Whitewashing the Civil War

Vintage coloring book pages celebrating the South-Happy Slaves and General Lee

Color history whitewashed.

The revisionist history of the Civil War continues today as Trump tries to defend his vile Charlottesville remark by praising Robert E Lee, a slave owner who led the fight against his own country to preserve slavery. Trump claims the “very fine people” remark was about the people who felt very strongly about the monument to Robert E Lee. A great general whether you like it or not.”

Like the South’s “The Lost Cause,” Robert E. Lee was the whitewashed version of history I learned over 50 years ago when the Civil War had been successfully  rebranded as “brave brothers” having a quarrel.


vintage photo children at Gettsburg 1963

You don’t have to tour a battlefield to understand the Civil War. Look at today’s headlines. We’re still fighting the same issues that fueled the Civil War. The author and her brother at Gettysburg during the Centennial 1963

No place had a more romanticized cast swept over it than Gettysburg did during the Centennial Civil war celebration in 1963  and naturally my family would find itself right there. .

You don’t have to tour a battlefield to understand the Civil War. Look at today’s headlines. We’re still fighting the same issues that fueled the Civil War.

My Mad Men era childhood vacations were often spent visiting the past.

Through the years I saw more than my share of the thousands of granite, bronze and marble monuments and statues that dotted the American landscape that helped shape popular perspectives of the past.

Loaded with assumptions and silences, the often sanitized, selective, historical narrative presented at all these places permeated the country, the classroom, and historic sites during mid-century America.

When it came to American history no place was loaded with more excitement or education than my visits to Gettysburg Pennsylvania. Certainly no National Park offered more bang for your buck per square foot when it came to monuments and statues  honoring our soldiers and generals.

Centennial Fever

Civil War Centennial postcard Grant and Lee and Civil War Trading Card

Civil War Centennial postcard, top and Civil War Trading Card

In 1961 Americans caught Centennial fever and so did my family. Even as Americans raced forward into the New Frontier, we took time out to travel back and celebrate our past.

I Wish I Were In Dixie

George Wallace in front of entrance to U of Alabama 1963 and vintage textbook illustration Civil War States Rights

States rights had a very special meaning in 1863 and 1963. Celebrating the historic moment when the southern states seceded from the Union dove tailed nicely for segregationists. What better way to encourage  opposition to court ordered public schools desegregation and black civil rights activism than to remind southerners of their ancestor’s uncompromising resistance to federal tyranny and unlawful assaults on southern institutions. Top illustration from vintage School Book “This is America’s Story” 1963. Governor George Wallace blocking the entrance of black students to University of Alabama 1963

For southerners, the 100th anniversary of the Civil War was a chance to unfurl the Confederate battle flags, wax poetically over the heroism of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson and romanticize the resistance to Federal power.

Vintage illustration Old South Hospitality and Jim Crow Era Sign

Southern Hospitality. Part of the Southern myth making was the notion that many black slaves had been loyal to the pro slavery Confederacy, therefore happily accepted Jim Crow laws.

The “Lost Cause” was still the dominant story, and in this Gone with the Wind version, the southern gentlemen fought valiantly against a stronger (and less scrupulous) northern army and their noble aim was to protect states’ rights and a gracious way of life. Slaves were portrayed as contented and loyal, if discussed at all.

That peculiar institution had seamlessly been replaced by Jim Crow.

Reunited and It Feels So Good

vintage Sheet Music Civil War Veterans shakin hands

1913 Sheet Music emphasized the attempts at National reconciliation between the North and South.

The War that had once been bitterly referred to as “The War of Rebellion” or the “War of Yankee Aggression” had for several generations now been firmly re-branded as the more friendly sounding “War Between Brothers.”

In this more sentimental reconciliatory light of Brother Against Brother, important lessons could be taught about the common bonds of bravery and patriotism on both sides. Treason was barely uttered.  Schoolbooks taught us that the War Between the State’s struggle had allowed the nation to emerge into “the bright sunshine of freedom.”

Of course that sunshine still did not shine for all.


collage 1960's summer travel and Civil War battle painting

Tourism to visit Civil War landmarks was booming, really heating up in the summer. Battlefields replaced beaches as part of easy breezy summer living. No mid-century vacation was complete without a visit to a Civil War battlefield.

Since Gettysburg was ground zero for Civil War Centennial remembrance, early on Monday July 1, my family loaded up our Plymouth and headed down to Gettysburg that summer of 1963 in time for the 100th anniversary of that conflicts  most celebrated and bloodiest battle.

Arriving in Gettysburg on the very day the two armies met and the great battle began, the town was exploding with tourists.

Vintager Solver Civial war Centennial Medal and Souvenir Civil war Cup

Official Silver Medal Gettysburg Centennial 1963 (L) Souvenir Civil War cup(R)

The Civil War was packaged in easy to understand stories and fun activities.

Pageants, re-enactments and parades filled the week. Souvenirs abounded. I could buy “real” civil war bullets for 30 cents,  stock up on Confederate money which to my disappointment would do me no good on purchasing all  these goodies, all while snacking greedily on pecans purchased at a Stuckeys built on the battlefield where the second day of fighting raged at Peach Orchard, site of a famous civil war battle.

