To Be Continued, or Who Lost the Civil War?

Roundup
tags: Civil War, Confederacy, Confederate Monuments



Keenan Norris, a guest editor for the Oxford African American Studies Center, teaches at Evergreen Valley College. His novel "Brother and the Dancer" won the 2012 James D. Houston Award. His most recent book, forthcoming from Northwestern University Press, is "Born by the River: Richard Wright, Barack Obama, and 'Chi-Raq.' "


“The victors write the histories,” so the maxim goes. What then to make of the fact that, until recently, the Confederate flag flew over the South Carolina State House and memorial statues to Robert E. Lee and other Confederate generals still decorate public lands throughout the South? Either the maxim is incorrect, or these symbols do not hold the power we believe they do, or the Southern secessionists that declared their separation from the Union, thus bringing about the American Civil War, did not, in fact, lose. And if the losers didn’t lose, then who won and who lost?

The possibility that the victors do not necessarily write the histories is an interesting one. Today, histories and counter-histories and counters to the counter-histories can be found in most libraries and on the internet. Yet the basic truth that the victors enjoy the spoils and the heroic history books is supported, most obviously, by our historical record. Begin with the language of that record. The works of Herodotus and Livy, C. L. R. James and W. E. B. Du Bois, Studs Terkel and Svetlana Alexievich are not written in the tongues of the defeated. We do not read about Hannibal’s valiant refusal to be a friend to Rome in his native Punic, nor about Toussaint L’Ouverture’s revolutionary cause in Haitian Creole, nor are Alexievich’s incredible interviews on Russia’s ongoing conflict with Chechen rebels conducted in Chechen. Moreover, the histories that have been legitimated by widely acclaimed literature and film — that have been canonized — have tended toward a heroic vision of the victors. Plutarch does not remember Alexander the Great as a bloodthirsty psychopath bent on successive genocides, nor does Gary Sinise portray Harry S. Truman as a simple-minded destroyer of worlds, though the subjugated histories of the raped, pillaged, and atom-bombed would probably have told a different tale about them. ...

The victors do, in fact, write the initial and most powerfully influential histories of every conflict, whether between warring armies or warring ideologies. And, when it comes to war, that history begins not with books or movies, but with the terms of peace treaties, the force of occupation, and the redrawing of borders.

Is the rebel flag an impotent symbol? Do the monuments maintained to the greatness of Confederate generals not hold persistent emotional power? There would be no petitions and no protests calling to bring those symbols down if that were the case. White supremacists and neo-Nazis would not be clashing with Antifa in pitched battles in broad daylight if no one cared. The #NoConfederate Twitter movement would not exist because the idea for an HBO show, which the Twitter movement protests, about the historical “what if” of a Confederate victory in the Civil War, would never have been considered potentially lucrative enough to bring to primetime in the first place, let alone to endure such a sustained negative public backlash if these symbols were just ugly gift-shop kitsch.

The explanation that comes closest to the truth is the most counterintuitive. The rebel flag has flown for so long and still populates pickup truck back windows and red, white, and blue bikini sets, while Southern tax dollars have for all these years been spent on the upkeep of memorials to Confederate generals both brilliant and mediocre alike, because the power brokers in the American South, despite having been vanquished in the Civil War, nevertheless maintained many of the fundamentals of the society that Abraham Lincoln’s election had so threatened. The Union won the war, but that doesn’t mean the Southern elites lost. In fact, while they did not win a conventional military victory, Davis, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Nathan Bedford Forrest, and the plantation owners and whip crackers they represented succeeded beyond their intents. By declaring themselves a nation-state and thus taking the ideological offensive after Lincoln’s election, they forced the North to fight over the matter of secession, rather than the dismantlement of plantation serfdom. Ultimately, the secessionists waged a war so deeply intimate that their adversaries dared not purge them from the body politic and so easily elegized that its symbols live on like Stalin T-shirts in Siberia. Meanwhile, the Southern strategy of slowing the advance of progressive legislation long after their side has lost lives on with persistent effectiveness.




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