didn’t get their hands dirty. They got other people to do the work
CJ: These women are hiring men to go out and do this labor. Often former slaves, freed African-American men
JH: So this is upper middle class white women, with former enslaved men digging up Confederate dead?
CJ: In some cases, yes.
CK: That shit is creepy Jack.
JH: And once these new cemeteries were set up, the PR campaign to whitewash Confederate history had a staging ground. Right there besides the soldiers graves.
CJ: They're going to establish an annual day where they will all come and pay homage to their lost cause. These memorial days the women and children will decorate the graves with flowers, and other symbols of mourning.
CK: If you're imagining some sad ritual with grieving widows mourning their dead, it might have started out like that.
But these memorial services weren’t just about dead Confederate soldiers in the graveyard. They were also about free Black citizens in the voting booth. Because while the Confederacy was shedding tears over the end of slavery, the United States was officially in a period historians call Reconstruction.
The government is starting new programs like the Freedman’s Bureau to help black folks make the transition from enslaved to free people. Black folks are buying property, and voting. And they’re electing black representatives to legislatures.
And Confederates were pissed about that.
JH: So at these so called memorial services. You would also see something else.
CJ: Confederate soldiers, without insignia on - they're not allowed to wear their insignia in public anymore - march in parade formation to the local cemetery. And then there will be a speech.
JH: And it was here, among the bodies of their fallen men that the PR campaign kicked into overdrive.
The men who joined the women at the cemeteries would give a speech, and would trash Reconstruction and rail against this new Black political power. And when the speech was done, it would often conclude with a war whoop, the famous Rebel Yell.
[TAPE OF REBEL YELL]
JH: And then the ceremonies would be handed back over to the widows and their flowers.
CJ: And these women provide this platform--under the guise of mourning and that women are not political figures--that allows men to very much denounce what the United States government is doing at that particular moment.
CK: And while these memorial days were happening sometimes there were federal troops monitoring nearby. Imagine for a moment that you are one of them.
The war is over.It's been over for two years. But now you see thousands of confederate veterans in formation marching down the streets. They were celebrating treason. You can imagine how federal troops must have felt.
But when they spoke up about it, the confederates would provide an easy and cunning defense
CJ: These celebrations are in no way treasonous because this is just - it’s just women who are mourning their sons and brother and husbands.
These women are trying to keep the rebellion alive in the cities of the dead.
CK: For confederates the graveyard wasn’t just a place of mourning, it was a new battlefield. Here humiliated soldiers were honorable, and the mission of the Confederacy was just. But there was still more work that needed to be done.
The lost cause had a mission and a new battlefield. Now, they needed a leader.
DAVID BLIGHT: When Lee dies in 1870 his former officers, or some of them, began to develop this whole story this idea that Lee had been the greatest soldier in American history. That he had fought for home, that he was the great tactician, and on and on and on.
JH: That’s David Blight, Yale professor of History. Blight says that the elevation of Lee really took off when one of his generals, Jubal Early, began contributing to a journal called Southern Historical Society Papers.
DJ: That magazine they published is an absolute treasure trove of all these Lost Cause arguments.
JH: And Early’s work was also about making Lee into something bigger than a military hero, much bigger.
DB: It's the great Christian Soldier image of Lee which will take a few decades to develop fully, but eventually would even become a kind of a national mythology. This is martyrdom now that has to be understood in the context of a Christian society, you know, going right to the cross. The martyr is sacrificed for the cause.
JH: And the metaphor played perfectly in the solid Christian south. Lee died for the Cause, the cause was just, and the South will rise again. That was the message Jubal was spreading in his journal, but he wanted to go even more public. He wanted to go bigger and more unapologetic.
CK: So Jubal Early makes a move -- he calls for a statue of Robert E. Lee to be built in the streets of Richmond, Virginia.
Up until this point, it had been mainly women who were carrying this campaign. And now Early was telling them to fall back.
CJ: He essentially says to the women of the Ladies Memorial Associations, “Thank you for your help very much, you've done a great job but the men can take it from here.”
CK But Early had trouble raising the money he needed, and he quickly realized he did need the women’s help. Because fundraising was something they were especially good at .
CJ: They've married into these old Virginia families, or they're connected through their husband's political positions. So they are tied in both socially and economically to the ruling class in the South.
CK: Jubal and the women raised the money, and in 1890 a 60 foot statue of Robert E Lee was unveiled in Richmond.
JH: The campaign had moved from the graveyard to the streets. Its supporters could now preach that their soldiers were honorable, and their leaders were triumphant. The Lost Cause was now out in public, just like the Lee monument.
After the break, a new generation--even more pissed off than the last--picks up the Lost Cause narrative and takes it all the way to the big screen.
CK: The Ladies Memorial Associations had moved the Lost Cause campaign from the graveyard to the streets of Richmond.
And now a new generation of women was about to take over, and they were different. They felt they had been deprived of something they were entitled to.
