The Feature

Yes, the Civil War was about slavery. Just listen to Uncivil

February 7, 2018
The Robert E. Lee monument at the center of the Charlottesville protests. Photo: Bob Travia via Flickr.

Chenjerai Kumanyika sat in the pews of St. Paul’s Memorial Church on the evening of August 11 of last year. The media scholar and podcast host was one of several hundred people, alongside the likes of civil rights activist Cornel West and Charlottesville Mayor Michael Signer, to gather in opposition to the alt-right rally, Unite the Right, scheduled for the following day. Inside the church, they sang, and they prayed, and they clapped, and they hoped.

Outside was a different story. Just a short walk away, torch-bearing white supremacists started their trek across the University of Virginia campus to the church, chanting a chorus of “Our blood, our soil!” and “Jews will not replace us!” They were in town to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The mob of white supremacists eventually reached St. Paul’s and surrounded it, with Kumanyika and the others still inside. “In that moment, you feel like all these histories are collapsing in on each other,” Kumanyika says. “What year am I in? 1860? 1960? Or am I in 2017?”

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The scene did evoke memories of bygone eras—Reconstruction, the Jim Crow South, the Civil Rights Movement. For the people inside the church, the statue in question symbolized hatred and pain. For the protesters outside, it was a historical marker, a physical manifestation of the Lost Cause narrative, the early 20th-century movement to reframe the Civil War as a battle for states’ rights rather than a fight over slavery. “You would think in this information age, we’d be getting smarter about the Civil War, but instead there’s this movement, and it becomes violent, and it’s based largely on myths,” Kumanyika says. “It really hits you when you’re in a church surrounded by torches and the next day someone is killed.”

This ignorance, willful or otherwise, about the meaning of these statues—and the Lost Cause myth they represent—is one of the subjects of Kumanyika’s podcast, Uncivil from Gimlet Media. Co-hosted by award-winning journalist and radio producer Jack Hitt, Uncivil ransacks the official history of the Civil War, bringing to light stories left off the pages of high school textbooks, from covert operations to counterfeiting. The stories are by turns fascinating, funny, and absurd. And Kumanyika emphasizes that they are increasingly critical to the national conversation. “The Charlottesville moment made you realize this is so serious,” Kumanyika says. “The stakes are high, and the urgency of understanding this is important.” As they say on the podcast, the story of the Civil War is the story of America.

Gimlet is far from the only media company using this moment to debunk the Lost Cause myth. Journalists at outlets like Slate, The Daily Beast, The Nation, and The Atlantic (a magazine rooted in abolitionism) are exploring the connective tissue that exists between forgotten or misunderstood parts of history to the political battlefields of the present, tackling hard truths about the whitewashing of American history along the way.

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The phrase “lost cause” first appeared on the pages of a book by historian and journalist Edward Pollard. The 1866 text, The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates, prescribed an alternative narrative to the postbellum South, one that eventually evolved into a deep-rooted literary and cultural phenomenon. Pollard, who was an editor of the Richard Examiner during the Civil War, argued that the real cause of the war was not slavery, but disagreements over states’ rights. In his book, he presented what he called “a severely just account of the War.”

Pollard pegged the war as a constitutional, not ideological, battle, romanticizing the Confederacy’s secession as a noble cause and praising leaders like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Subsequent writing from Pollard, along with other prominent Southerners such as Jefferson Davis and General Jubal Early, planted these ideas in the collective memory of the postwar South. The rise of memorial organizations, especially the United Daughters of the Confederacy, cemented the same themes in the public mind, laying the groundwork for modern-day white supremacy.

The Lost Cause was a product of the Civil War, but it gained traction in the Jim Crow era, especially through the construction of monuments. During this time, monuments—such as the one central to the protests in Charlottesville—popped up across the Southern states. They embodied the Lost Cause myth in ways that were both public and prominent. Their erection acted as a weapon in “a campaign of revisionism to erase from memory the reality of slavery as the cornerstone of the Confederacy, its expansion as the reason for secession, its enforcement as coercion, and its maintenance as the bedrock of white supremacy,” wrote Jack Schwartz at The Daily Beast. Monuments weren’t the only ways believers of the Lost Cause did this; they also relied on the popularity of Confederate flags, the revisionism of schoolbooks, and the growth of popular culture (think: Gone with the Wind and Birth of a Nation).

