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Editorial: Why didn't the South regard the Confederacy as a mistake?

Editorial: Why didn't the South regard the Confederacy as a mistake?

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Argentine President Néstor Kirchner watches while portraits of former junta leaders are taken down at the National Military College.

In 1982, the generals who were running Argentina thought it would be a good idea to invade the Falkland Islands. It was not. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher sent a naval armada to recover the islands.

The British inflicted a humiliating defeat that left 649 Argentinians dead, 1,657 wounded and 11,313 captured — and the Falklands remained British territory.

In Argentina, the response to this military catastrophe was swift. Within four days of the surrender, Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri was forced to resign as president. Seven years of military dictatorship in Argentina soon collapsed altogether — the Falklands misadventure triggered enough public discontent that the next year the junta was forced to give way to an elected government. Argentina has been a democracy — albeit an imperfect one — ever since.

Not only did the Falklands War lead to democracy, those democratic governments set about making it clear that the ousted dictators should not be honored. Some former military leaders were put on trial and sent to prison; others were court-martialed.

The shaming of the junta leaders continued for decades after the dictatorship fell.

In 2004, President Nestor Kirchner ordered the portraits of two junta leaders removed from the National War College, Argentina’s version of West Point. He also oversaw the opening of a museum dedicated to telling the story of the dictatorship’s “dirty war” against dissidents. That Museum of Memory was opened at the site of what’s been called “a clandestine concentration camp where thousands of prisoners were tortured and killed between 1976 and 1983 under military rule.”

We tell you this story from the southern hemisphere to help us ponder one in the American South. Why didn’t the South, after the Civil War, react more like Argentina? Why weren’t Southerners outraged and disgusted that the planter class had led them into a bloody war that left more than 290,000 Southerners dead, and an entire region economically devastated? After all, most Southerners didn’t own slaves and many soldiers often enlisted simply out of a desire to protect their home state against what they considered a Northern invasion. Why didn’t they come to regard all that as a mistake? More to the point that we are still dealing with today, as we ponder last week’s Virginia Supreme Court ruling on Confederate statues, why did 19th century and early 20th century Southerners set about raising statues to the men who had led them into that misbegotten war? After World War II, German and Japan pivoted away from their past. There are no statues to Erwin Rommel in Berlin; there are no statues to Hideki Tojo in Tokyo. Yet across the American South we have monuments to Confederate leaders, some of which still rile our politics today.

It’s often said — correctly — that most of those statues went up well after the Civil War, and coincided with both the imposition of Jim Crow laws and a rise in lynchings. A second wave of Civil War statuary came about in the 1950s and 1960s, which corresponds with the civil rights movement and “massive resistance” to integration. It was during the former period that the Robert E. Lee monuments in Charlottesville and Richmond were erected; it was during the latter that the Lee monument in Roanoke (since removed) went up.

However, the veneration of former Confederates began much earlier. The first Confederate statue in Richmond went up in 1875, just 10 years after the war and just five years after Virginia had rejoined the Union. The General Assembly appropriated $10,000 to put up a statue to Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson on the Capitol grounds, where it still stands today. Its installation was cause for massive celebration in Richmond. The procession numbered 40,000 people — the population of Richmond at the time was 51,000 — and stretched 2 to 3 miles. The day’s events culminated with a nighttime display of fireworks. “Such occasions to honor Confederate heroes frequently occurred in postwar Richmond and did much to set the tone and spirit of the city and state for several decades,” historian Allen Moger once wrote. “The ‘cult of the Confederacy’ was coming into being.”

What if that hadn’t happened? Or had too many white Southerners been implicated in the Confederacy to allow for any reappraisal of what led to the war?

If there ever was a chance for Virginia to take a different path, it came in the 1880s during the brief period when the Readjuster Party controlled state government. Encyclopedia Virginia describes the Readjusters as “the shortest-lived and most radical reforming political party in Virginia’s history.” The Readjusters took their name from their desire to “readjust” the state’s debt — “repudiate” was the word preferred by those on the other side. More useful for our understanding today is this: The Readjusters were a coalition of those who had previously been left out of the state’s political leadership — especially small farmers in Western Virginia and newly enfranchised Black voters. Their big issue was to “readjust” the state’s debt so that Virginia could afford to pay for its new public school system; the “funders” on the other side represented the state’s old guard, which had little interest in schools but lots of interest in paying off their bondholding friends. During their brief tenure, the Readjusters passed a lot of civil rights legislation — which inspired a conservative backlash that swept the Readjusters out of office. Their historical significance, Moger later wrote, is that they were the first political movement “to take control of a southern state from the hands of the Bourbons,” the latter being his term for the state’s political establishment.

The most prominent Readjusters were former Confederates — many from Western Virginia — who had a different vision for the state. If they had lasted longer, perhaps they’d have built their own Confederate monuments — that’s unknowable. What we do know is that the conservative Democrats who defeated them more enthusiastically embraced that “cult of the Confederacy” and that’s when most of the monuments went up. The South built no museums to the wrongness of the war, or the political repression that followed.

Reappraising what we’ve long believed is emotionally wrenching. From our vantage point in the United States, it seems self-evident that democracy is good and dictatorships are bad. However, when the president of Argentina condemned the junta back in 2004, four of his generals resigned in protest. And he was just taking down portraits, not statues.

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