Lies I learned as a Southerner: Racism, the Confederate flag and why so many white Southerners revere a symbol of hatred

Myths about the "Lost Cause," never mentioning race, came from our schools, from everywhere. Time to smash them

Published July 15, 2015 11:00PM (EDT)

The carving depicting Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, in Stone Mountain, Ga.       (AP/John Bazemore)
The carving depicting Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, in Stone Mountain, Ga. (AP/John Bazemore)

This is where my grandfather shot and killed the Yankee soldier trying to rob us,” the retired Army colonel said, pointing to a bullet hole in the wood lining the entrance hall of his home.

My Boy Scout troop was visiting to view this noble reminder of the Civil War and how Southerners had resisted Union soldiers.  It was 1970. I was fifteen. All of us gazed with reverence upon the hole as if medieval Catholics peering at the toe of a saint.

We were absorbing the Southern narrative of the Civil War. In February of 1865 Sherman’s bummers had invaded my small  hometown in the South Carolina low country. This man’s grandfather had defended his home as any honorable Southerner would have done.

In the history of the Civil War preached to us lads growing up in the South in those years, slavery was never mentioned. Just perfidious Yankees and our brave boys in gray who repelled them until they were “compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources,” as General Lee described the situation in his General Order No. 9 announcing the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia. Only a fool would interpret his words as admitting defeat. We weren’t defeated. We were just compelled to surrender. Completely different, of course.

Other realities had to be suppressed as well.  When the North invaded the South all white Southern males eagerly volunteered to fight against the armies of the Union. But this is not true. The Confederate States passed the first conscription law on the North American continent on 16 April 1862.   All white males between seventeen and fifty were required to serve three years in the Confederate Army.

Not every white Southern male was keen on this idea. From the very beginning of the law, many conscripts deserted from the army with the intent of never returning.  This became in immense problem in the Southern armies. Not being consonant with the image of the “Lost Cause,” it was rarely mentioned in my youth and rarely mentioned now.

The penalty for desertion was death. Since tens of thousands of men deserted, they could not all be executed. But several hundred were shot by their brothers-in-arms in front of assembled Confederate regiments pour encourager les autres.

Over time we learned that after believing in Jesus Christ, our second most important moral and spiritual task was to uphold the honor of South Carolina and our native South. Be prepared to fight anyone if they insulted our heritage, most especially the Confederacy. Such insults were assaults on our honor as Southerners, something we are very touchy about.

Why did the South of our youth imbue us with such false knowledge? Because the memory of the Confederate defeat shaped Southern culture then and now. C. Vann Woodward, one of the greatest historians of the South, wrote that after the war ended, the Southerners  had to learn “…the un-American lesson of submission. For the South had undergone an experience that it could share with no other part of America…..the experience of military defeat, occupation, and reconstruction.”  

Because of this searing ordeal, Southerners had and continue to have a radically different historical narrative than the remainder of America. We have distorted our history to fit the Myth of the Lost Cause and it is this history which explains our obsession with the Civil War. Most Americans find both our narrative and our obsession with the war inexplicable. But it isn’t, really.

What Americans outside the South don’t understand is the Confederate defeat was so devastating the impact reverberates to this day. And where the depredations were the greatest, the war is remembered even more strongly. How could it not be? Columbia, the capital of South Carolina? Burned. Charleston? Bombarded. Plantations close by the city burned to the ground. Those of us born and raised in the Deep South grow up in a history book. My birthplace, Mobile, Alabama? Seized and burned after years of off and on attacks. New Orleans where I went to college? Seized by Union troops early in the war cutting off Gulf South from its key port.

In December of 1864, a month prior to crossing into South Carolina after“making Georgia howl,” General William Tecumseh Sherman wrote to H. W. Halleck, Union Army Chief-of-Staff, “… the whole army is burning with an insatiable desire to wreak vengeance upon South Carolina.  I almost tremble at her fate, but feel that she deserves all that seems in store for her.”  Because South Carolina had started the Civil War, Union troops viewed it as the cradle of secession, which it was.

While Sherman had no need to ratchet-up their desire of vengeance, he did so anyway by saying to his men, “We are not fighting armies but a hostile people, and must make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war.” 

South Carolina soon thereafter felt the hard hand of war as no other place in the United States ever had— or ever will. Dozens of towns, plantations and public buildings were looted and burned. My hometown went up in smoke after Sherman’s bummers put it to the torch —an event the adults of my childhood often spoke about. Sherman wanted the South and South Carolina in specific to remember the pain and destruction of the war so we would never rebel again. We remembered. Unfortunately, the Union Army’s march through South Carolina was so devastating that we have continued to remember.

One of the tallest structures in my hometown was the monument to the local Confederate dead—impossible to miss for our bronze Confederate soldier stood atop a fifty foot limestone plinth in the middle of the town square. In 1960, following the lead of our legislature, the town also began to fly the Confederate flag on its official flagpole, also on the town square.  Unfortunately, the rectangular banner with the elongated blue X known to most Americans, including Southerners, as “the Confederate flag” is actually the second Confederate naval jack which only flew on ships of the Confederate Navy from 1863 to 1865 and nowhere else. (The Confederacy kept changing flags and had different flags for different things).

