The Wrong Side of History

Confederate artillery at Charleston Harbor, 1863

I’ve pretty much given up listening to the radio. Thanks to the iPhone and this gadget, my morning and afternoon commute is filled either with music or podcasts, my longtime favorites being This American Life, The Moth, and Philosophy Bites. But I happened to turn on the radio on my drive home Friday, and a story about Charleston was on NPR, so I gave it a listen.

I’m originally from Texas, but I lived long enough in Arkansas that I think of it as home, even though I’ve been in Charleston 1 for more than seven years. Arkansas has always had something of an identity complex. To anyone in the north who has even heard of it, it is a southern state. 2 To quite a few people in the deep south, it is too far west to really count as southern.

I have beautifully simple litmus test for southern states: any state that fought on the wrong side of the Civil War qualifies by that fact alone.

With the exception of a brief stint in Philadelphia, I’ve lived in the south my entire life. And that’s not entirely a bad thing. There are a lot of things I like about the south. 3 But one thing I’ve never liked about the south is what I think of as Civil War Denialism–a condition whose primary symptom is the inability to admit, whatever the extenuating circumstances, that the south was, in fact, on the wrong side in the Civil War and deserved to lose.

Admitting that the south was wrong to secede, and, even more importantly, to secede over slavery, isn’t to say that the north was some Utopia of racial equality, or that the Union’s motives were entirely pure. But about the core issue–the existence of slavery as a legitimate economic institution–there should be no confusion. Anyone who claims that the Civil War “wasn’t really about slavery,” a claim I’ve heard my whole life, hasn’t bothered to read the “Declaration of Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union.” Was “states rights” and issue? Certainly it was. But so was human rights. Arguing over jurisdictions doesn’t change that, it just shifts the argument from the ethics of slavery the semantics of law, while failing to address the former. 4

The thing that struck me most about the NPR story was that the various defenders of the “good name” of their Confederate ancestors have such trouble admitting that those same ancestors were simply wrong about some things. The absurdity here is they were likely wrong about many things, from the most trivial of things to the most important. I’m willing to bet that these various sons and daughters of Civil War veterans would be unwilling to defend their ancestors’ point of view on most any other topic. So why feel the need when when it comes to this one?

I feel no need to agree with or, in those cases where I disagree, “respect” my ancestors’ opinions on any topic. They were their own people, trying to make sense of the times in which they lived. I’d no more ask them for advice on human rights than I would on dental hygiene. We’ve learned a lot about both since April 12, 1861.


  1. I actually live in Mt. Pleasant, which is across the Cooper River from Charleston proper.
  2. The percentage of people outside of Arkansas who recognized it as a state rose exponentially when Bill Clinton became president.
  3. Whenever I start off a sentence like that, I always think of Quentin Compson, from William Faulkner’s novel Absalom, Absalom! I won’t be more specific for fear of spoiling the novel for those who haven’t read it.
  4. Ditto for the issue of tariffs, which had been a point of contention between north and south though these were actually on a downward trend when the south seceded.