by Vikki Bynum
Politics is a particularly nasty business these days at the state as well as national level. Take North Carolina, a state I dearly love. In recent years, the right-wing swing of that state’s government provided the impetus for the Reverend William Barber’s courageous “Moral Monday” movement, which in turn fueled the nail-biting gubernatorial election of Attorney General Roy Cooper, a moderate Democrat. Now, however, the Republican state legislature has passed laws to severely limit the power of the new governor. North Carolina is at the breaking point, politically, socially and constitutionally.
The state’s current crisis is not unprecedented. Author Ian McDowell’s recent article, “The Triad’s Real Civil War Heritage, transports us back in time to Civil War North Carolina, providing instructive examples of how political hubris, outright lies, and historical illiteracy have long served up a combustible brew. Reactionary anger replaces reasoned debate, with much of that anger based on a false understanding of the past as well as the present. Tragically, “fake news” has exploded with the advent of electronic social media. It is not a new phenomenon, however.
The “Lost Cause” version of the Civil War, with its cardinal tenet that slavery did not cause the war, is one of our longest lasting fake stories. In fact, like a number of Southern states, North Carolina has a fiercer history of support for the Union than does The Free State of Jones in Mississippi. Drawing on the work of Civil War historian William Auman, McDowell notes that
In William Owens, North Carolina had its own version of Newton Knight, the Mississippi Unionist recently played by Matthew McConaughey in the film The Free State of Jones. Owens may not have shared Knight’s belief in the equality of men, and his story ended less happily, but he opposed the Confederacy just as violently. When the conscription age was raised to fifty, Owens organized a band of armed guerillas and declared de facto war on the Confederacy.
Many folks in North Carolina ignore this history, particularly those opposed to recent efforts to remove Confederate flags from state buildings. Those who revere the Confederacy are loath to believe they just might have descended from staunch defenders of the U.S. government—that is, from plain folks who concluded that southern secession from the Union and the creation of the Confederacy were all about maintaining slavery—amid a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight” that brought death on the Civil War’s battlefields and starvation on its home fronts.
While attending a “Southern values” rally organized by a notable heritage group, “Alamance County Taking Back Alamance County” (ACTBAC), Ian McDowell had no luck in appealing to participants to consider the fact that
during the Civil War, many Triad Southerners felt themselves to be under attack, not from Union forces, but from Confederate troops.
Gary Williamson, founder of ACTBAC, dismissed Ian McDowell’s remarks about North Carolina’s Civil War Unionist past with the following words:
You have what you think your history books say, but I have the heritage in my heart.
And there you have it. Time and again, we hear such words. Not history, but emotions, anger, and Lost Cause sentimentality drive much of today’s reverence for Southern ancestors—ancestors who I like to imagine rising up, if only they could, to bellow “I fought for the Union you damned fool!”
And so I urge you: read Ian’s article; discuss it with friends, post it on Facebook and Twitter. Because if there’s anything the past seventy-five years have shown us, it’s that all the well-researched books on the Civil War, and all the dedicated teachers of the world, are not enough to defeat the mythology of a noble Confederate cause. As ACTBAC flies the Confederate flag in its movement to “take back” Alamance County, McDowell reminds us that the same county
in 1861 voted 1,114 to 254 against secession (the only time they were allowed to vote on the subject), and where peace rallies were held in 1864 advocating a return to the Union.
NOTE: If you wish to learn more about anti-Confederate and Unionist activism by white men and women, slaves, and people of color in Civil War North Carolina, Renegade South is a great place to start. Just click on the following essays of your choice:
- Documents on the Shelton Laurel Massacre from the North Carolin1.a State Archives
- Civil War Letters from North Carolina: John A. Beaman to Governor Vance
- Southerners Against Slavery: Wesleyan Methodists in Montgomery County, NC
- White Farm Women Protest Confederate Abuse: The NC Home Front
- Kill or be Killed: Bill Owens’s Guerrilla War
- Hiram Hulin seeks Justice for his Murdered Sons
- A North Carolina Community in Crisis, 1868-1869 (the Ku Klux Klan)
- Thomas P. Maness, Civil War Dissenter from Moore County, NC.
- Phebe Crook and the Inner Civil War in North Carolina
- The Chowan Discovery Group: Documenting the Mixed-Race history of North Carolina’s Winton Triangle
Categories: North Carolina