But I’m venturing astray of memorializing the Confederacy. Granted, many a brave Rebel marched to his certain doom (Pickett’s Charge) and they had some darned good generals. But the Confederacy was an ill-fated movement from the get-go. The Union had three times the population, five times as many factories and two to three times more soldiers.
‘Stand history on its head’
Some Confederacy buffs liken the cause to the American Revolution. But the Brits had to cross an ocean in slow boats to get at George Washington. Robert E. Lee was confronted with an endless supply of Yankees in rail cars.
Once again — they picked a stupid fight, but if you want to memorialize it, by all means.
Slavery, of course, was at the root of it all, but that never played much in the memorialization at the park. That memorialization is based on the myth of the Lost Cause, the narrative created in the decades after the War of Northern Aggression that allowed the vanquished to invent a scenario that played to traits like courage and honor and gallantry. In that telling, the Confederates were the Founding Fathers with facial hair.
And their ancestors were good at creating the lore.
James Loewen, author of “The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader: The Great Truth about the Lost Cause” noted that Confederate monuments are filled with flowery language like “no nation ever rose so free of stain.”
“The first achievement of the neo-Confederacy was to stand history on its head and claim the war was for states’ rights,” he said. “In fact, it was against states rights.”
He noted that South Carolina’s secession declaration complained that northern states weren’t returning their runaway slaves.
“Slavery depends upon secure borders,” Loewen said. “It’s a police state. It has to be.”
‘Slavery was the key issue’
The myth has grown. A Pew Research Center poll on the eve of the Civil War’s 150th anniversary in 2011 said 48 percent of Americans said the war’s primary cause was states’ rights and just 38 percent said it was mainly slavery.
Kenneth Noe, the Civil War history professor at Auburn University, once lived in metro Atlanta. He thought of Stone Mountain as less of a Confederate memorial and more of a “ride the trains or see the laser show place.”
Visitors seem to like it. Some 85 percent of the 2,000 ratings on tripadvisor.com call it “very good” or “excellent.” The sky-ride and the laser show — and even the duck ride — register in comments more than the Confederacy.
Noe said, “A more honest and inclusive view of the Confederacy would not need a change in the legislation” that created the park.
“Any well-rounded view of the war has to show slavery was the key issue,” he said. “But if you’re going to put up markers like that you’re going to get more push back than you’re getting now.”
High desertion rates among Rebel soldiers
Confederacy fans often assert that a large majority of Confederate soldiers did not own slaves. But, Noe said, another fact escapes attention: “The Confederacy sort of imploded because people were sick of it.”
Southern women, long portrayed as strong, silent belles, often wrote their husbands urging them to just up and leave, to come home because they were cold and hungry. And many Rebels did just that, Noe said. The desertion rate of the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee’s fabled force, was 40 percent in the last year of the war, Noe said. Georgia troops and North Carolina troops were among the most likely to desert, he said.
Put that on your mountain.
Michael Thurmond, a Georgia politician and historian, said, “The most revolutionary aspect of the Civil War was the advent of the black soldier.”
In essence, the Civil War made possible the thing that white Southerners were most fearful of — black guys with guns aimed at them.
Some 200,000 fought for the Union, most of them freed slaves who gave the North a much-needed push toward the war’s end. Being that the black soldiers were mostly Southerners means they, too, were part of the Confederacy, he said. A segment that broke away and helped defeat it, that is.
“Very few people are aware or appreciate the historical significance of the contributions of black soldiers to the Union victory, so let’s honor them,”he said. “The Civil War was the climax of a 400-year struggle to abolish slavery. If we address the myths and misconceptions, then it will provide insight.”
Atlanta was KKK headquarters
Tim Crimmins, history professor at Georgia State University, said Stone Mountain is a key part of the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan a century ago. It was where crosses were burned for nearly half a century. The Klan was merely a continuation of the Confederacy.
“Atlanta was the headquarters of the revived KKK; we sold it around the nation like it was Coca-Cola,” he said. “We don’t know how to memorialize things that weren’t good in our past.”
He and Noe remarked how Germany commemorates victims of the Holocaust. For instance, plaques with the names of Jewish families dragged from certain addresses are placed outside the homes or small signs have been erected noting when laws dehumanizing Jews were passed. Very simple. Very stark. Very effective.
You want a Confederate memorial? Go all the way.