- The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader: The "Great Truth" about the "Lost Cause."
James Loewen has been debunking myths about American history for some time, and now he teams up with Edward Sebesta to rattle from their roost all those Confederates still in attics thinking that secession and states' rights were, and are, a noble cause. They do so with a telling array of documents that reveals hard truths about what the Confederacy really fought for and what the "Lost Cause" mythology has concealed about the harshness of slavery, the cause and character of the Civil War, the unfinished promise of Reconstruction, and more. The dominant theme coursing through the book is Americans' persistent, and almost willful, ignorance about basic facts regarding the reasons for secession, the place of blacks in the Civil War, the violent and virulent racism during and after Reconstruction, and the misuse and abuse of history by "neo-Confederates" and others trading in prejudices and hatreds. The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader is Loewen's and Sebesta's mission to set the record straight. It also is their hope to introduce teachers and other readers to the historiographical evolution of the aforementioned concerns. And it is their warning that Americans must know the truth to set themselves free from those who would misuse and abuse the past.
In six document-rich chapters the editors combine cogent commentary and critical documents, spanning the time from the drafting of the U.S. Constitution in 1787 to Sonny Perdue's March 2008 "Confederate History Month Proclamation." The editors largely draw on the public record (e.g., speeches, sermons, editorials, public letters, manifestos, political cartoons) to make the case that white southerners unabashedly fought for slavery [End Page 120] and to keep the South a white man's country. The book's emphasis centers on the Civil War era and then on modern appropriation and exploitation of symbols and myths largely forged during and after Reconstruction by white apologists for slavery, secession, the overthrow of Reconstruction governments, and the submission of blacks to white rule. Of special interest is the editors' insistence on the modern distortion, even inversion, of basic truths about the reasons for secession. As the documents from southern legislatures and secession conventions, among others, unequivocably show, white southerners left the Union to protect slavery's interest, which they believed the federal government had failed to respect and which the actions of free state governments had threatened. In sum, states' rights was not the cause of secession because southern slaveholders rejected its legitimacy regarding slavery when northern states refused to return fugitive slaves or otherwise obstructed southern "rights." They wanted more federal power, not less, to save slavery. States' rights became a crutch after the war when white southerners sought to justify their rebellion and failed bid for independence. But, as the editors complain, the postwar fiction has transmuted into accepted "fact" over time so that today those distrusting government invoke the "noble cause" of states' rights for their own purposes and cast the rebels of 1860-61 and after as the precursors of libertarians and any number of advocates for scaling back and opposing the federal government. The editors amply document such "evolution" with documents from the Dixiecrats, White Citizens' Councils, recent "textbooks" written by neo-Confederates, and public statements by white supremacists.
Readers will find Loewen and Sebesta at times angry, impatient, and frustrated as they compare the facts with subsequent distortions or subversions of those facts. But theirs is a mission of great urgency, for as they argue in concluding this uncommonly useful and timely anthology, "There is a reciprocal relationship between truth about the past and justice in the present" (393). And what better time than the sesquicentennial of the Civil War to reflect on that great truth? And, one might add, what better time to hope for a reckoning of the obligations regarding that truth? That the University Press of Mississippi...