As the debate escalates over how we publicly remember the Civil War following the tragic events in Charlottesville, Virginia, the passionate and contentious disputes have centered on symbols like monuments, street names and flags. According to a study by the Southern Poverty Law Center, at least 1,503 symbols to the Confederacy are displayed in public spaces, mostly in the South and the Border States, but even in decidedly Yankee locales like Massachusetts. Most of these monuments sprang from the Lost Cause tradition that developed in the wake of the war, during the establishment of white supremacist Jim Crow laws around 1900, and as a response to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Those artifacts are not the only way we legitimize and honor the deadly and racist 19th-century rebellion against the United States. Much of the language used in reference to the Civil War glorifies the rebel cause.
The language we turn to in describing the war, from speaking of compromise and plantations, to characterizing the struggle as the North versus the South, or referring to Robert E. Lee as a General, can lend legitimacy to the violent, hateful and treasonous southern rebellion that tore the nation apart from 1861 to 1865; and from which we still have not recovered. Why do we often describe the struggle as between two equal entities? Why have we shown acceptance of the military rank given by an illegitimate rebellion and unrecognized political entity? In recent years, historians in academia and in the public sphere have been considering these issues.
Historian Michael Landis suggests professional scholars should seek to change the language we use in interpreting and teaching history. He agrees with people like legal scholar Paul Finkelman and historian Edward Baptist when they suggest the Compromise of 1850 be more accurately referred to as an Appeasement. The latter word precisely reflects the sway that Southern slaveholders held in the bargain. Landis goes on to suggest that we call plantations what they really were—slave labor camps; and drop the use of the term, “the Union.” A common usage in the 19th century to be sure, but now we only use “the Union” in reference to the Civil War and on the day of the State of the Union address. A better way to speak of the nation during the war, he argues, is to use its name, the United States.
In the same way, we could change the way we refer to secessionist states. When we talk of the Union versus the Confederacy, or especially when we present the strife as the North versus the South, we set up a parallel dichotomy in which the United States is cast as equal to the Confederate States of America. But was the Confederacy really a nation and should we refer to it as such?
When historian Steven Hahn participated in the 2015 History Film Forum at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, he noted that using these customary terms to tell the story of the Civil War —Hahn suggests we use “War of the Rebellion”—lends legitimacy to the Confederacy.
“If you think about it,” Hahn said, “nobody in the world recognized the Confederacy. The question is can you be a state if no one says you are a state?”
Of course, international recognition and support for the rebellion was intensely important to secessionist leaders, not just because Jefferson Davis desired the military backing of Great Britain and other European nations, but because they sought the legitimacy that came with it. Hahn says that President Abraham Lincoln and his administration believed that its leaders didn’t have the right to leave the United States or the authority to take their states with them. Looking at leaders like Lincoln during the war and Frederick Douglass in its aftermath, it is apparent that the concept of being careful about the terms we use to describe the period is not a new challenge. In his writings, Lincoln referred to the group he was fighting as the “so-called Confederacy” and Jefferson Davis never as president, only as the “insurgent leader.”
And if the so-called Confederacy wasn’t a country, but rather what political scientists would call a proto-state, because not a single foreign government in the entire world recognized it as a nation-state, then could Jefferson Davis legitimately be a president? Could Robert E. Lee be a General?
The highest rank Lee achieved in the United States Army was colonel, so given his role as general in service to a failed revolution by a group of rebels, how should we now refer to him?
It would be just as accurate to refer to Lee, who led an armed group against national sovereignty, as an insurgent or a warlord, if not a terrorist. Imagine how different it would be for a school-age child to learn about the War of the Rebellion if we altered the language we use.
When news reports about the debate over monuments say “Today the City Council met to consider whether to remove a statue commemorating General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army,” what if they instead were written in this way: “Today the City Council debated removing a statue of slaveholder and former American army colonel Robert E. Lee, who took up arms in the rebellion against the United States by the so-called Confederacy?”
Yale historian David Blight, whose book Race and Reunion called for a reexamination of how we remember the war, says our memorializing language and ideology about the Confederacy became a potent revisionist force in how we understand our history. The Lost Cause tradition, which Blight said he always calls “a set of beliefs in search of a history, more than actually a history,” revolves around an “idea that there was one Confederacy, and there was this noble struggle to the end to defend their sovereignty, and to defend their land and to defend their system, until they could defend it no more. And that image has been reinforced over the intervening years in popular literature and in films like Birth of a Nation, and Gone with the Wind, and the many monuments as well as the use of the Confederate flag.”
Frederick Douglass was, Blight says, “acutely aware that the postwar era might ultimately be controlled by those who could best shape interpretations of the war itself.”
Just a few years after the war, Douglass had already begun to see that the losers of the war were winning the peace because he felt that the American people were “destitute of political memory.” Douglass often referred to the war as a “rebellion” and was careful not to speak of the rebels in any honorific way, and pledged himself to never forgive the South and to never forget the meaning of the war. On Memorial Day in 1871 at the Civil War Unknown Monument at Arlington National Cemetery, Douglass’ speech was resolute:
We are sometimes asked in the name of patriotism to forget the merits of this fearful struggle, and to remember with equal admiration those who struck at the nation’s life, and those who struck to save it—those who fought for slavery and those who fought for liberty and justice. I am no minister of malice . . . I would not repel the repentant, but . . . may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I forget the difference between the parties to that . . . bloody conflict . . . I may say if this war is to be forgotten, I ask in the name of all things sacred what shall men remember?
As Douglass was already concerned that the victors were losing the war of historical memory to the supposedly vanquished, I am not sure that he would have been surprised that not far from where he stood at the national cemetery—often considered the nation’s most hallowed ground—a Confederate memorial would be built in the early 20th century to the insurgents he felt “struck at the nation’s life.”
Douglass knew, day-by-day, after the shooting stopped, a history war was playing out. It is clearly not over yet. Words, though they do not stand as marble and bronze memorials in parks and in front of buildings or fly on flagpoles, are perhaps even more powerful and pernicious. The monuments we've built with language may, in fact, be even more difficult to tear down.
UPDATE: 9/18/2017: A previous version of this article misidentified the location of the 1871 Frederick Douglass speech, which took place at the Civil War Unknown Monument, not the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.