Evidently, Not All History Is Written By The Victors…

A recent article from the Washington Post challenged my belief in the old adage that history is written by the victors. (It would also appear that Faux News didn’t invent propaganda. Who knew?) Apparently, successfully resisting Reconstruction wasn’t the only tactic employed by pro-slavery Southerners. 

They were also able to suppress “inconvenient” history. 

As Howell Raines, the author of the essay, noted, “Until a few years ago, I was among the thousands of Southerners who never knew they had kin buried under Union Army headstones.” It appears that a regiment of 2,066 fighters and spies who came from the mountain South were chosen by Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman as his personal escort on the March to the Sea. Raines wondered how their history got erased, and found that “the explanation reaches back to Columbia University, whose pro-Confederate Dunning School of Reconstruction History at the start of the 20th century spread a false narrative of Lost Cause heroism and suffering among aristocratic plantation owners.”

As a 10-year-old I stood in the presence of Marie Bankhead Owen, who showed me and my all-White elementary-school classmates the bullet holes in Confederate battle flags carried by “our boys.” She and her husband, Thomas McAdory Owen, reigned from 1901 to 1955 as directors of the archives in a monolithic alabaster building across from the Alabama State Capitol. They made the decision not to collect the service records of an estimated 3,000 White Alabamians who enlisted in the Union Army after it occupied Huntsville, Ala., in 1862. The early loss of this crucial Tennessee River town was a stab to the heart from which the Confederacy never recovered. Neither did the writing of accurate history in Alabama.

The Owens were not alone in what was a national academic movement to play down the sins of enslavers. In the files in Montgomery, I found the century-old correspondence between Thomas Owen and Columbia University historian William Archibald Dunning about their mission to give a pro-Southern slant to the American Historical Association. 

The essay documents the effort to sanitize the “War Between the States,” by claiming that  Southerners had been solidly behind the Confederacy; that the war had been fought about “states’ rights,” not slavery; and–most pernicious of all–that African Americans were “scientifically proven to be a servile race” that brought down Reconstruction because they were incapable of governing.

The fact that few Americans have ever heard of the 1st Alabama Cavalry and the defiant anti-secession activist who led to its founding, Charles Christopher Sheats, documents how such historiographic trickery produced what the Mellon Foundation calls “a woefully incomplete story” of the American past. The foundation’s Monuments Program is spending $500 million to erect accurate memorials to political dissidents, women and minorities who are underrepresented in many best-selling history books.

Recent research has traced the ways in which an “alternate” Southern history became the predominant story of the Civil War.

Dunning was the son of a wealthy New Jersey industrialist who taught him that Southern plantation masters were unfairly punished during Reconstruction. The younger Dunning installed a white-supremacist curriculum at Columbia and, after 1900, started dispatching his doctoral students to set up pro-Confederate history departments at Southern universities. The most influential of these was Walter Lynwood Fleming, whose students at Vanderbilt University produced “I’ll Take My Stand,” a celebration of plantation culture written by 12 brilliant conservative “Agrarian” writers including Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate and Andrew Nelson Lytle…Fleming, who was born on an Alabama plantation, reigned as the director of graduate education at Vanderbilt and peopled Southern history departments with PhDs schooled in the pro-Confederate views he learned from Dunning at Columbia.

It turns out that there were some 100,000 Union volunteers from the South. They were, Howell tells us, “Jacksonian Democrats who hewed to Old Hickory’s 1830 dictum that the Union must be preserved.” Lost Cause historians who had been schooled by Dunning and Fleming glossed over the fact that “White volunteers from the Confederate states made up almost 5 percent of Lincoln’s army.”

Howell concludes by considering how this history was lost.

How then did the Civil War become the only conflict in which, as filmmaker Ken Burns told me, the losers got to write the history, erecting statues of Johnny Reb outside seemingly every courthouse in Alabama? Long story short, after the Compromise of 1877 ended Reconstruction, plantation oligarchs regained control of Southern legislatures and state universities started churning out history books that ignored Black people and poor Whites. When national historians set about writing widescreen histories of the war, they relied on these tainted histories.

The essay is lengthy, and filled with fascinating details documenting both accurate history and the dishonest machinations of those whose devotion to Confederate ideology suppressed it.

It made me wonder how often losers have become victors by simply rewriting history…


  1. In more recent years, the Texas school book group had a huge impact on what was and what was not in US History books. It continues

  2. patmcc. It wasn’t just history books they influenced. They had a heavy hand on science texts, too especially on the topic of evolution which they tried to ignore. And teaching biology without the concept of evolution is rather like trying to teach English without the concept of sentences.

