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979px-Lee_Surrendered,_Albany_Journal,_10_Apr_1865

The history of the American Civil War is very much about memory and, in recent years, the construction and contestation of this memory has played out on social media platforms like Twitter. While this presents an opportunity for those who wish to promote dangerous or inaccurate historical myths, Twitter also provides a platform for historians to challenge historical inaccuracies. For the past few years, I’ve used Twitter to challenge one iteration of such mythmaking: Confederate Heritage Month.

The end of Reconstruction in 1877 and the rise of the southern revisionist history of the war––the Lost Cause––created the conditions that permit Americans to wave both the U.S. flag and the Confederate States of America’s battle flag. The celebration of the latter—a physical representation of slavery and treason—allows some to treat former Confederates as heroes and not members of a failed slavers’ insurrection. One example of such celebrations is “Confederate Heritage Month”, typically marked every April by several former secessionist states.

Slavery, despite secessionist states claiming it as the cause for their rebellion, has largely been removed from the narrative of the rebellion in these celebrations. Instead of discussing slavery and treason, many champion “states’ rights” and the alleged battlefield prowess of Confederate generals. Indeed, the Lost Cause began a purposeful skewing of history by defeated Confederates to recast the Confederacy as having fought a noble fight for states’ rights. It is important to remember that secessionist states left the Union for the right to own slaves. The Lost Cause also makes Southerners into victims of Northern aggression––which is of course a lie. This skewed narrative ultimately downplays the fact that the U.S. military won key battles and eventually brought the rebellion to its metaphorical knees.

Memory of the Civil War affords opportunities to defeat the Lost Cause. As some communities remove Confederate statues––most emplaced during America’s Jim Crow period––as a military historian, it is important for me to take on the myth of Confederate military prowess. Statues to Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, to name a few, present them as heroes, when in fact leaders such as these lost the pivotal battles to the U.S. Army and committed treason. Lee in particular is problematic as the aura of his supposed military genius is used to obscure his past as a brutal slave owner, who broke his oath to the United States to fight in the rebellion.

Confederate Heritage Month is a celebration of the American Civil War from deep within the Lost Cause. Since 1994, in former secessionist states––particularly Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, and previously in Virginia––Confederate Heritage Month has celebrated those who fought for the Confederate States of America. State legislatures and leaders purposefully misconstrue the failed slavers’ rebellion as some glorious cause for freedom and states’ rights. In 2016, Mississippi celebrated that vile cause in April.

In 2016 after a conversation on Twitter, fellow historian B.J. Armstrong urged me to push back against Confederate Heritage Month by tweeting a Confederate defeat for each of April’s thirty days. As he accurately mentioned, there were plenty of defeats from which to choose. I accepted his challenge and what began as a simple, one-month only reminder that the Confederacy lost numerous battles, and ultimately the war, has now became a yearly ritual.

At this point I should note that I am an academically-trained historian of the Vietnam War. Yet, as a military historian, I take some joy is using battles to expose the myths surrounding the Confederacy. By spotlighting battles, I am able to demonstrate that the so-called Confederacy did not have better leadership, soldiers, or any lasting victory. Since 2016, I have dedicated myself to a yearly counter-celebration every April. I pair each day with a Confederate battlefield defeat. The first year I focused on Mississippi. I covered Georgia in 2017. In 2018, I changed things up by addressing how U.S. military installations are named after Confederates while listing a defeat. 2019 proved my most popular celebration as I paired Southerners who remained loyal to the United States with a Confederate military defeat.

The majority of the responses to my celebration are positive. Some fellow historians also now join in my challenging of the Lost Cause in April. Most of the negative responses, which are few, come from Neo-Confederates. Since Neo-Confederates are largely averse to academic responses to their feelings-as-arguments approach to understanding the Civil War, interactions with them are brief. In the end, although rife with sarcasm, I am producing educational content.

Tweets are a great way to deliver concise, accessible statement. And if, as Mississippi’s Republican Governor Tate Reeves recently proclaimed, Confederate Heritage Month is about learning lessons, then those lessons should include that the Confederacy led a traitorous rebellion against the United States, did so in the name of slavery, and was thoroughly defeated on the battlefield. The efforts of historians to correct the myths of the Confederacy remain far from over. Historians presented arguments against the existence of Confederate monuments in public spaces, resulting in the removal of some. Yet, Lost Cause symbols and rhetoric remain in the continued influence of the Sons of Confederate Veterans organization and the continuance of Confederate Heritage Month in Mississippi.

