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How Southern socialites rewrote Civil War history

Listen to how this textbook describes slavery.

“The master often had a barbecue or a picnic for his slaves.

Then they had a great frolic.

Even while working in the cotton fields they sang songs.

The beat of the music and the richness of their voices made work seem light.”

Yikes.

That’s from History of Georgia, a textbook published in 1954 that was taught across junior

high schools in Georgia for decades.

That sort of language is part of an intellectual movement called the “Lost Cause” — a

distorted version of American Civil War history that’s been prevalent in the South for a

long time.

It took shape soon after the defeat of the Confederate States in the war, when Southern

historians like Edward Pollard and former Confederate Gen. Jubal Early started preserving

the South’s perspective through their writings.

They framed the Confederate cause as a heroic defense of the Southern way of life against

the overwhelming forces in the North.

That narrative has a few basic tenets: the glorification of Confederate soldiers who

died for a cause they believed in, the belief that slavery was a benevolent institution,

and, maybe most importantly, that slavery was not the root cause of the war.

The Lost Cause is one of the most notoriously effective efforts to rewrite history, and

it was done by the losing side.

So how did it become so deeply rooted in Southern memory?

Blame the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

The UDC was founded in Nashville in 1894 to preserve Confederate culture for generations

to come.

The women who made up the group descended from elite antebellum families and they used

their social and political clout to spread the pro-Southern version of the war as “real

history.”

You’ve probably seen their efforts to honor the Confederacy, but maybe you didn’t know

it was the UDC.

They’re the ones who covered the Southern landscape with memorials for Confederate leaders

and soldiers.

They used their fundraising and lobbying skills to pressure local governments into erecting

monuments in prominent public spaces like courthouses and state capitols.

Installed here next to the state Capitol by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy donated this memorial to the city back in the ’30s.

They put them along roadsides and in parks.

Any place that was remotely relevant to the Confederacy was memorialized.

By the early 20th century, the UDC had 100,000 members in chapters spread all over the country,

but mostly in former Confederate states.

And there’s a reason they grew so quickly during that time.

So we’re talking about roughly three decades after the end of the war, and the Confederate

veterans themselves are beginning to die off.

So there is this push to find ways to commemorate it.

Because the big challenge by 1900 was there’s a new generation of white Southerners being

born and they never experienced the war years.

That push is visible.

Most of the Confederate monuments were erected during the UDC’s height of influence.

There’s a rhetoric around monuments — that we want to get this thing built before all

of that generation has died off. And

Dr. Karen Cox wrote the book on the UDC, and I asked her if it was fair to say the group

established the Lost Cause as historical fact in the South.

Oh, my God, yeah!

They were the leaders of the Lost Cause into the 20th century, and they made it a movement

about vindication.

Just to give you an idea of how effective they were: They successfully lobbied for a

Confederate Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery, which US President Woodrow Wilson

proudly unveiled to a cheering crowd.

Now that’s influence, right?

Monuments are the least of what they did.

I mean they are the most visible and tangible, but the work with children was far more influential.

It turns out, a central UDC objective is shaping how children think about the war and their

Southern heritage.

One of their most powerful tools?

Textbooks.

Take a look at this pamphlet, called “A Measuring Rod for Text-Books.”

It was written by “the illustrious Southern Historian Miss Mildred Rutherford” an educator,

orator, and an author of Southern history textbooks.

She was also very pro-slavery.

The pamphlet announced the formation of a textbook review committee featuring prominent

Southerners, like five former Confederate generals.

This group was committed to spreading the “truths of Confederate history” so they

instructed school boards to reject any textbooks that did not “accord full justice to the

South.”

And they urged libraries to deface every book in their collection that didn’t measure

up by writing the words “Unjust to the South” clearly on its cover.

This pamphlet was shared widely with school boards throughout the South, and UDC-backed

committees closely monitored history books to make sure “Northern influence” never

reached classrooms.

So the core language of an approved textbook aligned precisely with that of the Lost Cause.

You know, stuff like “The Confederacy lost in the War between the States.

But Georgia never forgot to honor her Confederate soldiers…”

History of Georgia was on the UDC’s approved list.

It was also written by E. Merton Coulter, a self-described “Southern historian”

and historian-described white supremacist.

They understand that how you educate — who wins the writing game, who wins the battle

over history — ultimately wins the war.

That’s the big fight for the UDC.

But their work with children went further than the classrooms.

The UDC formed an auxiliary group called the Children of the Confederacy, which was designed

to get kids born in former Confederate states to actively participate in their version of

history.

Group leaders had kids recite call-and-response “truths” from something called the “Confederate

Catechism.”

Children, up to the age of 18, would compete and be rewarded for memorizing long passages

of Lost Cause rhetoric.

So it would be like an after-school thing, you know, like that was your club.

You would go after school to the meeting of the Children of the Confederacy and your leader

might teach you songs of the South like “Dixie” or other songs that were considered Southern

patriotic songs.

They would have them write essays, go visit the veterans, and learn this catechism.

Children were also the centerpiece of their community’s monument unveilings, like this

“living flag” at the dedication of the Stonewall Jackson monument in Richmond.

Yes, those are schoolchildren.

The UDC's efforts shaped the identities of children who grew up with the Lost Cause.

They made history personal, and that made their story last longer.

Generations of generations of children learning that narrative in a variety of ways grow up

to be, you know, segregationists in the ’50s and ’60s.

Because that’s been drilled into them since they were children.

After World War I, the UDC started losing steam.

But the damage was done.

The monuments were in place and the textbooks they wrote remained in Southern classrooms

until the late ’70s.

And the women’s group did it all without the right to vote or participate in politics.

You can still get glimmers of this Lost Cause memory of the war

And I think the UDC, to a great extent was — that was their goal.

So the next time someone says the Confederate monuments are about

just know that that’s exactly what the United Daughters of the Confederacy wants you to

think.