The shibboleth that “state rights” caused secession is a suit of clothes desperately lacking an emperor. Only slavery (and its surrounding economic and political issues) had the power to propel white Southerners to disunion and, ultimately, war. Ironically, by taking a course that led to a war that they lost, the Confederates themselves launched the juggernaut that led to emancipation. To understand how freedom and justice came, why it was delayed for a century after the Civil War and why today so much mistrust and misunderstanding persists between black and white Americans, the vital starting point remains the Confederacy.
Should African-Americans even care about the individual “heroes” of the Confederacy? It might help to know that some of them were black too, including men like the enslaved Charleston steamer pilot Robert Smalls, who boldly stole a Confederate steamboat on May 13, 1862, and took his family and the families of his crew past the cannons ringing Charleston’s harbor to reach freedom with the blockading Union fleet. More interesting might be those brave Southern black men and women who carried on a clandestine opposition during the war to help the Union. And many might be surprised to learn of the tens of thousands of white Southerners who opposed both slavery and the Confederacy. After the war, a few leaders even accepted the new U.S. order and espoused full citizenship for freedmen. Without preserving the Confederate story, we risk losing the memories of all those other genuine heroes.
In the end, Americans cannot afford to forget the Confederacy. It is a good thing that the Confederacy failed—not least because a permanently divided America would have had neither the strength nor the worldliness to confront the next century’s totalitarian menaces. But the Confederate experience also teaches lessons about Americans themselves—about how they have reacted in crisis, about matters beyond just bravery and sacrifice that constitute the bedrock of our national being.