In July the Florida Board of Education issued new standards for teaching public school students about slavery. Among other things, these declared that slaves assigned to certain types of work “developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” Outraged critics denounced this as one more egregious episode in the campaign against “woke” education that Governor Ron DeSantis hopes will carry him into the White House.
But it was much more than that. It was the latest skirmish in a struggle that has been going on for a century and a half. As with so many other conflicts in American life, from the Scopes trial to the fury against multiculturalism, at its core has been a war over textbooks. And although she is little remembered today, there is no question who was the winning side’s first commander in chief.
The long battle over American history textbooks arose from the ashes of the Civil War, which had left the white population of the South devastated. Parts of many towns and cities were in rubble; 18 percent of Southern white men between the ages of thirteen and forty-three had been killed—triple the rate in the North—and by some estimates nearly 200,000 Southern soldiers were wounded. The humiliation of military defeat quickly gave rise to a romanticization of the Old South that became known as the Lost Cause. That vanished land was happy, rural, and idyllic for all, white and Black, the myth goes, without the problems of industrial society, and it was this harmonious world that the brave Confederate soldiers had fought to defend. As the historian David W. Blight put it in Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (2001),
White supremacy, a hardening of traditional gender roles, a military tradition and patriotic recognition of Confederate valor, and a South innocent of responsibility for slavery were values in search of a history.
And so determined Southern patriots set out to create that history.
The death toll among Confederate men meant that women, despite those traditional gender roles, were particularly active in crafting it. Their work began with Ladies’ Memorial Associations, which sprang up throughout the South. These groups exhumed the Confederate dead from battlefields, reburied them in special cemeteries, and staged memorial days. By 1868 Virginia alone had twenty-six Ladies’ Memorial Associations. Many Confederate widows wore black for the rest of their lives.
The next stage came in the 1890s with the founding of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which quickly became the most influential force promoting the Lost Cause. The Daughters, as they were called, grew rapidly, quintupling their membership between 1900 and 1920. Their most visible work was helping to erect monuments to Confederate leaders. Although dozens of these have been toppled in the past few years, a far greater number are still standing. Among them is an 1896 white marble obelisk in Fort Mill, South Carolina, inscribed:
Dedicated to the faithful slaves who, loyal to a sacred trust, toiled for support of the army, with matchless devotion, and with sterling fidelity guarded our defenseless homes, women and children.
The most powerful impact of the Lost Cause, however, was on schools, in large part because of a formidable woman named Mildred Lewis Rutherford. Both her grandfathers were wealthy Georgia planters; one owned more than two hundred slaves. Two uncles were Confederate generals. Rutherford was as patriotic about her class as her region. The plantation owners she celebrated were, she claimed, descended from the cavaliers, the royalists of the English Civil War, “men of the leading families of England, gentlemen of the best English society, the landed gentry born to wealth.” By contrast, the villain who had crushed their world, Abraham Lincoln, had been chosen by Republicans because they “wanted a man from the lower class to humiliate the upper class.”
Born in 1851, she grew up in a grand manor house where “covered dishes and hot butter cakes, hot waffles, hot rolls and even ginger cakes” issued from the kitchen. The teenage Rutherford saw her mother take wounded Confederate soldiers into their home. For the remainder of her life, her immense energy was focused on glorifying antebellum society. She spent more than twenty years as the director of an exclusive Georgia private girls’ school designed to turn out gracious, proper Southern women—all white, of course. “Her most outstanding physical feature,” wrote one historian, “may well have been her ramrod-straight posture. One former student remembered that whenever Rutherford passed through a room, people instinctively straightened themselves.” She strictly forbade wearing makeup and talking to boys, and before school outings she measured her pupils’ skirts to make sure they all fell below the ankle. She was appalled by the specter of girls loose enough to let boys call them by their first names and praised the women of the Old South, who, at least in her imagining, “kept their lovers waiting a long time to get the prize well worth the having.”
Rutherford had the title of “historian general” of the Daughters. Despite idealizing the traditional homemaker and passionately opposing women’s suffrage, she never married and was a fiercely busy entrepreneur, rising at 4 AM daily and working far into the night. She published a monthly magazine, Miss Rutherford’s Scrap Book, and more than two dozen books and pamphlets with titles like The South Must Have Her Rightful Place in History. She also produced a page in each monthly issue of the Confederate Veteran, a strident voice of the Lost Cause. Her face framed by abundant ringlets of hair, she spoke to audiences throughout the South dressed as a plantation debutante in lace shawl, floor-length dress, and long white gloves.
