For so many Americans, “history isn’t the story of what happened; it is just the story they want to believe. It is not a public story we all share, but an intimate one, passed down like an heirloom, that shapes their sense of who they are. Confederate history is family history, history as a eulogy, in which loyalty takes precedence over truth.”
In “The War on Nostalgia,” published online today and on the cover of The Atlantic’s June issue, staff writer Clint Smith writes about the myth of the Lost Cause, which attempts to recast the Confederacy “as something predicated on family and heritage rather than what it was: a traitorous effort to extend the bondage of millions of Black people.” Traveling around the country, Smith visits sites that are grappling—or refusing to grapple—with America’s history of slavery, and considers what it would take for all Americans to reckon with the past.
“The War on Nostalgia” is excerpted from Smith’s forthcoming book, How the Word Is Passed, and is part of the second chapter of “Inheritance,” The Atlantic’s multiyear project on American history, Black life, and the resilience of memory.
Smith travels to Blandford Cemetery, in Petersburg, Virginia, one of the largest mass graves of Confederate servicemen in the country, where Confederate flags drape the tombstones, and attends a Memorial Day event hosted by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, an organization of 30,000 dedicated to preserving “the history and legacy of these heroes, so future generations can understand the motives that animated the Southern Cause.” As members of the crowd stare at Smith, he listens to a speaker tell a story of the origins of Memorial Day, beginning his account with, “I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I like it.” The speech, Smith writes, was reminiscent of those given at Memorial Day celebrations after the end of Reconstruction, “when orators stressed reconciliation, paying tribute to the sacrifices on both sides of the Civil War without accounting for what the war had actually been fought over.”
It was then, in the late 1800s, that the myth of the Lost Cause began to take hold, asserting that the Civil War was fought by honorable men protecting their communities, and was not about slavery. As attendees sidle up to Smith at the Memorial Day event, telling him that their ancestors fought for states’ rights, Smith considers what it will take for this crowd to acknowledge the truth—that slavery was “the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution,” as the Confederate vice president, Alexander Stephens, said—rather than believe a version of history that rests on well-documented falsehoods.
Ultimately, the myth of the Lost Cause survives because so many Americans don’t want to believe that their ancestors were deeply committed to preserving the institution of slavery. After all, Smith writes, “So much of the story we tell about history is really the story we tell about ourselves. It is the story of our mothers and fathers and their mothers and fathers, as far back as our lineage will take us.”
“The War on Nostalgia” is online at TheAtlantic.com today and on the cover of the June issue.