KAREN COX: The younger generation feels like they missed out on the Old South. they didn’t get to be southern belles who had slaves waiting on them hand and foot. They had idealized the Old South.
CK: That’s Professor Karen Cox, author of Dreaming of Dixie.
And she says, besides feeling like they missed out on the Old South, they were angry.
KC: that their parents had been mistreated and that reconstruction was you know this horrible insult added to injury of defeat.
CK: And all of this made them more motivated, and more ambitious, than the Ladies Memorial Associations.
JH: In 1894, they started their own group, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, or the UDC.
And it was incredibly popular. The membership of the UDC would eventually swell to over 100,000 women.
And they set up monuments all across the south and all across the country. There are now more than 1500 confederate memorials, and many of them were funded by the UDC.
CK: By the turn of the century, they had command of the LC narrative, but the ugly reality of slavery was still a problem. What the Confederacy needed-- was a whole new history.
DB: A kind of pure narrative, a sort of pure story of innocence…
CK: Here’s David Blight.
DB: ...innocence from the evil of slavery.
CK: So the UDC started pushing their most audacious claim yet, that the Civil War wasn’t even about slavery.
JH: In this version, the South was fighting over a constitutional principle: states rights.
The only problem was -- before the war started the confederacy couldn't shut up about slavery
CK: And if you ever have any doubt about this stuff, you need to look at the Articles of Secession. Because this is where Confederates tell us exactly what they thought, in their own words.
JH: South Carolina wrote that it was was leaving because of quote, “an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery.”
CK: Mississippi said, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world. “
JH: Virginia said they were cutting out because of quote, “the oppression of the Southern Slaveholding States.”
CK: And Texas wrote in their declaration that they were leaving because governments North and South were quote, “established exclusively by the white race, and that the African race [was] rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race.”
JH: Georgia’s declaration of secession has 123 sentences in it; 35 have the word slavery. Guess how many talk about states rights. Zero.
And in case you need even more evidence. check out this quote from the Confederacy’s vice president Alexander Stephens — and please do a google search on Alexander Stephens because this guy looked like he was long past dead when he was alive.
Anyway, Stephens states outright that the entire point of the Confederacy rested on one truth, quote, “that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery – subordination to the superior race – is his natural and normal condition.” And then he added this: “our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
[MUSIC UP AND FADE DOWN]
CK:So how do you make the civil war about states rights, when any educated person can read that it was about slavery?
Easy. You re-educate them.
The United daughters of the Confederacy engaged in massive re-education programs on a national scale. They created a speakers bureau. They sent people out on the lecture circuit. And they created new groups--for kids.
KC: The Children of the Confederacy is another place where they can teach children the narrative: the Confederate catechism...
JH: That’s right, a catechism, like in a church, but a confederate catechism.
KC: ...written by members of the UDC and it's a call and response.
Leaders of the Children of the Confederacy would say, “why was the war fought?” And the children were supposed to say, “the war was fought over state's rights, not slavery.”
“Were masters cruel to their slaves?”
“No, they were kind to their slaves, a cruel master being rare” - that kind of thing.
JH: They didn’t stop there. The UDC sponsored contests for high school students and offered cash prizes for the best essays about the old south and its confederate heroes
They recruited teachers, and even served on public school boards.
KC: They are policing history books and textbooks early on. There's a real concern that the southern point of view is not being told and their experiences are misunderstood.
JH: As if that weren’t bad enough, they pushed this argument to something even more extreme. That slavery, was pretty good for black people. Actually, it was great!
In 1893, a magazine called Confederate veteran ran an editorial.
Here’s Caroline Janney.
CJ: There’s a little opinion piece that says we’ve heard enough of these stories from these Union veterans about how horrible slavery was. Let’s hear stories about your faithful mammies and other stories about slaves who supported the confederate cause. Let’s start hearing the bright side of slavery. And that’s their term, “the bright side.”
CK: These upbeat slave stories became a regular feature in the magazine: here’s one them, where a former slave meets a kindly confederate veteran.
He saw a faithful slave standing near a marble slab which marked his master’s grave. He lifted his hoary head and a tear coursed down his face. “O gent’man, sah, he said, ‘Twuz on dis spot, long time ago, One pleasent summah day, De Yankees shot po Massa Joe.”
CK: I don’t have to tell you, a black person never said this shit and only a white person could have written it.
JH: At this point, these stories of happy slaves were so successful that big companies jumped in on the action and started using them to brand their products. .
CJ: Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben -- those terms “aunt” and “uncle” are dismissive terms, they're derogatory terms, ways of referring to slaves. The notion being Aunt Jemima does the work for you: the pancake batter is already made. Uncle Ben makes the rice for you. So it becomes adopted into popular culture.
CK: And with Lost Cause propaganda spreading across the country, the North was warming to the idea of re-embracing the south. Associations of former soldiers started springing up… with the goal of bringing the two sides back together. Here’s David Blight again:
DB: The best or most visible example of that is with this 50th anniversary Blue - Grey reunion that was held at Gettysburg in 1913.