To any student of the Civil War, flying the Confederate naval jack seems absurd, stupid even.  But I hardly thought such things then. Did I believe we should always honor our gallant Confederate dead? Of course. Have streets in towns throughout the state named after Stonewall Jackson, Jeff Davis, and that crackpot political theorist, John C. Calhoun? Absolutely. In common with most white Southerners, I also revered the memory  of General Robert E. Lee.

This was the man who possessed the greatest military mind ever produced in America; the man who became the very model of a Southern gentleman; who led the fabled Army of Northern Virginia; who was betrayed by Longstreet at Gettysburg and who now rests under a recumbent statue of himself, like a medieval knight in Christ like repose, in the Lee Chapel at Washington and Lee University.

Did Robert E. Lee oppose slavery? Of course he did—not. In reality he didn’t and had his slaves whipped for infractions by the local slave dealers. Was he a traitor by renouncing his sacred oath to defend the United States and joining the Confederate Army? I don’t think anyone in the South of my youth ever had that thought. But yes, while painful for me to write, Robert E. Lee was a traitor. Half of all Southern-born officers in the Union Army in 1860 remained loyal to the United States and never went South. They stayed true to their sacred oaths.

As for the greatest military mind produced by America? Lee lost the Battle of Gettysburg, the most critical battle in the Eastern Theater of the war. In those three days, one quarter of his men were also killed or wounded. Never again would the Army of Northern Virginia be capable of offensive action on a large scale.

All the misinformation I absorbed seemed right to me until my early twenties when my indoctrination began to slowly melt away -- although that process took ten years. Like many Southerners, as I grew older and read and studied unbiased accounts of the Civil War, I rejected the idolization of the Confederacy. Dropped out of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and admitted the truth to myself: the South started the Civil War with South Carolina leading the way.

So why do so many whites in the South and especially South Carolina still cling with all their strength to the memory of the Confederacy? Because the American Civil War has never ended for much of the white South.  Bitterness over the Confederate defeat remains. For decades after the war, everyone knew where the bitterness came from: the horrifying losses experienced by the Southern armies, the destructive vengeance by Northern troops and the enfranchisement of freed black slaves.

Unfortunately, over time this litany of specifics has been distilled into a blurry folk memory which has been manifested in willing provincial ignorance combined with the violent racism of the decades before the 1970s. When blacks began to be nominally treated with due process of law in the South, violence against them by whites declined.  But provincial ignorance remains with many white Southerners seeming to take a perverse sort of pride in their lack of knowledge about the wider world.

Worse, virulent racism continues, fueled by a devil’s brew of rage against change, the perceived arrogance of Washington, the liberal media holding-up white Southerners to ridicule, economic stagnation and the most maddening of all, a black man as president. Beyond the immediate effects, all of these threaten the myth of the Lost Cause.

For Southerners, the memory of the Confederacy is part of our fierce regional identity.  Even for me, a liberal Democrat, my strong regional identity separates me from Americans who aren’t from the South. By my own choice, I have not lived in the South for decades yet retain my gentle low country accent, my increasingly old-fashioned manners drilled into me as a child and my connections to a myriad of relatives and friends. I never forget that I am a Southerner and a South Carolinian—nor do I want to. I’m proud of my heritage—some of it—my family and my state.

In a time of head-spinning change, most of us cling to what we know, to what we were taught, to some sort of tradition which gives us identity. The South being the most conservative and traditional part of the country clings to its old traditions. And much of Southern tradition is the Confederacy represented by the Confederate flag. In a world moving at warp speed, many whites in the South sense they are losing their identity as Southerners and the more they feel this, the more vehement  white Southerners become in defense of these symbols.

The trauma of the Confederate defeat cut to the bone of the South especially in my native state of South Carolina. When the fighting stopped in April of 1865 and the Confederacy collapsed, 260,000 white Southern males lay dead—23% of those eligible to serve in the Confederate Army. 21,000 were South Carolinians.  This was a demographic catastrophe from which the South has never recovered. CSA managed to achieve almost total mobilization of white males into the army so the war touched every family.

When the Civil War finally ended, how could white Southerners come to an emotional acceptance of the hurricane of violence which had  passed over them leaving a trail of destruction never imagined and a burden of grief so heavy such as Atlas never had to lift.  To bear this, white Southerners had to look for a noble reason to explain why so many of their sons had died as a result of the war. That reason could not be the preservation of slavery. Only finding another reason was difficult since the Civil War was about preserving slavery.

Searching for this reason, white Southerners had to blind themselves to reality since they were surrounded by a huge population of freed slaves—whites actually being in a minority in South Carolina and several other Southern states at that time. Former slaves, written of in memoirs as being indolent, insulting, shiftless and unwilling to do any work, were a constant reminder of one of the major consequences of having lost the war.

