David Frum

02.19.13

Enough With This 'Lost Cause' Nonsense

Southern "History" (Spencer Platt/Getty Images) ()

The city of Memphis, Tennessee has sparked an uproar with its decision to strip three city parks of references to the Confederacy:

A leafy park in downtown Memphis, Tenn., until a few weeks ago was named in honor of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederate lieutenant general. But the park—home to a large statue of Gen. Forrest astride his horse as well as the graves of the general and his wife—has just been renamed Health Sciences Park by the Memphis City Council, a move that has set off the latest battle in the South's continuing culture clash over the Civil War.

The council made the switch Feb. 5, days after learning of a bill introduced in the Tennessee Legislature that if passed would prohibit renaming any parks or monuments honoring war veterans, including Confederates. The council voted quickly to strip Gen. Forrest's name from the park, as well as change the names of two others, Confederate Park and Jefferson Davis Park, which honored the Confederacy's president. ...

Republican state Rep. Steve McDaniel, a self-described "big-time Civil War buff," proposed his "Tennessee Heritage Preservation Act" because he worried that public parks and monuments honoring American conflicts and their veterans could be renamed or removed by groups that found parts of history distasteful, he said. "If we don't preserve our historic places today, who's going to have them there for our posterity?" he said. ...

Becky Muska, who lives near Memphis and has Confederate ancestors, told the council the day it voted to change the park names: "You do not have the right to spin, edit, denounce, slander, revise, tear down, hide [or] destroy my history, because when you do that, you do that to Memphis."

What exactly is the "history" Muska claims the council does not have the right to "spin, edit, denounce, slander, revise, tear down, hide [or] destroy"?

David recently noted one aspect of this "history" by citing Robert Norrell's Up from History:

Alfred Waddell, an out-of-favor politician remaking himself as a white-nationalist leader, became the most vitriolic nativist firebrand. 'You are Anglo-Saxons,' Waddell told a crowd. 'Go to the polls tomorrow, and if you find the negro out voting tell him to leave the polls, and if he refuses, kill him, shoot him down in his tracks.' In early November tens of thousands of black men were too frightened to vote, and the Democrats regained control of North Carolina. Two days after the election, Waddell led a mob in destroying [Wilmington's leading black newspaper]. They gathered the resignation of all Republican city officials at gunpoint, and Waddell was named mayor.

Waddell's mob swelled to 2,000 men, including whites from all classes and vocations. When a shot hit one of them, the mob raged through Wilmington, with whites hunting down blacks in running gun battles through the city streets. The gunfire alerted militias and vigilante groups from outside the city to join the attack. Literally thousands of blacks ran for their lives. As many as 300 African Americans may have been killed. Eyewitnesses later recounted seeing wagon carts piled high with dead black bodies being removed from the city. … The riot depopulated Wilmington of its large black majority.

Let's add another example, this from Max Boot's Invisible Armies, which I reviewed yesterday:

Elias Hill was awakened after midnight on May 5, 1871. Lying in his tiny cabin in rural York County, South Carolina, he could hear the dogs barking and the men moving rapidly in the dark. They came first to his brother's house next door, where they whipped his brother's wife. "Where's Elias?" they kept demanding. When she told him, they barged into Hill's house. "Here he is! Here he is!" one of the men shouted triumphantly. They threw off his bedclothes and dragged him into the yard.

He count not resist because Elias Hill, now fifty years old, had been crippled since the age of seven. A dreadful disease, possibly muscular dystrophy, had shriveled his legs. They were no bigger than the size of a man's wrist. His arms, too, were withered and his jaw strongly deformed. Overcoming his physical limitations, Hill had emerged as an unlikely leader in the "colored community." His father had purchased freedom for himself, his wife, and their son thiry years before, and Elias had learned to read from some white children. As he grew into adulthood, he had become a schoolteacher and a well-respected Baptist preacher who made a little extra money by writing letters on behalf of illiterate freedmen. He was also the local president of the Union League, a fraternal organization closely aligned with the Republican Party. ...

The first question they asked Hill was "Who burned our houses?" Blacks were widely suspected of committing arson as a form of protest because they were too afraid to openly confront white supremacists.

"I told them it was not me," Hill recalled. "I could not burn houses; it was unreasonable to ask me."

The masked men did not like that answer. They hit him with their fists and extracted a phony confession. Next they wanted to know if Hill had told "the black men to ravish all the white women."

He said no and they struck him again. They asked him if he was president of the Union League - a particular bugbear for the Klan because it sought to organize freedmen. He admitted it. More blows.

"Didn't you preach against the Ku-Klux?" they demanded. In response to his denials, a strap was attached to his neck and he was dragged across the yard. Then a horsewhip was produced and he was hit eight times on the hip bone - "almost the only place he could hit my body," he later testified, "because my legs were so short."

Finally, after more than an hour of torture in the chill night air, they left. But not before they issued a series of demands. They wanted him to stop preaching. To stop subscribing to a Republican newsletter from Charleston. And to place an advertisement in the local newspaper renouncing "republicanism" and promising never to vote. If he did all those things, he could live. If not, he would be killed the following week.

(pp. 218-220)

There's your "history," Lost Cause fanatics.

General Forrest's KKK was the worst terrorist group in our nation's history, and it was explicitly founded to keep ex-slaves in their place.

The idea of the Lost Cause itself is an act of shifting historical blame from the evils of chattel slavery to perceived imperial aggression from Yankees.

Sorry, but the Civil War was about slavery. I understand quite well that southern children are taught about the "War of Northern Aggression." I know they think it's about "states' rights." But what right was in question in 1861 but the right of a state to legally compell people to a lifetime of slavery on account of the color of their skin?

My family has resided in Virginia since the 17th century. They fought for the Confederacy. I have ancestors buried alongside their brethren from the Army of Northern Virginia. I love and respect my family, but there is no honor in their actions. There is only shame. 

Remember your history as you will, but don't pretend the Lost Cause is not itself an act of historical revisionism. The very fact Gen. Forest's name is still on a park in the 21st century in a city such as Memphis is lamentable. Putting a monster's name on a public park spits in the face of those who suffered under his boot and the boots of his successors.

Be glad the change is happening, and if that removes from public recognition a man who is directly responsible for horrible violence against a victimized people, even better.

Good riddance to the Lost Cause.