• Christy Hyman

The Ideological Pillars of White Supremacy


Iconography and celebratory commemoration shape the public memory of the Civil War and bind communities together under “shared” ideals. For Confederate Memorial Associations (CMAs), controlling the interpretation of the Civil War was tied to their organization’s existence and future. Through monuments and community celebration they created a shared stake in the Confederate legacy and these events helped to legitimize the power and position of Confederate collective memory.

A binding ideology, whether based in fact or fantasy is useful to organizations such as CMAs because it alleviates dissent and potentially quells anti-confederate activism. However the erasure of black identity in regards to citizenship and lived experience of the Civil War period creates a problem by obscuring the struggles inherent in gaining freedom, one fought by African Americans not only between 1860-1865 but since the first Afrodescendant captive stepped foot in North America.

The object of this piece is to briefly examine the ideals that culminated in the creation of Confederate Memorial Associations. Opposition to the Confederate iconography began in the late 1990s from Carol Mosely Braun as well as the NAACP. Their pressure put CMAs in a defensive posture to protect their historical heritage. Ultimately the iconography of Confederate statues was a show of force in sculpted form- a reminder to African Americans of a troubling history built on the total subjugation of African Americans as CMAs continue seeking to advance their organization in the new millennium.

The ideological pillar upholding Confederate memory is the Lost Cause. By far the Lost Cause ideology advocated by CMAs is one of the most pervasive interpretations to have seeped into American history. This is largely due to the fervor of its early proponents. The south had arguably been advocating in defense of its “institutions” through proslavery rhetoric well before the Civil War so it is hardly a surprise that soon after the war its scribes immediately began forming the Lost Cause interpretation of the war’s history.[1] When the foremost unreconstructed ex-Confederate asked the question, “Shall we permit the indictment to go forth in the world and to posterity without a vindication of our motives and conduct?” -it was answered with an emphatic no.[2] The purpose of the Lost Cause ideology was to vindicate and to serve as an ideological framework. Its widespread dissemination was accomplished through a combination of mediums: the power of the printed word immediately after the war and commemoration through monument building.

Through printed mediums southerners could assert their cause and gain a wide readership in the process. With an eye on the legacy of popular memory the southern scribes crafted the Lost Cause legacy into a romanticized southern epic that would prove to resonate with white Americans north and south.[3]

The tenets of the Lost Cause ideology rested on the belief that slavery was not the issue of war (which cleansed it from the moral transgression of that institution as well as marginalized the importance of emancipation), that abolitionists were meddlesome provocateurs interfering in southerner’s affairs, that the overwhelming numbers of Union soldiers caused their defeat, and the southern landscape was an idealized home front where Confederate soldiers were valiant men of honor and the women genteel southern belles.[4]

Although the Lost Cause acknowledges defeat, it was a loss exercised with great honor. The overwhelming numbers that Union forces had over soldiers of the south was the reason for defeat, not any dereliction of duty on the part of Confederate soldiers. The slaves were “happy, servile, and childlike.” They “loved” their plantation masters and “benefited” from the moral conduct gained through arduous toil on the plantation. Enslaved people, according to the Lost Cause view, were corrupted only when abolitionists and Union forces lured them away with the “demon” of freedom. Essentially, African Americans were their best when under the careful paternalistic subjugation of a white planter class.

Another significant element of the Lost Cause ideology was the veneration of Robert E. Lee. Lee’s military prowess as well as moral character propelled him into the vanguard of military commanders. He possessed the attributes of chivalry, honor and discipline that Lost Cause scribes highlighted as inherent characteristics in confederate soldiers and (later in ku klux klan members). One of those former lieutenant generals, Jubal Early was an ardent admire of Lee early on. When the moment came shortly after the war for Jubal Early to offer his reminiscences on military histories within his command he gladly obliged. For Early, the request coming from Robert E. Lee himself made the undertaking all the more pressing. Mr. Early was glad to write the history of the conflict from a southern point of view and with great prescience he knew that these recollections would influence future generations in understanding the confederate cause. Jubal Early went on to become one of the most strident advocates of maintaining a confederate-approved history and published “A Memoir of the Last Year of the War for Independence,” the first book by a leading general on either side thereby blazing the trail for published Lost Cause military scholarship

As confederates continued in writing their reminiscences after the Civil War, the southern landscape changed rapidly before their eyes. Those who tied their wealth to human chattel had to develop new pathways to financial prosperity. Landless white men who’d never owned slaves found themselves on the same citizenship footing as the freedmen. Additionally the occupation of federal troops, creation of the Freedmen’s Bureau, and adoption of the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments forced southerners to confront the reality of a changed world.

It is at this juncture that the formation of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, Sons of Confederate Veterans and soon the Ku Klux Klan would create a heritage complex that persists to this day.

The breaking of images, of the Confederate monuments in recent months highlight a climate of increased awareness and opposition to Confederate iconography. CMAs looking to survive into the future will have to revisit new methods to bind communities together as the existing ideological framework has been literally taken down.

[1] James W. Loewen and Edward H. Sebesta, eds., The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader: The “Great Truth” about the “Lost Cause”(Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2010), 22-90

[2] Gallagher, Gary W. Nolan and Alan T., eds.m The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000), 11-31

[3] Ex-Confederates writing their reminiscences became a method of vindication- A major printed medium, The Southern Historical Society Papers can be accessed online at http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3atext%3a2001.05.0001

[4] Gallagher, Gary W. Nolan and Alan T., eds.m The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000),11-31


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