The North Won The War, But The South Wrote The Story: Myth, Racism, and Identity In America
Before there were nations, countries were ruled by kings who claimed to derive their authority from God. But once common people started deposing those kings, and founded governments of their own, they had to find new ways of ascribing legitimacy. The way they did this was through mythmaking.
In America we have a lot of national myths. Despite systematic racism, we bask in our diversity. Despite mass surveillance and the largest number of incarcerated persons on the planet, we celebrate our unfettered freedom. And despite vast voting inequalities and an electoral college that frequently undermines the will of the majority, we call ourselves the greatest democracy in the world.
Myth is central to how we Americans perceive ourselves and our imagined community. It shapes our shared identity.
The North and the South should probably never have been in the same country. From the earliest days, the two regions spun myths that ran counter to each other. In fact, regional identity was largely constructed out of direct opposition to the other.
Northern elites saw themselves as captains of industry, as builders whose steady hand on the wheel of governance was essential to the nation’s success. Even before the founding they looked down on the South as a backward swamp of lazy hillbillies. Once revolution came they placed the center of power in New England. And although these elites had absolutely no interest in racial integration, increasingly used abolition as a rhetorical weapon.
To counter Northern mythmaking, Southern elites created their own myth of a refined, aristocratic, pastoral utopia. A garden of good manners, untarnished beauty, and conservative sensibilities. Plantation owners were not vicious enslavers who peddled in human misery to enrich themselves on the cultivation of cash crops, they were instead benign stewards of the land, who civilized savagery through honest labor. To their eyes, the North was a chaotic cesspool full of swarthy immigrants and meddling carpetbaggers, eager to impose their rule and culture on a fiercely independent people.
As noted by historian James C. Cobb, this Southern mythology was dealt a major blow with the failure of secession, as “the North’s military triumph further secured its role as the true symbol of American society.” By defeating the South, Northern elites could consolidate their cultural and economic power and finally rule the United States without compromise.
In response, the South developed new myths, including the “myth of unity,” the “failure of Reconstruction,” and most notorious of all, “the Lost Cause.” The South cast itself as an embattled underdog, armed with brilliant military commanders, and defeated only by attrition. Johnny Reb was just a poor working boy brought to the struggle not for slavery but to defend his home against Northern aggression.
By the twentieth century, these Southern myths found traction with Northern whites who weren’t all too keen to live down the street from black people. This mythmaking was helped along by a deliberate campaign to elevate the Confederacy through the building of monuments, the careful curation of textbooks, and the spread of racist propaganda, such as D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film The Birth of a Nation.
Eventually, these post-Civil War, Southern myths became enshrined as conventional wisdom and increasingly became tied to white identity. The stars and bars, once just a discarded symbol of racism and treason, became ubiquitous across the whole of the country, proudly displayed even by people whose ancestors fought on the side of the Union.
This is why you’ll find the Confederate battle flag flying even in Northern states like Illinois, the land of Lincoln. It’s why monuments to Confederate traitors can be found in cities across much of the nation, even in the halls of Congress. And it’s why a New York-born real estate developer turned politician, two generations removed from European immigrants, refuses to rename American military bases honoring Confederate Generals.
Writing on Twitter in 2017, right after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Trump said: “Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments.” But the Confederacy was not our country. Those statues are not of American heroes.
The truth is the Confederate States of America was founded by a group of wealthy elites who made their fortunes through the enslavement of millions of people. Millions of people who they exploited, terrorized, and brutalized. They were aided in this cruelty by a system of dehumanization, which they evangelized, and millions of their fellow citizens, ready and willing executioners. Fearful that their elevated status might be threatened by the rise of abolition, they committed treason and killed over 600,000 Americans. They lost the Civil War because they were out-manned, out-generaled, and because their struggle lacked moral authority.
White Americans, on either side of the Mason-Dixie, never reckoned with the sin of slavery and the reality of racism. Victory in the Civil War gave the North permission to shrug off the problem as an anomaly, while defeat gave the South the resolve to never provide restitution to its victims. The ensuing mythmaking became the last bastion of a hateful white ideology, predicated on notions of racial superiority.
The North may have won the war, but it was the mythology of the South that shaped American identity.