Rob Thompson is a historian at the Army University Press. His book on pacification in the Vietnam War is forthcoming with Oklahoma University Press. He tweets at @DrRobThompson and his 2020 Confederate Heritage Month counter-celebration thread can be found here and you can find last year’s thread here.

Cover image: Lee Surrendered, Albany Journal, 10 Apr 1865.

Tags : American historymemoryremembrance
Rob Thompson

The author Rob Thompson

15 Comments

  1. So Sir:
    What are you saying is while the colonies had the right to leave the British Empire the separate states for whatever reason did not have the right to separate from the other states to form in their opinion ” a more perfect union”?

  2. I celebrated “Confederate Heritage Month” this year by reading The Killer Angels, Ron Chernow’s biography of Ulysses S. Grant, and a little book of Lincoln speeches

  3. Whenever we feel a little bit rebellious we’re doing our part to celebrate the rebellion of the southern Confederacy.

  4. Awesome! I agree with the ideas presented here. States rights…the right to own another human being.

  5. Please don’t forget to mention why many Northerners fought in the war. If you say it was to end slavery guess again.

  6. You seem to forget that the ‘great father’ , Lincoln didn’t seek the elimination of slavery. Read his 1860 inaugural address.

  7. Your context is not there. Start with President Lincoln and his thoughts on the war.
    Are you an American, because this is a British publication and school.
    What is your intention?

  8. For a supposed military historian he got most of his facts wrong. Less than 10% of the population owned slaves or could even afford to. The Vietnam equivalent would be a person volunteering to fight in Vietnam to protect someone’s right to make themselves rich by making weapons. Why would I volunteer to go to war so you can make yourself rich?

    1. They were all American’s. I feel the North did the right thing but with that said I can see why people respect Robert E. Lee. It was a different time back then. The majority of the Southern army were not slave owners. I have respect for all the soldiers of that war.

  9. Once again a supposed historian claiming the war was about slavery. It was about states rights as well as economic issues. The main income for the US at the time was the sale overseas of cotton and then the reimportation of goods. The north then reallocated the taxes gained for you improvements in the north (rail, canals, roads etc.) Also remember that for a long time a southerner had to have four slaves to claim a single person on taxes while those in northern leaning states only had to claim two. Also, and the biggest flaw in your argument: when Lincoln issued his emancipation proclamation it only freed slaves in those states that had succeeded from the Union. What about those slave holding states that hadn’t such as Kentucky or West Virginia? Hell the 14th amendment only came about as a way for Lincoln to try and hold his own Republican party together or face another split that the country could I’ll afford.

    Please get your facts right before spouting off revisionist history.

  10. If Lincoln was determined to free the slaves, then why did his emancipation proclamation only free the slaves in the states that formed the Confederacy? There were a great many slaves in the rest of the country.

  11. You are making it sound as tho the confederates fought mainly for slavery. Yet in Richmond at the Civil War museum they specifically said that the south succeeded because of mainly states rights and taxes. Most of the Johnny Rebs didn’t even own slaves. So no offense but I thank you need to look at the old history books before these Democrats made it look the way it is today. Fun fact after the war the union destroyed the south. Lincoln only freed slaves to get more support. The union even had slaves. So next time make sure you have all the information and not only the yanks side of it.

  12. I don’t understand your unsupported ascertion of treason. The Constitution allowed secession. Those states seceded and formed their own country. That is not treason. The Union attacked the CSA, hence northern aggression. Heros defended their new country against Invaders. Slavery has existed throughout world history and the economy of the CSA was entwined with slavery. Slavery is wrong and should have been ended. However northern aggression and destruction of the neighboring country (CSA) was not the appropriate solution.

  13. If you disagree with my piece, I highly suggest reading the articles and ordinances of secession produced by would be Confederate states. Read the Confederacy’s constitution. Slavery is at the core of secession. Whataboutisms do not change the fact that the United States defeated a Confederate rebellion, ending the American institution of slavery in the process. Confederates fought to preserve that institution whether they knew it or not. Some non-slave owning Southern white men aspired to one day own slaves, as they looked up to the elite planation owners––the very ones that led them into rebellion.

    Confederate constitution: https://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/csa_csa.asp
    Mississippi’s declaration of secession: https://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/csa_missec.asp

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