Understanding that, and seeing past ideological platitudes, was very helpful for me in finally understanding the American Civil War and understanding the American Civil War seems like it might be useful for understanding the issues of today.
Growing up I was taught more or less the same thing about the Civil War as everyone else, that it was caused by slavery. The Union (north) wanted slavery gone, the Confederacy (south) wanted to preserve it. That seemed simple and true enough, and it is.
Later on I heard more nuanced takes about economic factors, the differences between the nations, and got a sense of the "lost cause" perspective in which southerners championed their efforts as primarily about "preserving our way of life over and against northern aggression." At one point I thought, "if the big dividing line had been about anything other than slavery, I think the confederacy would have been in the right." Then I learned better, here's what I learned.
The North and South were very nearly two distinct nations
If you track the "Albion's seed" theory of Anglo-American identity formation you can get the clearest picture of who was facing down who in the "north vs south" struggle. The south was essentially a transplanted variety of the sort of England you see in Jane Austen novels. You had an established, landed nobility class who ruled over things and then a sort of peasant class, including settlers and farmers.
As it happens, the aristocracy of the south was largely comprised of exiled aristocrats from England that came to the United States in the midst of a sort of "anti-establishment" period. Ironic that today monuments of confederate generals have been defended by an anti-establishment president.
Slavery was integral to this as the landed gentry were propped up by slave labor and thus freed up to pursue well-rounded excellence in multiple fields. So the aristocrats running things were comprised of highly intelligent elites with Thomas Jefferson as one of the shining examples.
The problem of course was that it was built on slavery. In addition to being an abominable evil that featured the forcible relocation, abuse, murder, and oppression of Africans, it was also a very delicate system. People today forget that the south fought hard to use federal power to maintain slavery, including with laws that punished people that supported runaway slaves. In addition to being abominably evil it was a maladaptive cultural system, which is no doubt partly why it was defeated.
The victorious north was a very different society that was adapting to the industrial revolution and building a society and politics based on a middle class built up via manufacturing. The "Albion's seed" origins of the north were largely comprised of exiled puritans and quakers, both of whom were well-educated middle class persons in England before becoming likewise in the new world. The Republican party was largely created out of a need for a party that was more directly designed to reshape American politics and law in deference to this new industrial society.
The vision by Republicans was to transform the United States into a middle class nation with no established hierarchy but a more meritocratic system. By this point Thomas Jefferson's vision of a Republic comprised of self-sufficient farmers was completely dead.
Clash of the nations
The first major clash between these two nations was the "nullification crisis." This was essentially led by southern aristocrats aiming to protect the peasants that made up their communities from northern-passed tariffs designed to boost northern manufacturing. Ironic today that the only politician fighting for tariffs to protect American manufacturing and middle class jobs is the same one defending the confederate monuments.
Well the southern farmers didn't like the tariffs because it made it expensive to buy manufactured goods since European goods were cheaper than buying American without the tariffs applied. They deemed this an unfair exchange in which the more numerous northerners would impose upon them a policy that was to their detriment. The United States came close to civil war at this moment, with the always hot-headed South Carolina leading the way with claims that a sovereign state should have the right to "nullify" national laws.
This near-secession was ended in large part due to the first Democrat president, Andrew Jackson, who was a southerner but more the hero and advocate of settlers than the landed gentry. Jackson was firm and promised to treat nullification as a rebellion which he would crush. Jackson's ability to unite protectionist northerners, settlers, and southern farmers do indeed make him a fantastic comparison for Donald J. Trump.
The issues came back up later though over the direct issue of slavery itself with the south starting to panic due to the Republican party's emergence and ability to unite a large, free-labor base of voters and states that threatened to end the southern aristocrats power within the United States.
Not only were southern aristocrats propped up by slavery but also by the 3/5 compromise that allowed them to speak on behalf of their black slaves (with 3/5 representation) and gave them seats and electoral votes commensurate with their "responsibility" to speak on these poor peoples' behalf. However the growing population of the north and increasing number of free states meant that they would no longer be able to win national elections or hold enough senate seats to rule or even effectively counter northern and industrial policy.
Northern ideology meant a manufacturing-based middle class was in charge, southern ideology put southern elites on top. The more adaptive (and less evil, thankfully) group won.
The costs of war
One of the sad truths about the Civil War is that at no time have Americans sacrificed more then did American southerners on behalf of the Confederacy. Cities and towns were destroyed, the economy took a huge hit, slavery was ended, and for every four military age men in the south one would be killed in the war and another would be permanently maimed.
That's why it's very hard, even today, for southerners to own up to the fact that all of that loss came in a pursuit to protect the power of ruling elites that relied on slavery. There's a sort of "they may have been a-holes but they were our a-holes and they did look out for us!" vibe to the whole deal in addition to the very real sacrifices made by average southerners in the cause. Most of the confederate monuments that are up in the south today were put up in the "lost cause" period of American history in which southerners looked back with sorrow upon their defeat and the destruction of their old way of life.
Of course the American south is doing really well today but history is complicated.
Many of the attempts to cast the south as a whole and everyone who fought for the confederacy as a villain to be white-washed (no pun intended) from history don't really appreciate how difficult that is for modern southerners who understandably take great pride in their heritage. It's not an easy or necessarily naturally good thing to look back upon your own heritage with loathing, disgust, and shame.
I would suggest that a better way to replace the monuments would be one that allows southerners to take healthy meaning from the sacrifices of their forefathers rather than trying to continuously jam defeat and shame down their throats, radical-style. Lincoln understood this, but of course some crazy southerner shot him before he could execute that superior vision of reconstruction. Robert E Lee understood this as well, yet he's still lumped in with the rest of the confederacy as though he were the originator of the KKK.
The north paid a great price as well, albeit a lesser cost in comparison to the south but still a very heavy sacrifice. They were the big winners though and the nation has been largely structured around protecting and building the middle class up until relatively recent history...which takes us to today's conflicts.
Today northern manufacturers and southern whites have found some common cause in that the nation is being transformed by globalization. This rather long, dense, but insightful and cutting essay explains how today America has a new ruling elite and one that seems even less tied to the common citizen than southern peasants were to the landed aristocrat of the antebellum south.
Yesterday Trump outlined a plan to rebuild American infrastructure and work to make sure that the nation is benefitting the middle class citizen of both what used to be "the north" and "the south" in an effort to aid all Americans that are citizens of this country. Instead his agenda and the news headlines are being bogged down by these street battles between discontented and hate-filled radicals on either side over symbolic battlefields.
This portion of the Trump agenda is good one and can work on behalf of the descendants of the northern soldiers, the southern soldiers, and the slaves who's fate hung in the balance. Let's hope our nation can find some unity and pass it through.