CK: That’s right a giant reunion between Confederate and Union soldiers.
DB: They brought over 50,000 veterans to the fields at Gettysburg for four days.
They paid the train fare of any veteran in the country.
CK: Well, not every veteran.
No black units were to be seen anywhere. There were no black veterans invited to it. This entire reunion was a Jim Crow reunion.
CK: Jim Crow, was the name for the statutes that made the separation of blacks and whites mandatory by law.
And that was the true reconciliation between the two sides. That was what they all agreed on.
DB: The white supremacy beneath it is right there, front and center in this Jim Crow reunion of the blue and the gray.
JH: Even the president was part of it.
DB: Woodrow Wilson came. And Wilson gave this incredible reconciliationist speech. He said the veterans of both sides could look into each other's eyes in brotherhood and love. The American Civil War was now the "quarrel forgotten."
JH: After this reunion it was as though the South had been forgiven. But that still wasn’t enough.
The Lost Cause supporters now proclaimed that the South had been right about black people all along. That they were a danger to a civilized nation, and they could only be suppressed with violence.
And that became the plot of the first great movie of the film era.
[TAPE OF BIRTH OF A NATION SOUNDTRACK]
JH: In 1915, the silent movie Birth of a Nation swept the country. It told the story of the Civil War from the confederate perspective. In it, white women are threatened by black men, only to be saved by the cavalry. The cavalry, was the KKK .
And it wasn’t just a popular movie, Birth of a Nation becomes the first box office smash hit
It was screened at the White House. President Woodrow Wilson loved it, and reportedly said, “It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”
[GONE WITH THE WIND MUSIC]
JH: By 1939, the Lost Cause story was one long romantic epic, with every theme and character worked out. The movie, Gone with the Wind, showed the world, the gritty southern belle, the honorable confederate soldiers, and the devoted mammy,
[GONE WITH THE WIND TAPE]
JH: With the Lost Cause in textbooks, on the breakfast table, and now at the movie theatres, it was much easier to get the message out to future generations.
Here’s Karen Cox again.
KC: The children that basically drank from the cup of the Lost Cause in the 1910s and the 1920s when they came of age and, you know, were adults in the 50s and 60s they were segregationists. They became members of the Citizens Councils, and that kind of thing gets repeated in generations going forward.
CK: When she says Citizens Councils she means white citizens councils. The alt –right of the mid 20th century. They were businessmen, politicians, and policemen who made sure that white supremacy was carried forward beyond symbols and into laws. And issues we’re still struggling with today, like voter suppression and school integration.
JH: And the other parts of the Lost Cause campaign that survive into our time, are the symbols of that confederate past: the monuments and the stars and bars flags.
And you see these symbols far outside the south now. On truck bumpers in Arizona, at roadside stands in rural Pennsylvania, and on front porches in New York state.
Here’s David Blight.
DB: Well if you think about it, if you need to find ubiquitous symbols of white supremacy you need to find a symbol of rebellion against the center, of rebellion against federal government, let’s remember. I mean arguably, you could say, “why doesn’t it just go away? It only lasted four years!” But the Confederacy is always there when somebody needs that sense of rebellion against the middle, the center, the government, or whatever the new norms are that you don't like. Where else do you look? The Confederacy is that thing.
JH: Uncivil is produced by Chris Neary, Chiquita Paschal, and Saidu Tejan Thomas. We had more help from MR Daniel. Our senior producer is Kimmie Regler. Editing by Caitlin Kenney, Jorge Just, and Pat Walters.
CK: Our show is mixed by Bobby Lord. The music for Uncivil was composed by Bobby Lord and Matthew Boll in collaboration with Ann Caldwell & The Magnolia Singers as well as Mt Zion AME Choir on Glebe Street in Charleston, SC.
We’d like to thank everyone in the lowcountry for a fantastic week of recording. Additional music features JC Brooks, Son Little, Rocko Walker, Haley Shaw and Saidu Tejan-Thomas.
JH: Fact Checking by Michelle Harris. Our secret weapon is Christopher Peak.
Special thanks to Tony Horwitz and Kate Macer. If you want to learn more about the Lost Cause, we recommend you check out Caroline Janney’s book: Burying the Dead and Not the Past: Ladies Memorial Associations and the Lost Cause; Karen Cox’s book Dreaming of Dixie; and David Blight’s Race and Reunion: The Civil War In American Memory.
CK: Uncivil is a production of Gimlet Media. Our website is uncivil dot show. We’re on Twitter and Facebook at Uncivil Show. Don’t forget to join our facebook group, Uncivil Podcast.
JH: I’m Jack Hitt.
CK: I’m Chenjerai Kumanyika.
JH: ON NEXT WEEK’S EPISODE OF UNCIVIL:
CK: We’ll see you next week.