History, the adage goes, is written by the victors.
Would that it were true.
In the Civil War, the U.S. Army, at a staggering human cost, eventually crushed the traitors who took up arms against their own country. But Lost Cause mythology rewrote the rebellion as a conflict over states’ rights, portrayed Confederates as gallant heroes fighting impossible odds, romanticized plantation life and sanitized slavery. The fictions, taught to generations of southerners, fueled Jim Crow and white supremacy.
In the retelling of Jan. 6, we see an echo of Lost Cause mythology. On that terrible day, terrorists took up arms against the United States, sacking the seat of the U.S. government in a deadly rampage. White supremacists marauded through the Capitol. It was a coup attempt, aimed at overturning the will of the people with brute force, encouraged by a defeated president and his allies. The Capitol Police and Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police, badly outnumbered, ultimately prevailed in putting down the insurrection.
But now the losers are trying to rewrite the history of that day. The terrorists were “patriots.” Theirs was a “normal tourist visit.” They weren’t armed. They were “hugging and kissing” the police. A woman, shot as she breached the last barrier keeping elected representatives from the mob, was a martyr shot in cold blood. The Capitol Police were ill-trained. It was Nancy Pelosi’s fault.
The losers, again, are trying to write the history. They must not be allowed to succeed — for if they do, they will certainly try again to attack democracy.
President Joe Biden joined the battle against the revisionists on Thursday as he presented the Congressional Gold Medal to the police who saved democracy on Jan. 6. “We cannot allow history to be rewritten,” he said.
In speech honoring the heroism of the police, Biden, at one point brushing a tear from his eye, called the attackers what they were. “A mob of extremists and terrorists launched a violent and deadly assault on the People’s House and the sacred ritual to certify a free and fair election,” he said. “It was insurrection ... It was unconstitutional. And maybe most important, it was fundamentally un-American.”
To that list of labels, Ty Seidule adds one more: “It was a lynch mob.”
Seidule is qualified to say so. A retired U.S. Army general, he taught history for two decades at West Point. Now at Hamilton College, he’s the author of “Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause,” a disembowelment of Lost Cause lies he learned in his own upbringing as a White southerner.
He told me of the disgust he felt when he saw a photo of an insurrectionist in the Capitol on Jan. 6 carrying the Confederate battle flag — “the Flag of Treason,” he calls it — past a portrait of Charles Sumner, the abolitionist senator nearly caned to death by Preston Brooks, a proslavery congressman from South Carolina. Seidule wanted to suit up in his old uniform and fight the Capitol terrorists. “The people who did that need to be in orange jumpsuits and shackles,” he said.
In his book, Seidule writes of the importance of words in defeating the Lost Cause lies. It wasn’t “Union” against “Confederate,” he argues. It was the “U.S. Army fighting ... against a rebel force that would not accept the results of a democratic election and chose armed rebellion.” Confederate generals didn’t fight with “honor”; they abrogated “an oath sworn to God to defend the United States” and “killed more U.S. Army soldiers than any other enemy, ever.” It wasn’t “the War Between the States,” as Lost Cause mythology would have it; the Civil War was, properly, “The War of the Rebellion.” They weren’t “plantations” as glorified by Margaret Mitchell, but “enslaved labor farms.” Writes Seidule: “Accurate language can help us destroy the lies of the Lost Cause.”
So, too, can accurate language destroy the lies now being floated to justify Jan. 6.
These were not tourists. These were not patriots. They were terrorists, as D.C. police officer Daniel Hodges, savagely beaten on Jan. 6, labeled them in congressional testimony. They were armed — with rebar, poles, knives, bear spray, tasers and an untold number of firearms — and they were unspeakably violent in their attack on the duly elected government of the United States.
The revisionist history serves a purpose: Sanitizing sedition so the foes of democracy will be able to attack it again, but successfully. This is why those who still revere our democracy must answer the lies with the true stories of Jan. 6 — again and again. “We’re not going to let them win the narrative,” Seidule said. “History is too important.”
Distributed by The Washington Post Writer’s Group.