And to preserve the “peculiar institution” the South had made a blood sacrifice of one-quarter of its young white males killed— with twice as many wounded— a casualty rate of 75 percent among those who served. Unprecedented in American history or Western history in the modern era. These brave young men clad in honorable gray could not have died to keep all these insolent, ignorant, lazy blacks enslaved. What kind of cause was that to die for?

There had to be another reason, a myth as it were. Slowly a cultural myth came to the fore: the South had fought the Civil War to secure Southern independence from the North and not for the right to maintain the institution of black slavery.  The golden youths who had sacrificed their lives for the Confederacy became the revered dead of the South. Having given their lives in the War for Southern Independence, a truly righteous and just fight , the Confederate dead became the keystone in the creation of the myth of the “Lost Cause.” Since they died for such a glorious cause, these were young men for whom enough tears could never be shed.

The wording on the monument to the Confederate dead on the grounds of the South Carolina State House, which I have abbreviated, explains with simple eloquence how South Carolinians and by extension other white Southerners, came to remembered the war and how many still remember it today.

This monument
perpetuates the memory,
of those who…
have glorified a fallen cause
by the simple manhood of their lives,
the patient endurance of suffering,
and the heroism of death
and who,
found support and consolation
in the belief
that at home they would not be forgotten.


Let the stranger,
who may in future times
read this inscription,
recognize that these were men
whom power could not corrupt,
whom death could not terrify,
whom defeat could not dishonor;
and let their virtues plead
for just judgement
of the cause in which they perished….
May 13, 1879

This is the summary of the Myth of the Lost Cause. Unfortunately, the dehumanizing and soul destroying institution of black slavery, any mention of slaves who had suffered far worse, is not mentioned or even hinted at. And slavery could never be mentioned because it would shatter the Myth.

Writes Nobel Laureate Sir V.S. Naipaul on the sparse eloquence of this inscription:

“…the pain of the Confederate Memorial is very great; the defeat it speaks of is complete. Defeat like this leads to religion: it can be religion: the crucifixion, as eternal a grief for Christians, as for the Shias of Islam, the death of Ali and his sons…..the helpless grief and rage, such as the Shias know, about an injustice that cannot be rehearsed too often.”     “A Turn In the South,” (1986, Knopf, NYC)

The belief that it was not about slavery is a studied denial of the truth, a willing suspension-of-disbelief which allows white Southerners to fully embrace the myth of the “Lost Cause” which propagates the lie that the war was fought for Southern independence and not for slavery.

Nothing cemented this myth more than  the film “Gone With the Wind.” The opening title card before the movie begins reads:  “There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South… Here in this pretty world Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and Slave… Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered. A Civilization gone with the wind…”

This is laughably untrue—a historical lie as wide as the Mississippi River is long. Worse, this belief by so many white Southerners that the Confederacy fought for Southern independence and not to preserve slavery has itself been a disaster for the South. Why? Two reasons. One, by holding white Southerners in its grip, this belief has prevented the whites from accepting blacks as equals and moving past the trauma of the Civil War.  Two, by accepting the lie that the Civil War was fought for Southern independence and not to preserve slavery, the only way to preserve the Myth of the Lost Cause was to create a post-bellum society of brutal white supremacy so as to be completely different and hence nominally independent from the North.

The idée fixe that the war was about Southern independence absolves white Southerners from facing the truth of the war and breaking their emotional bond to the former Confederacy. Many conservative white Southerners remain in denial about the brutal reality of African-American slavery in the South. Black slaves were the property of their owners just like master’s house or horse.

Owners could kill their slaves if they wished. Rape the females—which they did. (And the males, too). Or starve them. Or make them work for twenty hours a day to get the harvest in—which they did. Whip them, which they did. Torture them, which they did.  Even castrate them—a practice so barbaric it was outlawed in the Roman Empire by successive decrees of Emperors before the coming of Christ.

Most white Southerners will not— and cannot— confront the truth of the Civil War, for to do so is to acknowledge that the Myth of the Lost Cause is exactly that. And if they acknowledged the myth, they would have to accept that their ancestors (and my ancestors) fought the Civil War to keep 3 ½ million blacks enslaved in a system as brutal, as violent, and as filled with hopelessness as the labor camps of the Soviet gulag or konzentrationslägers of Nazi Germany.

In the process of accepting this unvarnished truth, white Southerners would also have to acknowledge the Confederate flag for what it actually represents: a nation long dead which fought a  war to preserve the monstrous evil of African-American slavery. Further, white Southerners would also have to give up the comforting thought that only a handful of white Southerners owned slaves which is absolutely wrong. One-third of Southern families owned at least one or more slaves. In Mississippi and South Carolina the number of slave owning households approached one half.

Only when the Myth of the Lost Cause is finally exposed as a complete fraud and smashed into pieces by white Southerners themselves, will the South move past its reverence for the Confederacy and accept the moral imperative of African-American equality in the South, America and throughout the world.

Originally published on

By Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a banking consultant and freelance writer in Washington, D.C. He is the author "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic, and "The Frat House Fire Escape Plan: Sigma Nu, Tulane and the 1970s."

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