(The Washington Post) – History is the polemics of the victor, William F. Buckley once said. Not so in the United States, at least not regarding the Civil War. As soon as the Confederates laid down their arms, some picked up their pens and began to distort what they had done and why. The resulting mythology took hold of the nation a generation later and persists — which is why a presidential candidate can suggest, as Michele Bachmann did in 2011, that slavery was somehow pro-family and why the public, per the Pew Research Center, believes that the war was fought mainly over states’ rights.
The Confederates won with the pen (and the noose) what they could not win on the battlefield: the cause of white supremacy and the dominant understanding of what the war was all about. We are still digging ourselves out from under the misinformation they spread, which has manifested in our public monuments and our history books.
Take Kentucky, where the legislature voted not to secede. Early in the war, Confederate Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston ventured through the western part of the state and found “no enthusiasm, as we imagined and hoped, but hostility.” Eventually, 90,000 Kentuckians would fight for the United States, while 35,000 fought for the Confederate States. Nevertheless, according to historian Thomas Clark, the state now has 72 Confederate monuments and only two Union ones.