I’m Just Saying

Vintage Brochure to visit Gettysburg

Vintage Brochure to visit Gettysburg

The local shops displayed banners paying tribute to the Blue and Grey Americans “all who were fighting for a just cause they believed in.”

Odes to the “Brothers War” was everywhere to be seen.

Every restaurant place mat had a civil war theme and every packet of Dixie Crystal sugar on the table told a Civil War story on the back. In a nod to Dixie, hominy grits migrated above the Mason Dixon lines and were served at every breakfast, “to make our Dixiecrats feel at home since they didn’t receive such a warm welcome last time.”

Vintage Civil War Trading Card Robert E. Lee

Robert E. Lee Trading Card. A series of trading cards produced during the Civil war Centennial could be purchased at your local candy store. Along with your bubble gum you could chew over the romanticized version of the Civil War. General Robert E. Lee, was now recast an honorable man who chose loyalty to VA over command of the Union Army. That he fought bravely to protect the Confederate constitution that enshrined the institution of Negro slavery went unsaid.

Even the local bank commissioned a majestic painting of Generals Meade and Lee standing together united, by conviction. They handed out keepsake postcards of the painting and I eagerly grabbed a few.

“General Lee,” the postcards said was not only “universally revered by friend and foe alike” but “also “a symbol of the true spirit of America. Talented, generous devoted to duty…he belongs to all of us.”

Dad who had spent 6 years at school in Charlottesville, VA couldn’t agree more. Lee was a bone fide American hero.

Make Believe


Pickett's Charge- Painting from Gettysburg Museum of History

Pickett’s Charge- Painting from Gettysburg Museum of History

Souvenirs notwithstanding, the climax of the three-day battle Centennial celebration was on that Wednesday. On July 3 the 100th anniversary of Pickett’s Charge, that bold attack against the Union Army that was a turning point for the war, was dramatically re-created.

At precisely high noon, the silence of the field of grass and gray boulders was filled with shrieks and smoke as 15,000 uniformed Johnny Rebs charged across the field against the Union forces on Cemetery Ridge. A sound system produced cannon and musket fire and a smoke screen produced smoke. With eyes stinging you felt like you were in the heat of battle.

Civil War re-enactors at the Gettysburg Centennial Celebration.

Civil War re-enactors at the Gettysburg Centennial Celebration. Photo courtesy Gettysburg Museum

Unlike in  1863 when the brave charge failed,  with ¾ of the attackers killed or wounded, in 1963 the event concluded with Union soldiers greeting Confederates with firm and friendly handshakes. Finally those in gray and those in blue grasped hands, and all boisterously sang The Star Spangled Banner and recited the Pledge of Allegiance. Smoke aside, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

It was the perfect ending to an American story.

Mississippi Monument Gettysburg and photo of slave with welts

Just as many southern survivors of the war and their descendants worked hard to make Black Americans and their story disappear, the state monuments they erected continued their work, glorifying the Southern Cause. When folks expressed concern about the possible upset at the Centennial by African-Americans protesting segregation, Karl Betts, a member of the Centennial commission reassured folks.  “A lot of fine Negro people, he told a journalist from the Nation, “loved life as it was in the Old South.” (L) Mississippi Monument at Gettysburg. (R) The savages of slavery

Noticeably absent in that very white field of grey and blue was the color Black.

The Centennial was pretty much an all-white affair. African-Americans avoided the battlefield uninterested in monuments celebrating white supremacy and the Confederacy cause, or in mingling with pasty-faced tourists with their Brownie Hawkeyes, waving souvenir Confederate flags.

If the goal of the Centennial was “keeping peace through understanding” some things were clearly misunderstood.

 American United

vintage schoolbook illustration Civil War The North and South Fight a War and are Reunited

Vintage Textbook Illustration “This is America’s Story” 1963.

The Centennial had been planned in the cold war climate of the late 1950’s and the Civil War would be hi-jacked for the current  war between democracy and Communism, painting American democracy in the best light.   The Commission determined that the Civil War Centennial would be a great opportunity for Americans to “highlight our commitment to freedom and liberty.”

Family Feud

 Soldiers reunion at the Gettysburg Jubilee celebration 1913

1913 Great Reunion at the Gettysburg Jubilee celebration . Photo courtesy Library of Congress

Fifty years earlier at the Jubilee celebration in 1913, the fiftieth anniversary of Gettysburg was a neatly packaged festival of North South reconciliation that had begun in the late 19th century. The celebration was also a segregated affair in which the only role for African-Americans was distributing blankets to the white veterans of what President Wilson a segregationist called “a quarrel forgotten.”

Now this “Quarrel” would be remembered as simply a family feud, brother against brother, the horrors of slavery long forgotten.

One Nation Under God

Vintage coloring book pages 1950's Uncle Sam and children and confederate flag

For school children the Centennial was to be an important history lesson in democracy. “Children will will gain a new conception of the meaning of their priceless heritage of human citizenship.”