According to new research from the Southern Poverty Law Center, released last week, the consequences of this historical revisionism are alive and well in classrooms across the country today: Only 8 percent of high school seniors surveyed last year were able to identify slavery as the central cause of the Civil War. This warped view of history is not unique to classrooms. A 2011 Pew Research study found that more than 48 percent of those polled, from a national sample of 1,507 adults in the US 18 years of age or older, said the Civil War was mainly about states’ rights, compared with 38 percent who cited slavery as its primary cause.


Jack Hitt grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, and spent most of his young life avoiding contemplation of the Civil War, because in South Carolina, the Civil War is everywhere. “It’s in the water you drink, and the air you breathe,” says the longtime public radio reporter. “It’s a plaque on every other building, and Fort Sumter is in the harbor. And the Hunley museum (housing the first Confederate submarine) was right around the corner from my house.”

Living in the city, he recalls, you either became the kid who memorized the names of generals, battlefield tactics, and important historical dates, or you chose baseball or dinosaurs. “I went with dinosaurs,” Hitt deadpans. “I was totally a dinosaur kid. All the grownups in my family were delighted that I could identify a triceratops at age 5.” It took half a century, but Hitt eventually took an interest in Civil War history, having avoided it for so many years. “I started reading about it, and there were all sorts of stories happening right under my nose that I had never heard about,” he says, “and I think we all know why.”

Kumanyika’s interest in the Civil War has a similar origin story. “I knew it was kind of a thing I should know, but it didn’t seem interesting, for one,” he says. “And also seemed potentially like a part of history I didn’t want to pay attention to because it was just pointing to slavery and things that didn’t seem to be about black people’s progression in any way.” That perception shifted when he started delving into history books, and like Hitt, discovered stories of the period, like the Combahee River Raid in 1863, which became the focus of the first episode of Uncivil.

“We both had this interest and different ways of coming to it,” Kumanyika says. “Jack because he’s a storyteller, and me because I am a media scholar.” And so the two friends decided to join forces and dig deeper into these stories. That was two years ago, and with the help of Gimlet Media, they finally launched Uncivil in October, pegging its release to events in Charlottesville (though they had been working on the podcast long before the protests and eventual violence in the city). Hitt had previously collaborated with Gimlet CEO Alex Blumberg when Blumberg worked at This American Life; the burgeoning podcasting company was a natural home for Uncivil.

The issues that fissured the country in 1863 are the same as those that divide us now. Hitt and Kumanyika knew that was an important point to communicate in the podcast. “These riffs are not new,” Hitt says. “Division has been the name of the country’s business from the beginning. We papered up this stuff to make us feel better about parts of our history.” As they researched and reported, the duo looked for connections between now and then. Fortunately, and unfortunately, those connections became more obvious in the midst of Donald Trump’s political rise. “It’s really sad and horrifying and also an important opportunity,” Kumanyika says of Trump’s ascent to office.

Memory is our guide into the past, not historical analysis. To get to the past, we hitch our story on the narrative of people who have family memories of specific events we’re looking into.

They’re not professional historians, but they might as well be. For the show, now 10 episodes in, Kumanyika and Hitt dig into archives and track down descendants, while also turning to primary sources and new scholarship. “There’s a whole other America just sitting there,” Hitt says. That America includes stories about overlooked figures and events, like the aforementioned Combahee River Raid. Described on the show as “the most ambitious covert operation in the Civil War,” the raid was the brainchild of Harriet Tubman and radical abolitionist Colonel James Montgomery. With the help of a regiment of black soldiers, they raided Confederate plantations along the Combahee River, freeing 700 slaves in the process. Hitt and Kumanyika kick off that story, as they do with many on the podcast, by rooting it in contemporary issues; in this case, the discussion of Civil War monuments.

“Memory is our guide into the past, not historical analysis,” Hitt says. “To get to the past, we hitch our story on the narrative of people who have family memories of specific events we’re looking into.”

Family memories aside, there’s no shortage of avenues into the past. In an episode called “The Spin,” for example, John Kelly, Trump’s chief of staff, serves as the jumping off point of the show following his appearance on The Ingraham Angle last October. As her guest, Kelly outlined a history of the Civil War that was “strange,” “highly provocative,” “dangerous,” and “kind of depressing,” according to historians interviewed later by The Washington Post. He referred to  Lee as “an honorable man” and claimed the Civil War was due to “the lack of an ability to compromise.” In the episode, Hitt and Kumanyika unravel the problematic PR campaign following the Confederates’ defeat, from its origins in Lee himself through its dissemination in mass media, film, and memorial associations (and continuing in figures like Kelly today). Through conversations with historians and rich sound design, they deconstruct how the Lost Cause permeated American culture, extending beyond the Mason-Dixon Line and into public squares and parks, and onto car bumpers, roadside stands, and front porches, usually vis-a-vis the stars-and-bars flag, sometimes monuments.