Above all, this most soldierly of women focused her ire on textbooks that dared to suggest that there was anything shameful about slavery or the Confederacy. “Miss Millie,” as she was known, called them a “tide of falsehoods.” She often praised the children of one Georgia school who, finding a book “that called their fathers ‘traitors,’” tossed all their copies of it into a bonfire. “Dr. Hart, you are wrong,” she wrote to the distinguished Harvard historian Albert B. Hart, who had made critical comments about the Old South. “I lived in those early days and I know whom of I speak.”
Rutherford’s pamphlet A Measuring Rod to Test Text-Books, and Reference Books in Schools, Colleges, and Libraries laid down instructions as rigid as those of a Soviet cultural commissar:
Reject a text-book that does not give the principles for which the South fought in 1861.
Reject a book that says the South fought to hold her slaves.
Reject a book that speaks of the slaveholder of the South as cruel and unjust to his slaves.
The South had not seceded from the union, she declared; rather “the Northern States seceded from the Constitution.” Under Rutherford’s generalship, the Daughters broadened their campaign to include essay contests. A Virginia high school student, Elise Dodson, won a gold medal for an essay that called slavery “the happiest time of the negroes’ existence.” Some contests took place on enemy territory, for new chapters of the Daughters sprang up when loyal Confederate progeny migrated north. A schoolgirl in Seattle won a prize in 1915 for an essay honoring the Ku Klux Klan. The Daughters sponsored contests at the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Chicago, and Columbia, where Woodrow Wilson, not yet president but always a loyal son of Virginia, was one of the judges.
For younger students there was the Children of the Confederacy, with its own network of chapters. Its members sang Civil War songs, heard talks by elderly veterans, and played “The Game of Confederate Heroes” with fifty-two playing cards featuring pictures of Confederate politicians and generals. One of the group’s most popular tools was a booklet called Confederate Catechism. Some questions from a North Carolina edition:
What did the North and South fight about?
Ans. The North would not grant us constitutional rights, nor would they let us alone, the South could no longer submit to the tyranny and oppression of the North, and was obliged to fight.
Was it right for the Confederate States to secede?
Ans. Yes, they could not do otherwise, under the circumstances.
If our cause was right why did we not succeed in gaining our independence?
Ans. The North overpowered us at last, with larger numbers, they had all the world to aid them, we had no one, we fought the world.
This particular catechism also ventured into the realm of alternative facts, for example listing Kentucky and Missouri as Confederate states.
A Texas edition dealt directly with slavery:
What was the feeling of the slaves toward their masters?
Ans. They were faithful and devoted and were always ready and willing to serve them.
Q: How did [the slaves] behave during the war?
A: They nobly protected and cared for the wives of soldiers in the field, and widows without protectors; though often prompted by the enemies of the South to burn and plunder the homes of their masters, they were always true and loyal.
Southern school officials were happy to please the Daughters, and no publisher in the North, where most books were produced, wanted to lose the Southern market. One textbook company approached the United Confederate Veterans, the Daughters’ partner in the textbook crusade, offering to make “any corrections or changes” needed before printing its history book. Companies sometimes published separate editions of a textbook for North and South (the latter were known in the trade as “mint julep” editions) or tried to produce one that would please everybody, which was difficult. One disgruntled author complained that “to write a history of this country, without giving offense to anyone, one should stop at 1492.”
Rutherford’s campaigning ensured that for decades Southern states adopted history textbooks that honored the Lost Cause. The most popular was A School History of the United States (1895) by Susan Pendleton Lee. The daughter and widow of Confederate generals, Lee covered American history from the days of the Indians (“idle, boastful, treacherous, full of revenge and of merciless cruelty”) onward. In every era, the South came in for praise. “The Southern people were noted for their hospitality,” while the New England Puritans “were thrifty and industrious…but they had little Christian charity.”
As for slavery, “a cruel and neglectful master or mistress was rarely found.” In narrating the Civil War, Lee concentrated on Confederate heroes like General J.E.B. Stuart, who
was of a joyous disposition, a lover of horses and dogs and of lively music…. He never uttered an oath, permitted no swearing in his presence, never drank intoxicating liquor, and always carried his mother’s Bible.
Meanwhile, Southern women
nursed the sick and wounded; took charge of farms and plantations; they cared for and directed the thousands of negroes left dependent upon them, and…they never lost their trust in God and in the righteousness of their cause.
