At last, Labor Day has turned the page on a summer destined for historic notice. Apropos since its tale began with a landmark statue’s relocation to the History Museum of Mobile.
Even though Adm. Raphael Semmes isn’t as visible now, the rest of the Lost Cause iceberg lurks. It’s been indulged too long to melt so quickly.
Six years before the statue’s 1900 debut, the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) aimed to perpetuate the Lost Cause, a historical revisionism sprouted from Southern rationalizations for the Civil War. Their mythology paints the South as victimized targets of Northern aggression and — secession declarations be damned — slavery wasn’t a cause. They proclaim slaves were well-treated, and gallant Southern forces were only defeated by Northern industry’s advantages.
The UDC memorialized this narrative in ubiquitous statuary like the Semmes piece. Their unveiling ceremonies featured the UDC’s youth auxiliary, the Children of the Confederacy, who formed “living flags” and sang odes to the Old South. Beyond ceremonies, the kids penned essays and were taught catechisms built around historical inaccuracy.
“What causes led to the War Between the States?” was a typical question per historian Dr. Karen Cox’s 2003 book, “Dixie’s Daughters.”
“The disregard, on the part of the states of the North, for the rights of the Southern or slaveholding states” was the kids’ indoctrinated response.
Most effectively, the UDC influenced school textbooks. Those that didn’t further Lost Cause mythos were stamped “unfriendly to the South” and since UDC membership was widespread and influential, school systems yielded.
This effect rippled through generations. My 1970s grade school textbooks were filled with it. In their pages, slavery was described as a beneficent, early form of Social Security with the best medical care possible and feasts with turkey, cakes, jelly and ice cream.
I unlearned what those books taught, from the other kids and parents in my mostly Black neighborhood, from the TV mini-series “Roots” and, more thoroughly, in later academic study. Also, through simple empathy.
By then, Lost Cause mythology had burrowed deep into the collective Southern psyche. It indoctrinated our predecessors who then enforced segregation.
Jim Crow laws are gone now. Those deep-fried doyennes, though, still harken to “old times … not forgotten.”
In the era when Michael Donald was lynched and displayed in Midtown Mobile, newspaper archives show the presence of at least four UDC chapters in Mobile. The Alabama UDC division’s website lists three contemporary Mobile chapters: the Bonnie Blue Flag, the Electra Semmes Colston and the Jefferson Davis. The Charles S. Stewart chapter is in Foley.
The ladies don’t dictate textbook content anymore, but they still operate youth auxiliaries. Foley’s Children of the Confederacy chapter won awards in 2014, 2015 and 2016 for innocuous things like stamp and pop tab collection.
Other Alabama UDC chapters thrive. Cleburne County’s chapter won recent awards for swelling to 190 members, one of the largest in the nation. They unveiled a new Confederate monument at the courthouse in 2008. Newspapers reveal their access to the county’s four elementary schools for contests among fourth-grade students and the UDC donates educational materials to school libraries.
Heidi Christensen is a former UDC chapter leader who withdrew over various ideological differences.
“There was one issue of the UDC [publication] that had a picture of a gentleman accepting a package and he happened to be Black and I got some pretty hateful phone calls. I thought that was the opposite of what we should be doing,” Christensen said.
Now in Seattle, the Florida native continues veteran-related support activities like those she undertook with the UDC, but in her own organization. She points to scholarships the UDC provides through essay contests but takes difference with older textbooks’ historical falsehoods.
Lost Cause inculcation surfaces in other ways. During an August 2020 meeting, Mobile County Commissioner Connie Hudson said: “There are citizens who feel [the Confederacy] is part of history, part of their heritage. The vast majority, slavery issue aside, had ancestors who fought in the ‘War Between the States’ and the vast majority of those were not slaveholders. They were poor farmers who felt like they were protecting their homeland.”
Note for note, it’s Lost Cause rationale, even down to the conflict’s title. An Alabama native, Hudson isn’t much older than me, which means she had textbooks like mine. The UDC’s shadow is long.
The study of history is a discipline for separating truth from myth while the Lost Cause is a perversion of that ethos. It’s less about truth, more like sleight of hand.
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