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Howard Swint: Confederate revisionism warps U.S. history

Myths abound in American history. But there are no better examples of political contrivance supplanting historical fact in American literature than that of 150 years of Confederate revisionism.

What today are accepted as mainstream Civil War-era accounts are due largely to the well-orchestrated efforts of southern stakeholders who gained economically and politically from rewriting history.

It stems from the Reconstruction Era that ushered in policies that freed millions of slaves across the war-torn South, precipitating writers to embark on a campaign of sweeping apologia to explain away the South's defeat.

For a people who clung to their antebellum traditions, the loss was a bitter economic and social reordering that could only be reconciled through a pseudo-intellectual consolation.

Having fought under the auspice of Christian duty with predetermined bent, the effort centered on alleged Northern evil and treachery while distancing the South's cause from that of slavery.

So ridiculous were revisionist reverences for Confederate commanders that literature would later refer to the "Lee and Virginia cults."

In 1878, U.S. Grant dismissed the growing Lost Cause school: "This is the way public opinion was made during the war and this is the way history is made now."

The effort would peak with the advent of the Southern Renaissance, a literary period that marked the South's move into an early Twentieth Century mindset.

For southern West Virginia, this romanticized South of moonbeams and magnolia trees held political power that was capitalized on by many opportunists, including Sen. Robert C. Byrd, who would later apologize for his obstructionist past.

It was during this time that the myth of Stonewall Jackson was fixed, then advanced, by the predominantly racist politicians of the day.

Revisionist accounts, still Internet-ready today, hold that Jackson neither opposed or supported slavery, was a champion of black education as evidenced by his Sunday school in Lexington, Va., and even a civil rights leader.

But as Mary Anna Jackson, his widow, recounts in her biography, Jackson bought and sold a number of slaves, including Albert, who was purchased under the false pretenses of earning his freedom; and Hetty, an inexperienced "corn-field hand . . . energetic, impulsive, quick tempered," who was abruptly put in her place by her master.

The Sunday school, Mary Anna Jackson wrote, allowed her husband to "put the strong hand of the Gospel under the ignorant African race" indicating a profoundly corrupted view of Christianity reserved for the "barbarous natives of Africa."

West Virginia politicians who advanced themselves through the promotion of the Jackson myth no doubt failed to educate their electorate of Jackson's sentiments of western Virginia when he returned prior to the war.

Having advanced in the patrician society of Piedmont Virginia, Jackson found his sister's friends uncultivated, "professed infidels," and in need of being saved from themselves, according to his widow's account.

In this regard, Jackson would pioneer a pattern of self-justification of the exploitation of mountain people for the next 150 years. And for this he never apologized.

Swint is a commercial real estate broker.

 


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