Glenn W. LaFantasie: And If Gen. Lee Hadn't Surrendered at Appomattox

Roundup: Talking About History

[Glenn W. LaFantasie is the Richard Frockt Family Professor of Civil War History and Director of the Institute for Civil War Studies at Western Kentucky University. His most recent book is "Gettysburg Heroes: Perfect Soldiers, Hallowed Ground" (Indiana University Press, 2008).]

There was a time in the not so distant past when Americans could safely assume that the Civil War, which claimed 620,000 Northern and Southern lives, resulted in two immutable outcomes: It forever settled the issue that secession was illegal, and it forever abolished the institution of slavery.

Lately, though, those truisms seem not to have been written in stone. Ironically, it’s the Republican Party -- the party of Lincoln and the Northern victors -- that has voiced challenges to the old received wisdom about the legacies of the Civil War. In Texas, Gov. Rick Perry has openly spoken about secession (and opting out of -- in other words, nullifying -- federal programs such as Medicaid); Rand Paul, the Tea Party/Republican senator-elect from Kentucky, has questioned whether the Civil Rights Act of 1964 should have been passed; and a variety of Republicans have argued that the 14th Amendment, or at least a portion of it, should be rescinded.

While some of these political stands might be momentary posturing for the sake of the 2010 midterm elections, these Republican/Red State/Tea Party positions raise again the specter of the Civil War at the very moment when the nation stands ready to commemorate the sesquicentennial of that event. It’s as if the South, the purest of the Red States, didn’t lose the Civil War at all. Or put another way: The Confederacy, often depicted on maps as Red States (as opposed to Union Blue), may have lost the fighting -- forcing Robert E. Lee to surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, on April 9, 1865 -- but the social and political values of those Red States live on, nurtured and sustained in a Republican Party that often sounds more Confederate in its ideology than Jefferson Davis, the first and only president of the Confederate States of America.

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