We Legitimize the ‘So-Called’ Confederacy With Our Vocabulary, and That’s a Problem, say some historians

Historians in the News
tags: Jim Crow, Civil War, Confederacy, Confederate Monuments

Christopher Wilson is Director of the African American History Program and Experience and Program Design at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. He has created several major program series at the Smithsonian including the award-winning educational theater program History Alive!, the National Youth Summit, and the History Film Forum.

As the debate escalates over how we publicly remember the Civil War following the tragic events in Charlottesville, Virginia, the passionate and contentious disputes have centered on symbols like monuments, street names and flags. According to a study by the Southern Poverty Law Center, at least 1,503 symbols to the Confederacy are displayed in public spaces, mostly in the South and the Border States, but even in decidedly Yankee locales like Massachusetts. Most of these monuments sprang from the Lost Cause tradition that developed in the wake of the war, during the establishment of white supremacist Jim Crow laws around 1900, and as a response to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Those artifacts are not the only way we legitimize and honor the deadly and racist 19th-century rebellion against the United States. Much of the language used in reference to the Civil War glorifies the rebel cause.

The language we turn to in describing the war, from speaking of compromise and plantations, to characterizing the struggle as the North versus the South, or referring to Robert E. Lee as a General, can lend legitimacy to the violent, hateful and treasonous southern rebellion that tore the nation apart from 1861 to 1865; and from which we still have not recovered. Why do we often describe the struggle as between two equal entities? Why have we shown acceptance of the military rank given by an illegitimate rebellion and unrecognized political entity? In recent years, historians in academia and in the public sphere have been considering these issues.

Historian Michael Landis suggests professional scholars should seek to change the language we use in interpreting and teaching history. He agrees with people like legal scholar Paul Finkelman and historian Edward Baptist when they suggest the Compromise of 1850 be more accurately referred to as an Appeasement. The latter word precisely reflects the sway that Southern slaveholders held in the bargain. Landis goes on to suggest that we call plantations what they really were—slave labor camps; and drop the use of the term, “the Union.” A common usage in the 19th century to be sure, but now one we only use “the Union” in reference to the Civil War and on the day of the State of the Union address. A better way to speak of the nation during the war, he argues, is to use its name, the United States.

In the same way, we could change the way we refer to secessionist states. When we talk of the Union versus the Confederacy, or especially when we present the strife as the North versus the South, we set up a parallel dichotomy in which the United States is cast as equal to the Confederate States of America. But was the Confederacy really a nation and should we refer to it as such? ...

Read entire article at Smithsonian

comments powered by Disqus