“We have a new generation that has absorbed the worst lessons of the war,” Hitt says. The Lost Cause, though more than a century old, still persists. But Hitt and Kumanyika say they’re using their podcast to “punch it in the face.”

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In the aftermath of Charlottesville, journalists are working to dismantle the Lost Cause. They’re picking up where luminaries like W.E.B. DuBois left off. “It’s certainly gotten a lot of attention [in media],” says Christy Coleman, historian and head of the American Civil War Museum.

Founded by three prominent abolitionists, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Atlantic has most recently worked to demystify the Lost Cause through the work of writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Adam Serwer, and Vann Newkirk. The three writers infuse discussions of pop culture and politics with context so often left off the page. “Tell the truth as best you can and hopefully people will come around to it,” Adam Serwer, who wrote for the magazine on the kindly myth of General Lee, says in an interview with CJR.

Originally published in June, Serwer’s piece on Lee quickly climbed its way to The Atlantic’s most-read stories online—and it has since resurfaced in popularity as people like John Kelly reignite debates about Civil War “facts” and memorials. Serwer writes:

“Even if one conceded Lee’s military prowess, he would still be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans in defense of the South’s authority to own millions of human beings as property because they are black. Lee’s elevation is a key part of a 150-year-old propaganda campaign designed to erase slavery as the cause of the war and whitewash the Confederate cause as a noble one.”

After publishing the story, Serwer got dozens of emails and letters from people. Some asked for book recommendations to further their understanding of the mythology; others weren’t so pleasant.

“A lot of the people who aren’t Southerners don’t grasp just how serious the Lost Cause is,” Newkirk, who took a personal look at the memorialization of the Lost Cause for The Atlantic, tells CJR. “It’s important to be able highlight just how muscular those things were.” In his first-person piece, he meditates on growing up as a black man in the South:

“In my experience, [monuments] were so woven into southern white identity, and the hierarchies that identity still implies, that removing them would be akin to amputation.”

But they are being removed, and that’s given Newkirk a renewed sense of hope, believing the reverence of the Confederacy is “debatable and destructible” for the first time in history. His work capitalizes on this moment, adding a corrective lens to the cause célèbre. “The best pieces on this, especially when it concerns the Lost Cause, look forward,” he tells CJR. Too often, stories can be boiled down to whether something is right or wrong, true or false, instead of asking bigger questions. “We don’t do a good job as an industry understanding responsibility and how history motivates and animates the present,” he says.

We don’t do a good job as an industry understanding responsibility and how history motivates and animates the present.

It’s not just The Atlantic. Reporting on the Lost Cause has exploded across the industry. At Slate, Jamelle Bouie and Rebecca Onion produced two audio series within the past two years—the first about American slavery, the second about Reconstruction—exclusively for Slate members. Also at Slate, Katy Waldman and Aisha Harris have taken on the Sons of Confederate Veterans and Gone with the Wind, respectively. Similar treatments of this Southern mythology appear on sites like The Daily Beast (with the appropriately named “It’s Time for the Lost Cause of the South to Get Lost”) and The Week (with the historically rich “How America forgot the true history of the Civil War”). A new digital upstart called Bunk, which curates work across the Web around specific themes and topics, put together a collection “Civil War Memory,” pairing work from everyone and everywhere, including Coates in The Atlantic, and Antonia Farzan in the Phoenix New Times.

“It’s a many-headed hydra, it keeps reforming itself and becoming something else,” Hitt explains. “The Lost Cause narrative is not something you can put down with a couple of facts or clever arguments.” The Lost Cause won’t disappear overnight. But, already, reporting has cracked away at its foundation. As a mythology with roots in journalism, it’s only fitting that journalism helps bring about its demise.

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Meg Dalton is a freelance journalist and audio producer based in Connecticut. She's reported and edited for CJR, PBS NewsHour, Energy News Network, Architectural Digest, MediaShift, Hearst Connecticut newspapers, and more. Follow her on Twitter: @megdalts. Find her on Twitter @megdalts.