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The Power of Historical Memories in Shaping Post-Civil War Events

By Joey Lyons, V Form

The Power of Historical Memories in Shaping Post-Civil War Events

What is democracy? Andrew Jackson said, “Democracy is majority rule, pure and simple.” In a democracy, those who are legally entitled to vote are supposed to be able to participate in the democratic process. After the Civil War, Americans resolved to include blacks in America’s democracy. The promise of this democratic expansion, however, was crushed after Reconstruction. Those who sought to reestablish white rule in the South, the Redeemers, disenfranchised African Americans. To enact this major contraction of American democracy, the Redeemers needed to alter the meaning of the Civil War. While the war was fought over conflicting viewpoints on federalism and
the morality of slavery, the Redeemers wanted to eliminate racial equality as one of the issues of the war. In order to do so, white southerners, despite losing the war’s battles, sought to win its memory. Southerners put forth the “Lost Cause” theory, whereby slavery was not seen as a cause of the war. One way advocates of the “Lost Cause” sought to achieve this rewriting of history was to make monuments that presented the causes of the war in ways that were disconnected from slavery. They were so successful in this scheme that, in many ways, their vision of the causes of the war won not only in the South, but also in the North. As a result, both southerners and northerners were complicit in removing racial equality as a cause of the war and thereby made it possible to retreat from granting African Americans the right to participate in the democratic process.

During Reconstruction, Congress imposed sweeping reforms on the South, including the Fifteenth Amendment, which guaranteed the to right to vote regardless of race. During the 1870s, more than a half-million black men registered as voters. This did not last. The Redeemers’ desire to renew white supremacy outlasted the North’s commitment to protecting African Americans. What followed was the Jim Crow Era, which saw the exclusion of African Americans from Southern politics. While the Reconstruction Amendments were meant to combat such discrimination, without Northern military enforcement, the Redeemers found creative or violent methods of reducing black voter turnout. Such methods were first invented in 1890, when Mississippi rewrote its constitution; the President of the convention declared, “We are here to exclude the Negro.” Mississippi cut the percentage of black men registered to vote from more than ninety percent during Reconstruction to less than six percent in 1892. Devoid of political power, blacks were at the will of whites.

Well over half a million Union soldiers died in the Civil War. If the war was fought to end slavery and secure the vote for black men, then how could the North allow southern attempts to disenfranchise African Americans? Reconstruction efforts to defend African Americans’ rights were meant to honor the Union soldiers who suffered in the pursuit of racial equality. At the end of Reconstruction, northerners were aware that a removal of troops from the South would increase discrimination against African Americans. However, the North was tired of devoting resources to protecting African Americans and abandoned its commitment to racial equality, largely accepting the “Lost Cause” ideology. As a result, after Reconstruction, most northerners and southerners believed the Civil War was fought over different interpretations of federalism rather than the moral controversy of slavery.

The memorials built to honor the sacrifices of both Union and Confederate soldiers best illustrate the prevalence of this new interpretation of the war’s causes. Monuments in both the North and South almost never mention slavery or equality. Memorials in North Carolina often celebrate Confederate soldiers for sacrificing their lives “for the lost cause” or “in defense of states’ rights”. Monuments in Maine also neglect to mention equality or emancipation and, instead, commemorate soldiers for preserving the Union. Not surprisingly, many of these memorials were constructed at the same time as the deconstruction of black political participation. Once equality had been erased from memory, it was easier to erase it from reality.

Joey Lyons is a V Form day student who lives on St. Mark’s campus in Southborough, MA. Academically, Joey enjoys integrating his favorite disciplines (history and literature) in humanities classes and, athletically, he plays soccer in the fall.

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