Continuing with the theme of history following last week’s article on the Sam Davis statue, we will more closely examine the role of the Lost Cause Movement and its effect on Tennessee.
Following their defeat in the Civil War, Southern historians, journalists and wartime leaders began an intellectual movement justifying the Southern cause for the conflict. In a work of historical revisionism, these figures — such as former Confederate President Jefferson Davis and author Edward A. Pollard — began convincing their fellow Southern citizens that the Confederacy was a noble cause of states’ rights versus Northern oppression.
This movement of Southern attempts to diminish slavery as the main cause of the Civil War became known as the Lost Cause Myth.
However, with ample historical evidence against them, the truth tells a different story. Documents, speeches and Confederate actions leading up to and during the Civil War all declare preserving the inhumane, sickening practice of slavery as their purpose of secession.
After the war in the Reconstruction Era, Tennessee was a prime breeding ground for the Lost Cause mentality, famously becoming the birthplace of the terrorist hate group the Ku Klux Klan in 1865. The lax Reconstruction policies of Tennessee-native President Andrew Johnson provided Confederates Tennesseans the ability to reclaim power and status. A less known Confederate solidarity group, the United Daughters of the Confederacy was also founded in Nashville in 1894.
The UDC and the Sons of Confederate Veterans spread the Lost Cause Myth, and they promoted an idealized Southern past in order to legitimize white supremacy and racial segregation. They erected memorials displaying heroic Confederate figures and encouraged history books in public schools that, at times, entirely removed slavery as a cause for the Civil War.
This attempt to rewrite history was extremely effective and has left deep divisions in our modern day Tennessee.
Many native Southerners still grow up believing that the Confederacy was a heroic country fighting for its freedom. Growing up in East Tennessee, I used to be angry when I saw protesters toppling Confederate statues and speaking against the Confederate flag.
But then I saw how people, especially those of color, spoke about the injustices these symbols reminded them of. As I matured, I realized that the men these statues represent, and the flags they fought under symbolize the insidious white domination. So I changed my mind, I grew up and I now firmly agree that Confederate symbols should be shunned and not celebrated.
But there are still many in Tennessee that proudly display the Confederate flag and firmly believe that Southerners were simply protecting their homeland from “Northern aggression.”
This divide in historical perspectives leads to clashes, such as the 2017 protest and counter protest in Knoxville over a UDC memorial to the Battle of Fort Sanders. White men defiantly displayed the Confederate battle flag on our streets and spoke about the Lost Cause as historical fact.
But, the Lost Cause is not historical fact. Idolizing Confederate ideology can be a breeding ground for hate and racism, such as the neo-Confederates and white supremacists who gathered for the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. This rise in extremist groups promotes dangerous white nationalism and typically leads to violence.
Even well-meaning historical societies that promote the Lost Cause narrative do harm by spreading these historical inaccuracies. Fostering ignorance about the true cause of the Civil War is simply wrong. People who grow up learning about the wrong version of the past end up making the wrong decisions in the present.
Following several events in the last 10 years, including the Charleston church shooting, Charlottesville and the death of George Floyd, movements began to rise up against the continued presence of Confederate symbols, the language used to tell history and whose stories were being told.
The state of Tennessee and Tennessean historical societies, both public and private, must make every effort to remove promotions of the Lost Cause Myth and tell the stories of people who have been left out in the long history of our state.
It is unacceptable to continue to use Tennessee funds to push racist beliefs or maintaining monuments that represent them. Tennessee must replace these inaccurate portrayals of our history to better tell the stories of those who were enslaved and the real reason states like Tennessee joined the Confederacy.
The standards of our public schools need to be more properly attuned to teach about the white dominance over African Americans and Native Indians. Attempts in the state legislature to bar “divisive concepts” and Bill Lee’s attempt to instill a more conservative Hillsdale College curriculum must be met with resistance.
We cannot allow for the continued misinformation of Southern history to spread like a malignant tumor, ignoring the reality of what happened.
Tennessee already lost one war fighting for a lost cause, let’s not have to fight another.
Walker Kinsler is a freshman at UT this year studying political science. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Columns and letters of The Daily Beacon are the views of the individual and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Beacon or the Beacon's editorial staff.