How do people in the South perceive the Civil War and what does slavery mean to them? In the United States, race is prevalent in conversation, from the Black Lives Matter movement on university campuses to immigration policies proposed by presidential candidates. According to Stan Deaton, senior historian and the Elaine S. Andrew’s Distinguished Historian at the Georgia Historical Society, history must be discussed honestly and openly and he has done such with the Civil War.
“After the Charleston shooting, people are starting to feel ready to discuss what the history here was, what historians really do,” Deaton said.
Deaton proceeded to speak on this growing conversation regarding the Civil War and slavery in his talk “Teaching Slavery in Public (in the former Confederacy)” on Jan. 21 at the Wiess College master’s house as part of a series of lectures on “Problems in African American History.”
Deaton is also the Emmy award-winning writer and host of “Today in Georgia History” and managing editor of the Georgia Historical Quarterly while also leading major efforts on historical markers and educating secondary and college teachers.
“I wear a lot of hats,” Deaton said. “Over 20 years I have gotten to talk, write, speak and think about history.”
In Georgia, Deaton said he faces the question of how to remember the Confederacy.
“People have [a] vested interest in how it is remembered,” Deaton said. “Everything is about language.”
According to Deaton, many Georgians and other Southerners utilize the “lost cause” narrative as a model for the Civil War, with false claims that the basis for the war was states’ rights.
“To many, it is a concession to say that slavery was a part of the reason for the Civil War,” Deaton said. “The Civil War was fought to preserve it as an institution but instead, many turn to a litany of complaints about everything other than that.”
Deaton said he is disappointed in many of the conversations about the Civil War and found that it was full of false narratives.
“We are not having an honest conversation about the greatest attempt to destroy the United States,” Deaton said. “This is political correctness, revision history.”
At the time of the Civil War, people were proud to be fighting to keep slavery and maintain their way of life, according to Deaton.
“[Southerners] weren’t ashamed to honor [the Confederate soldiers], we must be honest,” Deaton said.
Deaton said historical markers are an important way of shifting people’s perspective on the Civil War.
“Historical markers say something to the future about what we knew then,” Deaton said. “We can’t turn a blind eye to something simply because it doesn’t fit our narrative.”
Deaton said the past, although not necessarily an easy thing to face, is important to both our and our country’s identity.
“The past is not a happy place,” Deaton said. “We don’t go there to feel good. However, we can’t let our ancestors think for us and it is our duty to be intellectually honest.”