February 24, 2024

Men in a picturesque Virginia street sport Confederate uniforms, waving rebel battle flags mixed with Donald Trump campaign banners. This is 2024 in America, where the Civil War not only hasn’t been forgotten — it never truly ended.

“Carry on the fight!” urged Susan Lee at an event in the town of Lexington, as several hundred fellow Southern sympathizers gathered this month to honor generals from the slave-owning 19th century Confederacy.

“God save the South!”

The Confederates — a separatist rebellion seeking to preserve the South’s slavery-based economy — almost destroyed the United States before finally losing in an 1861-65 war that killed as many as 800,000 people.

But for the Lexington crowd — musket-carrying men wearing grey Confederate army uniforms, and women in period dress singing the antebellum song “Dixie” — the rebels remain heroes, not traitors or racists.

“We do not need the permission of carpetbaggers and scallywag politicians” to honor Southern generals, Lee said before the group paraded through the streets.

That passion is far from confined to history buffs — particularly as America gears up for November’s presidential election.

Mingling with the Confederate paraphernalia were “Trump 2024” banners, an iconic symbol for right-wingers who often describe themselves as fighting their own kind of contemporary rebellion against Washington.

Trump has repeatedly shown sympathy for Confederate-friendly culture of the rural South.

He has praised Civil War losing general Robert E. Lee as a “genius” and angrily opposed President Joe Biden’s decision to rename US military bases previously named in honor of Confederate, pro-slavery figures.

This month, the increasingly far-right Republican leader caused a stir by saying the Civil War could have been “negotiated” — downplaying the epic battle led by Abraham Lincoln to extinguish slavery and maintain a single country at all costs.

The Civil War may have happened 160 years ago, but the echoes are everywhere.

“It really is the ground zero for so many issues that have shaped American history,” Boston University professor Nina Silber told AFP.

– Racial reckoning –

The clearest reminders are the monuments still scattered across the South — whether streets or entire towns named after rebel figures or statues celebrating the Confederacy.

The statues have become targets for cultural skirmishes between conservatives and diversity-supporting progressives. Last month a Confederate monument was quietly removed from Arlington National Cemetery, the official resting place for American war heroes.

Slavery’s deeper legacies have proven far harder to remove.

While the war led to emancipation of four million enslaved people, providing them basic access to civic and political life, a whitewashing of history followed. So did century-long violent suppression and segregation of Black Americans, further embedding racism in the systems that undergird US society, Silber said.

“As a Black person in (South Carolina) you can’t escape slavery,” Democratic National Committee chairman Jaime Harrison said on social media platform X. “For Black folks it impacts everything and almost every waking moment.”

That lack of a clear break with the past came under a harsh spotlight in December when Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley, a former South Carolina governor, told an audience the Civil War was about “freedoms” and “government,” not slavery.

Haley earned plaudits for ordering the Confederate flag removed from the state capitol in 2015 after a church massacre of nine Black Americans by a white supremacist.

But this month Biden returned to Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston and delivered a fierce rebuke of Haley.

“Slavery was the cause. There is no negotiation about that,” he said.

Defenders like Lee insist Southerners fought the Union not over slavery, but states’ rights and preservation of their values.

Biden stridently rejected that romanticized, nostalgic ideology known as the “Lost Cause.”

“Now we’re living in an era of a second Lost Cause… a lie which, if allowed to live, will once again bring terrible damage to this country,” he said, referring to Trump’s baseless claim that the 2020 election was stolen.

– ‘Heritage’ –

All marchers in Lexington who spoke to AFP said slavery was abhorrent but defended celebrating the Confederacy.

It is “the heritage of having Confederate ancestors, and believing in the cause to this day,” said Chuck Dransfield, a retired state employee dressed in his replica uniform.

Noting the Trump banners, he said “for the most part his platform… aligns with ours.”

Americans are split again, acknowledged Dransfield, 65.

“I don’t think there will ever be a time when they will come together… At least not in my lifetime.”