Haley and Trump wear their Confederate gray

Dan Piller was a business reporter for more than four decades, working for the Des Moines Register and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He covered the oil and gas industry while in Texas and was the Register’s agriculture reporter before his retirement in 2013. He lives in Ankeny.

Nikki Haley needed an entire day to admit, rather furtively, that slavery was a possible cause of the Civil War. Donald Trump thinks that the bloody struggle from 1861-65 (which Trump, in a rare burst of accuracy, described as “very rough time”) happened because Abraham Lincoln was born too soon to read the “Art of the Deal.” Had the Great Emancipator been so fortunate, Trump said in Newton on January 6, “you probably wouldn’t even know who Abraham Lincoln was.”

Iowans whose knowledge of the Civil War goes slightly beyond Ken Burns’ PBS series three decades ago are shaking their heads in wonderment at such ignorance. But history is as much a vantage point than an absolute certainty. I learned that lesson in September, 1963, and the first days of classes in my junior year at Lincoln High School in the Nebraska capitol city.

A quirk of LHS at the time was that among its enrollment of almost 2,400 students was a tight-knit cohort of southerners whose parents were stationed at the Lincoln Air Force Base. While the base had its own elementary and middle schools, the high schoolers were bused to Lincoln High.

For reasons I have never understood, the U.S. Air Force at the time (and maybe today, for all I know) was made up mostly of people from Alabama and Mississippi. That had the potential for some edginess because Lincoln High, alone among Lincoln’s five high schools, numbered African Americans in its student body, and southern schools were still resisting integration.

Classes in 1963 opened after a summer when President John F. Kennedy had proclaimed America’s commitment to greater civil rights, followed by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial. The JFK and King speeches concluded a dramatic summer of televised civil rights confrontations in Alabama and Mississippi.

The civil rights movement, while compelling on television, seemed remote on the Nebraska prairies. So, it was a jarring when, on that first day while I waited for an American history class to be called to order, I inadvertently overheard a conversation behind me between two girls in the thick southern accents that were decidedly out of place in Lincoln.

The girls were obviously new to LHS and they were troubled.

“Did you see the n…..s in hallway,” one girl said. Her friend responded, “I did. Daddy said we wouldn’t have to go to school with them.”

“Well,” the first girl said in a tone that would have done Scarlett O’Hara proud, “I’m going to talk to my Daddy about it. He’ll do something.”

“Yeah,” said the second. “He has enough rank to get this changed. I’m not going to put up with being around n…..s.”

As they talked, I noticed a couple of African-American kids enter the room. I sensed trouble, and a sudden urge to make a small contribution to racial harmony overtook me. I turned and spoke to the girls.

“Pardon me, but I couldn’t help but overhear what you said,” I opened. “I hope you don’t mind if I suggest that you avoid using the term you used. We call them “Negroes.”

One girl asked “can we call them ‘colored?’’

I shook my head. “Better not say that, either. People take Abraham Lincoln pretty seriously here.”

“Lincoln was a criminal,” the other girl said. “He started the War of Northern Aggression.”

“The what?” I replied, having never heard that alternative term for the “War Between the States.”

“The War of Northern Aggression,” she repeated. “The south was invaded, illegally.” Her emphasis on the last word was jarring.

The teacher called the class to order, but I now knew we were in for an interesting semester when the curriculum reached the Civil War. One of the girls became agitated enough at the rather heroic presentation of the Union role in freeing the slaves that she stomped out of the classroom.

The next day I noticed a fellow in Air Force blue chatting with the teacher in his office, located at the back of the classroom. The lectures and readings proceeded normally to Appomattox and then Lincoln’s assassination, by a southern sympathizer. I waited for a second southern female eruption, but this time it didn’t happen.

(We also received an unplanned history lesson that November 22. The southern girls had the good sense—or manners—to keep their mouths shut when the teacher compared the assassination of JFK to that of Lincoln 98 years earlier).

Being already a history buff, I had read enough about the Civil War on my own to cruise through the class with little effort. But my real-world education had been expanded by those two girls, who taught me that for many southerners the Civil War hadn’t ended.

