Review: New Book Seeks To Differentiate Between Confederate History And Historical MemoryHistorians in the News
tags: reviews, Confederacy, historical memory, public history, Lost Cause
THE FALSE CAUSE: Fraud, Fabrication, and White Supremacy in Confederate Memory. By Adam Domby. University of Virginia Press. 272 pages. $29.95.
In the acknowledgments to his timely new book, Adam Domby explains that it was only due to a flood that the book began at all. When he arrived at the North Carolina State Archives to do some research, he was told the room he needed to access was filled with standing water. Unsure what to do next, Domby remembered an old historic lead that he meant to follow.
He relocated to another section of the archives to look into an incident of Confederate pension fraud. What he found was only the tip of the iceberg. Domby, a professor of history at the College of Charleston, uncovered instances of fraud and fabrication woven together to create a false narrative that ennobled the Confederacy in Southern popular memory and enshrined white supremacy in its political culture.
The sense of discovery that Domby shares in the acknowledgments animates the book. Not only does he provide readers with fascinating historical anecdotes throughout the book, he clearly relates them to the present moment. In so doing, he offers the helpful distinction between history and historical memory.
History, he recounts, is the careful reconstruction of events by historians relying on the evidence and records. Historical memory, however, is the story that is collectively adopted and passed down over generations.
Put another way, history is investigative and historical memory is interpretive. Domby’s book moves deftly between the two as he tells the story of how White Southerners purposefully shaped historical memory in order to soften the horrors of slavery, shift responsibility for their sedition, and secure White political power in response to Reconstruction Era efforts at creating a multiracial democracy.
Novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen reminds us that all wars are fought twice. “The first time on the battlefield,” he says, “(and) the second time in memory.” Domby’s book provides a helpful guide through White Southern memory, a place where the Civil War never really ended. Using the state of North Carolina as a case study, he explains how Confederate statues were erected after Reconstruction as a way of reasserting white supremacy, literally putting White power on pedestals outside courthouses, on campuses, and in city squares.