Opinion | Why Was It So Hard for Nikki Haley to Say “Slavery”? Civil War History Has the Answer

This morning, Haley qualified the comment on a radio show called “The Pulse of New Hampshire,” and followed the clean-up job with a press release, stating: “Of course the Civil War was about slavery. We know that. That’s unquestioned, always the case. We know the Civil War was about slavery. But it was also more than that. It was about the freedoms of every individual. It was about the role of government.”

But as Haley must know — after all, as governor of South Carolina, she presided over the
removal of Confederate flags from the Statehouse
— many Americans do question the fundamental fact that slavery precipitated the Civil War, and her equivocation played into a long-standing agenda to rewrite American history. Haley was effectively parroting the Lost Cause mythology, a revisionist school of thought born in the war’s immediate aftermath, which whitewashed the Confederacy’s cornerstone interest in raising arms to preserve slavery. Instead, a generation of Lost Cause mythologists chalked the war up to a battle over political abstractions like states’ rights.

With red states
doing battle with American history
, seeking to erase the legacy of violence and inequality that counterbalance the great good also inherent in our national story, it’s worth revisiting the rise of the Lost Cause, not just to remember how damaging it was, but to confront just how damaging it still is.

In the immediate aftermath of the war, the work of interpreting the rebellion fell to a small group of unreconstructed rebels. The pioneers of Confederate revisionism included wealthy and influential veterans of the Confederacy like Jubal Early, B. T. Johnson, Fitz Lee and W. P. Johnson, who helped formulate the Lost Cause myth that would take hold by the 1880s.

The narrative strains were simple. They painted a picture of Southern chivalry — mint juleps, magnolias and moonlight — that stood in sharp contrast with the North, a region marked by avarice, grinding capitalism and poverty. The rebellion, by this rendering, had been a legal response to the North’s assault on states’ rights — not a violent insurrection to preserve chattel slavery. Even Confederate veterans like Hunter McGuire knew that to admit the war had been about slavery would “hold us degraded rather than worthy of honor … our children, instead of revering their fathers will be secretly, if not openly, ashamed.”

The myth gained steamed by the end of the century, largely because of the work of organizations like the United Confederate Veterans (UCV), the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) and the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), groups that offered a compelling story that people could wrap their minds around — including many Northerners, who were eager to put the war behind them. Because the Lost Cause emphasized heroism and honor over slavery, it venerated military figures like Robert E. Lee and swept politicians like Jefferson Davis under the rug. So it was that in May 1890 over 100,000 citizens gathered in Richmond for the dedication of a statue of Lee.

The decade saw hundreds of towns across the former Confederacy raise similar monuments to their heroes and war dead. These marble and steel memorials were often planted in town squares and by county courthouses to help sanitize not only Confederate memory but the new Jim Crow order. After all, if secession had been a noble thing, so was the separation of the races.

The signs of revisionism ranged from subtle to clear. During the war, for instance, Confederate soldiers had keenly embraced the term “reb,” but the new gatekeepers of Southern memory abandoned the term. “Was your father a Rebel and a Traitor?” asked a typical leaflet. “Did he fight in the service of the Confederacy for the purpose of defeating the Union, or was he a Patriot, fighting for the liberties granted him under the Constitution, in defense of his native land, and for a cause he knew to be right?” Equally important was figuring out what to even call the war. It couldn’t be the “Civil War,” which sounded too revolutionary. It couldn’t be “the War of Rebellion” which smacked of treason. In the late 1880s, the UCV and UDC approved resolutions designating the conflict that killed 750,000 Americans the “War Between the States.” The term stuck for generations to come.

It wasn’t just Southerners who suffered willful memory loss in these years. Jaded by the experience of Reconstruction and in the thrall of rising scientific racism, many Northerners were equally eager to remember the war as a brothers’ quarrel over politics rather than a struggle over slavery and Black rights. The jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who began the war as a committed abolitionist, later erased the roots of the conflict and celebrated the battlefield valor of both Union and Confederate troops. “The faith is true and adorable which leads a soldier to throw away his life in obedience to a blindly accepted duty,” he said, “in a cause which he little understands, in a plan of campaign of which he has little notion, under tactics of which he does not see the use.”

Of course, historians agree that most Union troops did know why they were fighting. So did Holmes. But years after the fact, he was willing to forget. As were tens of thousands of veterans who attended Blue and Gray reunions well into the 20th century, including a massive camp gathering of 25,000 people who gathered at Crawfish Springs, Georgia, in 1889, near the Chickamauga Battlefield, for a picnic and public speeches. These mass spectacles helped Yankees and Confederates rewrite the history of the 1850s and 1860s, ostensibly in the service of national reunion and regeneration, but also in a way that fundamentally reinforced the emerging culture and politics of Jim Crow.

The Lost Cause mythology was more than bad history. It provided the intellectual justification for Jim Crow — not just in the former Confederacy, but everywhere systemic racism denied Black citizens equal citizenship and economic rights. Its dismantling began only in the 1960s when historians inspired by the modern Civil Rights Movement revisited the era of the Civil War and Reconstruction, adopting the views of earlier Black scholars like W.E.B. DuBois and John Hope Franklin, who always knew what the war was about and had shined a spotlight on the agency of Black and white actors alike.

That’s why the recent retreat to Lost Cause mythos is troubling. One would think that a Republican candidate for the presidency might be proud of the party’s roots as a firmly antislavery organization that dismantled the “Peculiar Institution” and fomented a critical constitutional revolution during Reconstruction — one that truly made the country more free.

With GOP presidential candidates waffling on the Civil War, rejecting history curricula in their states and launching political fusillades against “woke” culture, it remains for the rest of us to reaffirm the wisdom of Frederick Douglass, who in the last years of his life stated: “Death has no power to change moral qualities. What was bad before the war, and during the war, has not been made good since the war. … Whatever else I may forget, I shall never forget the difference between those who fought for liberty and those who fought for slavery.”

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