When Robert E. Lee’s
troops had learned of the surrender…they crowded around him striving to touch him or even his horse. The anguish of defeat and surrender was like death to them. Lee, too, wept as with a broken voice he bade them return to their homes and prove themselves as worthy in peace as they had been in war.
The two-year imprisonment of Jefferson Davis that followed “will always remain a blot on the pages of American history.”
The Reverend J. William Jones, who had preached to Confederate soldiers at revival meetings throughout the war, was the author of an 1896 textbook second only to Lee’s in popularity in the South. In printing the US Constitution in his pages, he simply omitted the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. These, of course, were the Reconstruction Amendments, which ended slavery and gave its survivors citizenship and the right to vote. The historian Fred Arthur Bailey, who has written astutely about the textbook wars in many articles in state historical journals, has also traced how in almost every part of the South chapters of the Daughters made sure that school histories of each particular state echoed what writers like Lee and Jones said about the Confederacy as a whole.
History was not the only school subject in which Rutherford’s troops battled the “tide of falsehoods.” In 1908 horrified sympathizers of hers in Texas found their children had an arithmetic book with the following exercise: “Gen. Grant was born April 27, 1822 and was 41 years 2 months and seven days old when Vicksburg, Miss. was captured. When did he capture Vicksburg?” Authorities all the way up to the governor protested. The book’s publisher, Chicago’s Scott, Foresman and Company, swiftly proposed a revision: “On March 2, 1836, Texas declared her independence from Mexico…. How long was it from this date until Texans voted to accept annexation to the United States, October 13, 1845?”
Culture wars are often proxy battles for economic tensions. How much of today’s furor against “woke” schooling, for instance, stems from the fact that it is an easier and safer target for politicians to rail against than the complex forces that have caused declining real wages for much of the American population? The United Daughters of the Confederacy and its male counterpart, the United Confederate Veterans, were both dominated by the plantation owners who after the war had managed to hold on to their land or used landed wealth to gain power in the business world. It is no accident that the men’s group sprang into life in 1889 and the women’s in 1894. That was an era of nationwide labor unrest, which reached the South when Black and white dockworkers, streetcar drivers, and other union members in New Orleans walked off the job together in a surprisingly successful general strike in 1892. This period also saw the dramatic rise of the People’s Party, better known as the Populists. To the horror of groups like the Daughters, it won 8.5 percent of the popular vote in the 1892 presidential election by railing against plutocracy.
The Populists were above all the voice of the country’s indebted small farmers. Their moment on the national stage would be short, but the alliances that white Populists forged with Blacks and organized labor were particularly alarming to the Southern elite. When a coalition of this sort briefly took control of North Carolina in the mid-1890s, for instance, the number of Black magistrates and other officeholders soared. The legislature repealed restrictions on voting, capped banks’ interest rates, imposed tougher regulations on railroads, raised business taxes, and approved for public schools a Black history textbook that featured such heroes as Frederick Douglass and Toussaint Louverture. This was the only state government ever controlled by such a coalition, but for the ruling families of the South it was as horrifying as another invasion by the Union Army. To make sure it would never happen again, Southern states swiftly passed poll taxes, literacy tests, and other measures that dramatically slashed the number of Black—and poor white—voters.
More violently, the Southern elite inflamed the white racism that had made the Black–white Populist alliance uneasy and fragile to begin with. Nowhere was that alliance crushed more viciously than in Wilmington, North Carolina, which was governed since an 1897 municipal election by a biracial coalition that included Populists. On November 10, 1898, thousands of white men swept through town on a murder spree, burning the office of a Black newspaper, forcing both Black and white city officials to flee, and leaving at least sixty Black people dead. Three years later the United Daughters of the Confederacy chose Wilmington as the site of its annual convention.
Fear of class as well as racial upheaval was the unmentioned bedrock of the Lost Cause. Rutherford and her colleagues glorified the stratified world of the old plantations, where master and mistress ruled wisely from the columned mansion, the slaves sang and played banjos in their quarters, small tradesmen were happy in their humble shops in the nearby town, and members of every race and class were content in their appointed places. The Daughters reinforced this worldview by celebrating aristocratic societies of the past. In Texas, the organization’s textbook committee urged elementary school teachers to assign The Legends of King Arthur and His Court, to “point out to our children…ideals of honor and chivalry.”
