Historian: Civil War debate is about ‘who controls history’

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Historian: Civil War debate is about ‘who controls history’

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Culture wars have erupted over displays of Confederate flags and historical figures. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

The demotion of Rep. Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson, following his decision to distribute to colleagues an article challenging that slavery was the root cause of the Civil War raises an interesting question.

Why did he do it?

After all, the Civil War ended more than 150 years ago. Why is a Georgia state legislator so bent out of shape about its causes?

“All of this is about how we think about history,” said Kevin Levin, a Civil War historian and author of the blog “Civil War Memory” blog.

Levin said the debate over the causes of the Civil War has always been as much about contemporary politics and power as it has been about history.

“Who controls history also controls the present,” he said. “It’s about who we are today and who gets to control what.”

Among serious historians, there is little dispute that slavery is the overwhelming cause of the conflict. But Levin said the theory — advanced largely by Southern politicians since the end of Reconstruction — that the Confederates fought for a virtuous “Lost Cause” that didn’t revolve around slavery has been a powerful idea.

The idea has gained new life in recent years as the display of Confederate flags and icons has come under great assault since the 2015 massacre of black church goers in Charleston, S.C., by a white supremacist. And the election of President Donald Trump has emboldened some to make their feelings about white Southern heritage known, including Benton himself.

“We just elected a president that said he was tired of political correctness,” Benton, told a radio station in March. “We think that our heritage is just as important as everybody else’s.”

But is this what we elect our state lawmakers to do? Read more in this week’s AJC Watchdog column here.

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