A decade later I was a statehouse reporter for The Des Moines Register, and I often took time to admire the sayings of Abraham Lincoln, etched into the capitol marble. I occasionally glanced upward at the banner under the dome, which proclaimed “1861-1865.” My Lincoln background me made comfortable in those tributes to the Union victory in 1865, but I found myself wondering what my long-ago southern belle classmates would have made of the scene.

A decade after that, I was living and working in Dallas, Texas, in a city whose attractions included a giant statue of Robert E. Lee in the middle of one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares into downtown. The downtown featured a 65-foot obelisk surrounded by statues of Jefferson Davis and Confederate generals Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Albert Sidney Johnston. Those tributes rubbed me the wrong way, but I silently accepted those southern icons as another Texas quirk, like fire ants and summer temperatures that could reach 105 degrees.

Even more personally, I discovered that the Texas wing of my wife’s family included a couple of unreconstructed Confederate cousins. I actually enjoyed several post-holiday meal discussions of the Civil War, where my cousins-in-law tried to persuade me that the conflict had nothing to do with slavery.

“The war was about states’ rights,” I was told.

“Slavery had quite a bit to do with it,” I replied.

“That’s what they told you in Lincoln. We learned differently.”

Happy holidays.

By the time the obelisk and the Lee statue in Dallas were removed in the 21st century, I was divorced, remarried to an Iowan and returned safely behind Union lines to Des Moines. But I noticed significant changes in the seemingly progressive state I had left 26 years earlier.

Iowa’s new right-wing politics and evangelical religion were reminiscent of the Texas I had left behind. I found myself warning liberal friends that all those new, seemingly generic evangelical churches that dotted Iowa’s cities and towns, had sprung from the Southern Baptist wellspring that dominates the south and now constituted a Trojan Horse for right-wing, southern-style politics.

I began hearing y’all, a term I had never heard in the 1960s and 1970s, while growing up in Nebraska and working in Iowa early in my career. It was not unusual to see grits on breakfast menus in diners. Downtown Des Moines now boasts not one, but two “southern-style” restaurants. “Southern Living” magazine now graces the racks of supermarket checkout lines, tucked next to the Globe and National Enquirer. Corn-pone southerners like Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz could win the Iowa caucuses. It was not unusual to see a Confederate flag on the back windows of pickup trucks.

So while southerners have removed many Confederate statues (about 1,500 remain as of late 2023), southern culture, religion and politics have crept north.

It has been observed more than once that the victors in a war get to write the history. The North mistakenly thought the Civil War ended at Appomattox. Southerners, more focused, viewed 1865 as a mere armistice on the way to sanctifying the southern rebellion as a “glorious cause.” Thanks to air-conditioning, a mobile culture and generous tax systems, the south has won victories in recent decades that have surpassed anything Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson ever achieved.

Nikki Haley and Donald Trump may be singing to a choir more agreeable to them than we realize.

Top images: Nikki Haley speaks during a December 27 town hall in Berlin, New Hampshire; cropped from a photo published on her campaign’s Facebook page. Donald Trump speaks in Newton, Iowa on January 6; screenshot from video of the event.

About the Author(s)

Dan Piller

  • don't know about Lincoln but there were White race riots and civil rights protests in Omaha

    when we were helping to clean out a soon to be closed Confederate Methodist church in Memphis we came across a diary from one of the Methodist Women from the 60’s and the clippings and entries around the time of the garbage collector strike included a lot of editorials fear mongering about the Communist Threat abroad and at home and lots of notes from her favorite pre -Limbaugh radio rightwingnut show coming in from Nebraska connecting the USSR to MLK and Co.
    so I wasn’t completely surprised to find when we moved to Omaha that it was much more segregated then Memphis had been but was puzzled by there being the need for mounted police in such a tiny downtown until I learned about:

  • A Hard Truth

    Very thoughtful and well-presented. Excellent piece Dan.

  • what we didn't want to acknowledge

    Iowan’s are worried about immigrants. Maybe they should also be concerned the evangelicals are aggressive and building more churches. I keep wondering if Kim is going to ask the legislature to pass a bill making the evangelical religion the state religion.