  3. To my way of thinking it isn’t so much the losers who write bad history as it is just plain scoundrels both winners and losers. Too often those “revered winners” are only revered because they hide the evil methods for their success. The history of the “conquest” of the west is a prime example.

  4. Homo Sapiens have been around for 250,000 years, give or take a few centuries, which has been established by a few artifacts that have survived those early Africans who benefited from the mutation that established us as a separate and distinct species. Bigger and better brains seem to be the most distinctive feature from our predecessors.

    Brains are the knot and tangle of nerve cells crammed into our craniums like passengers on an overcrowded subway car during rush hour.

    “Oh, what a tangled web we weave/When first we practice to deceive.”

    And we have from day one.

    We as a species added a great deal of both positive progress and negative anti-progress since.

    I, for one, wish, after my measly 81 years of homo sapiens-ship, a different path for my grandchildren to wander along.

    More truth, less deception. More love, less hate, or, in other words, more family Xmas times among the family of man.

  5. “Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Those who prevent history from being taught fully intend to repeat it.” -Kate Blair

  6. “Over it” gets it right. Pete misses out that the first element in human existence is survival. Once humans discovered hoarding and its associated tribalism, all that inherent “goodness” emerged only in the intellectual elite.

    This morning’s paper presented a tableau of human conflict around the world that belies anything regarding the “peace and love” wishes we civilized types would like to see.

    Perverted history mentioned in today’s essay stems from the economic imperatives attached to our original sin, slavery. Of course, the ideal labor environment for capitalism is unregulated banking and free labor, aka slavery.

    This is our reward for not paying attention to our intelligence when it goes off the rails.

  7. if it sounds good,they will come. in the blue collar ranks, seems it was still being taught today. added we have the silver spoon lot with decent wages and life style that seem to believe they still aint gettin enough of da pie. those who believe the goverment is out to getem.. todays history/news is tanged with the spoiled child syndrome. falling back on this type of history mentioned here today has only solidified their slants and thinking. if this is southern style education for thier mass, its now being glamorized by the propaganda ministers of commercial news. the think tanks of the past 40 years against a democracy here at home are being paid by the rich to reduce anyones thinking of the reality of history. instead we have proagated generations of walking mimes of past falsehoods. though a few thousand southeners were part of the union side of that conflict,the toll from that part of history is a reminder of who will take sides if we again have civil unrest. if this brings a insurrection today, in the nations width, can we now charge those who sought to corrupt history and peoples minds with conspiracys of no means, and charge them insurrection? any legal thought here?

  8. “The North won the battles, but the South won the war,” is a refrain I’ve heard from time to time. What a mistake that the leaders of the secessionists were not punished for their treachery, just as Nixon was not!

  9. The truth is available and can be found in libraries if you have the patience and drive and curiosity!

  10. Sheila wonders ‘how often losers have become victors by simply rewriting history…’

    Ever since unionized labor gained power for employees in the 1950s the wealthy oligarchs and large corporations started rewriting our economic history on a daily basis. With Reagan’s 1980 election they got their perfect puppet to spread their trickle down lies. Over the past two decades they’ve increased their power with the purchase and/or creation of a variety of media sources that spreads their propaganda.

    They have successfully used their media to convince millions of people that trump is their economic savior. Those people have been so thoroughly brainwashed that there seems to be no possibility that they will ever believe the actual truth. I am worried.

  11. Vernon, “ Pete misses out that the first element in human existence is survival.”

    Right on. There are some face to face, you vs me, last man standing, surviver wins, contests. But even David bested Goliath by adding the advantage of an easily hidden slingshot. Deception won again.

    Of source modern offensive and defensive war weapons are no different. Surprise attacks impossible to defend against.

    All based on deceptive political reasoning.

    When the present day slaughters and destruction of Ukraine and Gaza are over and human treasury storehouse are looted both for destruction and re-construction, and history writes of them, the lies will be declared victorious.


  12. Interesting, Pete. Russia attacks Ukraine and Gaza attacks Israel, but you put Ukraine (attacked) and Gaza (attacker) in the same category. I think that the Palestinians have long won the propaganda war against Israel, but internally (School books teaching that Israelis are foreigners like crusaders and are all bad), and externally (Rape, planned extermination, and kidnapping are equated with wartime casualties caused by placing military installations in the midst of civilian populations).

    Sorry – off day today.

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