Long, clear view reveals Confederacy was on the wrong side of history

August 5, 2013 

William E. Ellis is a professor emeritus in history at Eastern Kentucky University.

  • At issue: July 12 Herald-Leader editorial "Paul's aide raises questions for him; 'Southern Avenger' tarnishes image" and July 13 column by Paul Prather "Gettysburg visit leads to epiphany about Old South's 'Lost Cause'"

Sometimes the lessons of history take a long time to sink in. A Herald-Leader editorial on July 12, a letter to the editor about the Civil War on July 13 and Paul Prather's piece of July 17 all point to the slowness with which we learn about history in this country.

Everyone's personal experiences add or detract from the lessons they learned, or should have learned, from an objective study of history. You can learn the wrong lessons from biased accounts. Experience is always the best teacher as fathomed by Prather's latest sojourn to Gettysburg, America's best-known battlefield.

Now at the age of 73, I recall as a kid about 10 years old being hooted at for wearing a Rebel hat, purchased at a souvenir stand, by a bunch of "Yankee" kids as I walked across that hallowed ground with my parents.

Growing up in the 1940s and '50s I recall seeing separate "colored" rest rooms in the Shelby County Courthouse. I attended segregated schools in Shelbyville, graduating there in 1958. In college I belonged to a quasi-southern fraternity, one that claimed a Confederate heritage and reveled in "southernness."

Then at the age of 22, while a callow high school football coach on a hot August night in 1962, I was told that my Harrodsburg High School football team was not welcome to enter a Richmond restaurant because we had some African American players on the squad. That was the first time I had really been confronted with discrimination or segregation on a personal basis. I was enraged. I changed as did my study, teaching and writing of history.

The sesquicentennial of the Civil War has offered us all a time to reflect on the causes and consequences of the most destructive of all America's wars. However, the old battles are being fought all over again. We should be honoring the war dead, those who fought and died on both sides, for their heroism and sacrifices. They were all "Americans."

But we should also have developed a moral sensibility that the South was on the wrong side of history. No amount of mental gymnastics can convince me that slavery was anything more than sinful. It was the cause for the 11 states of the Confederacy to secede from the union. States' rights was a specious argument then and now for an excuse to keep control over one group of people by denying them the most basic of human rights, freedom.

Unfortunately, "Neo-Confederatism" is growing in this country. I have recently run into its adherents at a couple of professional meetings and talks.

One hopes that Jack Hunter, "the Southern avenger," who has now left the employ of Sen. Rand Paul, has also learned lessons, however belatedly, about the inclusiveness that most Americans learn in kindergarten.

I would like to think that most people get over their flings with such folderol as Neo-Confederatism after some thoughtful reflection. But being an older historian, I am amazed that the lessons of history we should have learned in K-12 get lost along the way because of political expediency, moral lapses and muddled thinking.


At issue: July 12 Herald-Leader editorial "Paul's aide raises questions for him; 'Southern Avenger' tarnishes image" and July 13 column by Paul Prather "Gettysburg visit leads to epiphany about Old South's 'Lost Cause'"

William E. Ellis is a professor emeritus in history at Eastern Kentucky University.

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