Rutherford defended slavery with evangelical zeal:
The South gave the negro the best education fitted for the life he was to live. He was trained in the school of discipline and self-control…. He was taught to do every necessary thing upon the plantation and to do it well…. Where can you find a more varied and valuable education?
Before the Civil War, she wrote, the Southern slaves “were the happiest set of people on the face of the globe.” But since the disastrous Reconstruction Amendments, Black people had become “disorderly, idle, vicious and diseased.” Before her death in 1928, she helped raise funds for the huge Stone Mountain monument near Atlanta, a Confederate version of Mount Rushmore. Her name lives on in Rutherford Hall, on the Athens campus of the University of Georgia.
“The cause for which the Confederate soldier fought was in no sense a ‘Lost Cause,’” Rutherford once declared, “but a great VICTORY which will go sounding down through the ages.” When it came to textbooks, she was right: the South won the Civil War. The other side never matched the fervor of its Southern counterparts and abandoned the battlefield early. The Union veterans’ organization, the Grand Army of the Republic, lobbied in a perfunctory way for textbooks that honored the North’s side of the war, but it disbanded its school history committee in 1904, just as its rivals’ campaign was gaining ground. The Lost Cause reached its apogee with the huge popularity of Gone with the Wind—both novel and film—in the 1930s. The scrolling prologue text seen by tens of millions of moviegoers could have been written by Rutherford’s ghost:
There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South…. Here in this pretty world Gallantry took its last bow…. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave…. A Civilization gone with the wind….
Rutherford ensured that volumes like Susan Pendleton Lee’s would be assigned for decades in schools throughout the South. But long after her death the lucrative temptation to have a single book that could be used by millions of students around the country helped shape such books for all. For example, the Columbia historian David Saville Muzzey was by far twentieth-century America’s most successful textbook author; his history of the United States led the field for some fifty years. On his death in 1965, The New York Times declared that he had had “perhaps as much influence as any modern writer on the American conception of history.”
But even though Muzzey was progressive enough to be a leader of New York’s Society for Ethical Culture, his work has more than a whiff of the Lost Cause. “To reverse the relative position of the races in the South,” he wrote in the first edition of his History of the American People in 1911,
to set the ignorant, superstitious, gullible slave in power over his former master, was no way to insure either the protection of the negro’s right or the stability and peace of the Southern governments.
A quarter-century later Muzzey was still writing in the same terms. A 1936 textbook for high school students called Robert E. Lee “a gentleman of spotless character—generous, sincere, and brave…. He loved the Union and hated slavery.” The Reconstruction Act was “terrible,” and the South was “deprived of any legal means of defense against such iniquitous government.” Before long, “the distressing drama of political reconstruction was over…. but many years were to elapse before [Southerners] could either forgive or forget the bitter punishment meted out to them.”
It was not only schools that used textbooks. During World War II many soldiers learned American history from books like the School of the Citizen Soldier (1942). Its gentle description of slavery employed a classic Lost Cause image:
It was an institution that tied the races together and compelled them to work in close coöperation; for a plantation was, in some respects, like a great family. In return for the service they rendered, the planter provided his colored people with houses, clothing, food, and medical attention, and he supported them after they had become too old to work.
During the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, the Lost Cause subtly shifted its emphasis. Few adherents continued to overtly celebrate slavery the way Rutherford had; instead they claimed that the South seceded from the Union to protect “states’ rights.” This fit smoothly with the intensifying Republican demonization of the federal government—and ignored the fact that the right white southerners most wanted to protect was to practice slavery. The propaganda has worked. A McClatchy-Marist poll in 2015 asked a national sample of American adults, “What’s your impression of why the Civil War in this country was fought?” Only 42 percent said it was “mainly about slavery”; 43 percent said “mainly about states’ rights.” Some surveys show an even lower percentage of people connecting the war with slavery.
In the past few decades the Lost Cause has adroitly adopted a new feature, truly adapting its racism to the age of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Its proponents have energetically spread the myth that there were large numbers of enthusiastic Black Confederates. In 2010 a new fourth-grade textbook in Virginia declared that “thousands of southern Blacks fought in the Confederate ranks, including two black battalions under the command of Stonewall Jackson.” When respected Civil War historians called this nonsense, the author cited her sources, all of which could be traced back to the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a group that carries on much of the Daughters’ work. Its website today claims that “over 65,000 Southern blacks were in the Confederate ranks.” What better argument could there be that the Civil War was not about white supremacy or slavery? Mildred Rutherford would be pleased.