In 1960, a year before the centennial, President Eisenhower remarked at the death of the last Civil War soldier: “…the wounds of the deep and bitter dispute which once divided our nation have long since healed and a united America in a divided world now holds up on a larger canvas the cherished traditions of liberty and justice for all.”

The war had been permanently rebranded in national memory as the moment when the US had been reunited and the moral leader of the Free World had been born. The Civil War was one part of American Exceptionalism.

Liberty and Justice For All

Vintage ad Cival war Centennial Gettysburg

Vintage ad Sinclair Oil 1963 included a statement from Civil War historian Bruce Catton

Typical of Centennial  ads at the time that extolled patriotism, Gettysburg, and the American Way (with a touch o’ tourism thrown in) was this ad from Sinclair Oil in honor of the Gettysburg Centennial:

You can stand and sight along the barrels of 233 Union Guns or 182 Confederate cannons, standing just as they stood on those fateful July days in ’63.

More importantly, you will stand in Gettysburg with eyes closed, and you’re your mind will be touched by the hand of history and your spirit will feel the inspiration that gave Lincoln his finest speech. All Americans North and South can take pride in Gettysburg.

Millions of us have forebears who fought on one side or the other, hotly defending their own idea of liberty. This great battlefield so beautifully preserved by our national Park service is a tribute to the men who fought here.

But America, today united from sea to sea, is their monument.

But the reality was we weren’t all so united.

At all.

The Freedom Riders, the sit ins, marches and boycotts told a different story about “defending their own idea of liberty.”

collage picture of South Carolina Monument at Gettysburg and students at a sit in in Greensboro

The South Carolina Monument drew on Civil War past to make a statement about the present, Dedicated on July 2, 1963 to the tune of Dixie and Confederate flag flying it was filled by defiant speeches about States rights and the “tyranny of Washington.” The heritage of honor also meant denying Blacks basic civil rights. (Top) South Carolina memorial 1963 (Bottom) Civil Rights sit-ins at Greensboro, North Carolina. Four college students sit in a “whites only” lunch counter at Woolworths in defiance of segregation Feb. 1960

As Americans prepared to celebrate the Civil War, the inconvenient truth was that many of the same passions that divided the nation 100 years earlier divided it still. And still does today. The freedom and equality consecrated by the Civil War still remained elusive.

Even as the civil rights activists in Birmingham made clear that the civil war’s unfinished business was very much in the present, Uncle Sam and planners of the Centennial didn’t want to bring up that pesky problem of slavery into the celebration of the Centennial. How much nicer to embrace the enduring romance, the warm and fuzzy history of a national redemption, brother against brothers war.

It was a good story of democracy in action, important in our anti-communist crusade. The moral of the Civil War story was that only democratic change made social justice possible no matter how gradual.


collage Photo of statue of General Longstree and Freedom Riders Bus burning

Freedom Riders. (L) General Longstreet fighting for the “just” Confederate cause (R) Civil Rights Freedom Riders Bus burned near Anniston, Alabama 1961

That pesky problem was a black eye for Uncle Sam as leader of the Free World.  The lynchings, violence and racial segregation marred the image of the U.S. and tarnished our moral superiority.

And that pesky problem couldn’t be whitewashed away.

Sweet Home Alabama

collage Photo of Alabama State Monument Gettysburg and Civil Rights activists in Birmingham being attacked 1963

Sweet Home Alabama. Confederate monuments were built to maintain white supremacy and offer an idealized narrative of the Civil War. Monuments all read that Confederate States were fighting for “a righteous cause and the sacred heritage of honor.”  The Alabama State Monument dedicated in 1933 by the  United Daughters of the Confederacy an organization dedicated to glorifying the “Southern Cause.” The monument features a beautiful Romanesque female, the female personification of the “Spirit of Confederacy” flanked by 2 soldiers. Portraying the spirit of the Confederate cause as a beautiful woman distorts a much more sinister historical truth. They fought bravely to protect the Confederate constitution that enshrined the institution of Negro Slavery(R) Birmingham Alabama 1963

The centennial anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg took place in the midst of the tumultuous summer of 1963.

That May, people across the world had been stunned by the images coming out of Birmingham, Alabama: police officers turning high-pressure fire hoses on peaceful demonstrators and ordering dogs to attack children. In June, Medgar Evers was assassinated in his own driveway. That very same month Alabama Governor George “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” Wallace stood defiantly on the steps of the University of Alabama and denied entry to black students seeking an education.

A century after the battle, the issue of racial inequality remained in the foreground and background.

Photos of General Robert E Lee statue Gettysburg and March on Washington 1963

Fighting For a Noble Cause 1863 and 1963. (L) General Robert E Lee Virginia State Monument and (R) Civil Rights March on Washington. One month after the Centennial in August 1963 Martin Luther King gave his famous “I Have A Dream Speech” as African Americans marched from Washington Monument to Lincoln Memorial. Photo by Rowland Scherman for USIA

In the shadow of the Civil Rights movement, the idea of  commemorating a war that ended slavery being reduced to pageantry and not an occasion to reflect on bigger issues of what was won or lost, was a lost opportunity

The unfinished business of the past that was very much in the present. Ours too.


 Copyright (©) 2017 Sally Edelstein All Rights Reserved


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