Shelby Williams, a 12-year-old who lives in Fairfax County, Va., outside Washington, is passionate about being part of the Children of the Confederacy, an organization for people under 18 whose ancestors fought in the army of the Confederacy. She says people often misunderstand why.
“It’s really cool to see where your family history can take you, and it also shows you who you are really related to and gives you a background of their history,” she said. “I think a lot of people misconstrue why we do this and I don’t think they really realize that this is a part of our family, too.”
With hostility growing toward Confederate symbols, the annual general convention of the Children of the Confederacy, being held this weekend in Lynchburg, Va., would seem to offer an opportunity for those who revere Confederate history to defend their devotion as a matter of “heritage, not hate.”
But with the exception of three attendees who like Shelby and her grandfather, Martin Schaller, agreed to interviews, it was hard to learn what the Children of the Confederacy conference teaches its members about the history of slavery and the role it played in sparking the Civil War.
Conference organizers declined to share conference materials with anyone not registered for the conference. They said members of the organization could not speak to the news media without approval from the organization’s director general, who could not be located Thursday, the convention’s opening day.
Eventually, the general manager of the hotel where the convention is being held through Saturday ordered two McClatchy reporters to leave.
The impasse was perhaps predictable. More than 10 phone calls throughout the week leading up to the conference, and several emails to the organization’s director general, went unreturned.
The group’s unwillingness to share its approach to Civil War history makes it hard to know how its program fits into what a growing number of historians and experts say is the perpetuation of dangerous myths about the war and the antebellum South that are common in public school texts and are fueled in seemingly innocent war re-enactments.
The consensus among professional historians . . . is that the Civil War, the main cause of it, was slavery, not an abstract notion of states’ rights.
Theresa Runstedtler, American University
Sons of Confederate Veterans member Vaughn Satterfield of Rossville, Ga., who attended the Children of the Confederacy conference with his daughter, said racism played no role in the group.
“It’s pride and heritage,” he said. “There’s no hate, there’s no prejudice. . . . I don’t have anything against anybody.”
For Shelby, the organization, with its organized visits to parks and museums, has been a major influence in her short life. “I’ve been a part of this basically since birth,” she said.
Schaller, her grandfather, pointed out that while one of his ancestors fought in the Confederate army, he did not own slaves. He was a schoolteacher who immigrated from Germany in the 1850s.
This convention, he said, is “an educational thing, it’s not a big flag-waving thing.”
Of the conditions that gave rise to the Civil War, Schaller offered a philosophical assessment. “I think you can’t look back on it and say, ‘Everything was wonderful,’” he said. Instead, he said, one should “see what the context was and look at the way that the people reacted to things and just observe it from the point of view of not wishing to go back to that time.”
Others argue that groups like the Children of the Confederacy, which is part of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, offer an inaccurate version of history that downplays the role slavery played in the Civil War.
We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity.
Texas’ secession declaration
Organizations such as the Children of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans say that the issue of slavery did not cause the war and that states’ rights was a bigger factor. That concept even has been adopted in some textbooks, to the chagrin of many experts.
“The idea that the Civil War was about states’ rights, it’s become so general in the public,” said researcher Edward Sebesta, an editor of “Neo-Confederacy: A Critical Introduction.” That misconception has influenced everything from textbooks to movies, which reinforce the public’s ignorance.
“There are school board members who believe it, teachers who believe it,” he said.
For historians, however, there is little question that slavery was the driving factor in sparking secession and later the war. Teaching history incorrectly, they say, allows people to justify supporting the Confederacy without addressing related questions of racism.
“If you don’t understand what the Civil War was about, you don’t have anything to argue against Confederate nationalism,” said Sebesta. “It’s an erasure of African-Americans in the South by saying the Confederacy was the South. It’s creating a Southern identity as a white identity.”
James Loewen, a lecturer with the Organization of American Historians whose book “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong” is a treatise on mistaken beliefs, has asked more than 5,000 people of various ages and racial backgrounds, across the country, “Why did the South secede?”
I’ve been a part of this basically since birth.
Shelby Williams, 12
He said 65 percent of people say states’ rights, another 10 to 20 percent say tariffs and taxes, and only 20 percent say slavery. Another 1 to 2 percent say the election of Abraham Lincoln, which he said he considers a correct answer.
“It’s a perfectly right answer because that’s the trigger,” Loewen said.
But secession documents from the time show that mentions of Lincoln’s election are generally followed by some issue related to Lincoln’s views on slavery, Loewen said.
“The consensus among professional historians, I mean historians who sit in universities across the United States, is that the Civil War, the main cause of it, was slavery, not an abstract notion of states’ rights,” Theresa Runstedtler, an associate history professor at American University in Washington.
Still, it’s that very history that groups such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Children of the Confederacy seek to downplay. The website of the groups’ South Carolina division, for example, states that its purpose is “to study and teach the truths of history (one of the most important of which is that the War Between the States was not a rebellion, nor was its underlying cause to sustain slavery).”
Historians point to the document South Carolina issued when it seceded in 1860 to refute that claim. The document makes at least 18 references to slavery and cites protection of slavery as the reason for seceding.
“An increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery, has led to a disregard of their obligations, and the laws of the General Government have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution,” the document reads.
The equivalent document for Texas, called “A declaration of the causes which impel the State of Texas to secede from the Federal Union,” says: “We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.”
Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center who specializes in extremism, says the consequences of ignoring that history, and replacing it with an incorrect version, are enormous.
“The consequences of white Southerners growing up with this mythology in their heads is that they do not understand racism,” he said.