History, we are told, is written by the winners. In the South it has largely been written by the losers.
I know one version of that history well. I was steeped in it. Three of my direct ancestors served in Hood’s Brigade of the Confederate army. They did not fight for slavery, I was taught, but for states’ rights. As President Roosevelt said at the dedication of the Robert E. Lee statue in Dallas in 1936, their nobility and sacrifice should be celebrated.
That might be called the Cavalier version.
There is another version of Southern history. My father called it the Neanderthal version.
We have seen it on display in Charlottesville. We have seen it in Dallas. It holds that America is a white country. Sometimes they say a white Christian country, and we all know why they add the extra word. It is a very old strain in our history, predating the Civil War. It has been at various times anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, anti-Chinese, anti-Irish, anti-Italian, anti-Japanese, anti-Hispanic, anti-Muslim, and at all times, anti-black. In this version, the War of Northern Oppression destroyed an order ordained by God. Its half-baked theories about racial purity percolate through the 20th century and into our own.
To those not raised in the white South—to those raised in the black South or in the North—these two white Southern versions of history, living side by side, each either contemptuous or resentful of the other, are hard to distinguish. Perhaps the true lost cause is trying to maintain the distinction.
The Cavalier version of nobility and sacrifice on which I was raised and to which almost everyone I knew subscribed is a myth, a romantic gloss over the cold reality. The Civil War was fought over economics; the Southern way of life depended on the free labor of others.
Slavery was as real an evil as has ever been seen on the face of the earth. In the war’s aftermath, true sacrifice would have been humility; true nobility would have been repentance. Instead we got segregation and statues.
Let the dead bury the dead. The only generation that matters now is the future one. The intentions of past generations in erecting the statues, whether noble or defiant, are irrelevant. They are symbolic of new meanings now. Those are meanings that are as repugnant to the common history we have endured as they are dangerous to the common future we can build.
The statues must come down.