The Civil War has never been won. As a historical fact, of course, the Civil War ended on April 9, 1865 but no one can reasonably say that the hostilities ceased on that date. The Civil War did not end with Lincoln’s assassination on April 14 or the formation of the Ku Klux Klan on Christmas Eve of that year. The Civil War did not end in July of 1866 when a riot killed 150 people in New Orleans, or in 1877 when the last of the Federal troops pulled out of the south and ended reconstruction and with it any attempt to create a racially just society in the former confederacy. The latest murmur of historical memory comes from John Kelly, Donald Trump’s chief of staff and a retired four star Marine general. In an interview with Laura Ingram Kelly said,
I would tell you that Robert E. Lee was an honorable man. He was a man that gave up his country to fight for his state, which, 150 years ago, was more important than country. It was always loyalty to state first back in those days. Now it’s different today. But the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War. And men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand where their conscience had to make their stand.”
Kelly is articulating what has become a “lost cause” narrative of the Civil War that is popular amongst a surprisingly large group of Americans, including, it seems, his boss. Kelly’s “honorable people” dodge resembles his boss’s own “both sides” argument made after the neo-Nazi violence in Charlottesville earlier this summer. Similar to the creationist “argument” for intelligent design, this rhetorical device is intended for one purpose, to muddy the waters on the issue and absolve wrongdoing of intellectual or political responsibility. As many historians have written before, the Civil War was fought over one issue, slavery. Every Confederate state’s articles of secession mention slavery as the paramount issue and the Vice President of the confederacy, Alexander Stephens, said, “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas [as racial equality]; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.” Tariffs, states rights, etc. were not discernible causes for the conflict.
The centrality of anti-black racism that undergirded slavery was so profound that it could survive unchanged and retrench itself after such a massive political cataclysm as the Confederacy’s defeat. Even after the biblical violence-newer estimates put the death toll at 750,000 men- where the entire economy of the south was destroyed, the elites of the era embraced a concerted effort of terrorism and racial violence as a way to undermine advances made by African Americans. In spite of the violence done to their cities and citizens there was no price the south did not seem willing to pay to retain their ideology of racial superiority. The south endured their suffering because in the end they were able to tell a story of southern Redemption, a story of an out of control federal government, of African Americans undeserving of political rights and an oppressed poor white majority held in bondage by these two nefarious factions. “Lost Cause” mythology, as it is now known, told a moving tale of southern charm and hospitality, stately grace and manners, of dastardly blacks and blue devils on horse back terrorizing helpless southern citizens. What this story does, however, is act as a back door for low down bitter anti-black racism to enter into and fester inside our political language. Anti-black racism cloaked in lost cause-ism has become such a permanent feature of our political life that we have stopped hearing its pernicious double think. Slave-holders and traitors become, “honorable men”, murdered black children get called in the media, “thugs.”
John Kelly, and more importantly his boss Donald Trump, partakes of this tradition of lost cause-ism and refracted racial dog whistling. While Trump’s language is more nakedly crude than past Republican politicians, the anti-black racism is right at home in modern conservatism. America’s ‘founding sin’ was slavery and in many respects anti-black racism is the defining animus of so many of our political decisions, a ghost in the machine, rattling around and popping up in surprising places, in issues of policing and housing and education and the environment. Trump and Kelly didn’t invent racism, but are instead the latest exemplars of a vicious and lost cause.
Image courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Collections