Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Remember the Confederacy

The Hon. Bob McDonnell, governor of Virginia, reminds us in an official proclamation that we are in the middle of Confederate History Month. In three days we can commemorate the 145th anniversary of those events at Appomattox Court House that determined that the Confederacy was, for all practical purposes, over.

I wish that we could mark the Confederacy to honor figures like Robert E. Lee, who fought bravely and determinedly for his cause and, when defeated, acknowledged the loss and contributed no further to resistance – who would not allow a word to be said against General Grant in his presence.

I wish that we could mark it in the manner of those aging veterans in the Ken Burns Civil War documentary who, after shambling though a re-enactment of Pickett’s futile charge at Gettysburg, fell into one another’s arms in recognition that, much as they had once tried to kill one another, there was something in their common heritage that bound them together forever.

But I grew up in a border state, a great-great grandson of slaveowners, a fact of which I cannot be proud, and I live in another border state, whose official song* calls the federal government a bloody tyrant. I have seen the degree to which identification with the Confederacy became solidarity for racist yahoos over the past six decades.

I have also read William W. Freehling’s books (both excellent) on the secession movement from the Colonial and Federal eras to the Civil War, and I know that, despite the feeble apologetics for the Lost Cause today, you know, that it was more about states’ rights and cultural and economic differences than about slavery, that slavery was the states’ right at issue.

You need only read what the secessionists themselves wrote, and it is not a cause you would want to take pride in today.

So commemorate away, but get your facts straight. The Stars and Bars was the official flag, not­ the battle flag you and Dukes of Hazzard fans display. And General Lee and Stonewall Jackson and Joseph Johnston and all the others whose memory we honor were good men, even noble men, who battled heroically in a bad cause.

We are better off that they lost.

 *Sung to “O Tannenbaum.” Dear Lord, the embarrassment.



  1. Appropriate that today I rambled through the Vicksburg National Military Park on my bicycle and mused upon the various memorials and many statues and gravestones. Striking to me were the African American and Kentucky memorials, both relatively new. The Kentucky memorial includes statues of Lincoln and Jefferson Davis - both sons of Kentucky - and a listing of Kentuckians who fought in the war, on both sides. I thought about the fact that I too am a son of a border state - the one with the "bloody tyrant" lyrics. It occurred to me that perhaps we are finally coming to terms with the "recent unpleasantness," however symbolically. Of course, it was a beautiful spring day with the wisteria in bloom.

  2. It is scary to hear the phrase "states' rights" used as justification for the futile lawsuits by some states' attorneys general against the federal health care program. What will they try to nullify next? The Civil Rights Act? The Emancipation Proclamation?

  3. For further elucidation, look here :

    Alexander Stephens, Confederate vice president:

    "Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery -- subordination to the superior race -- is his natural and normal condition. [Applause.] This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth."

  4. And this does not look long to last on Wikipedia as the entry for Confederate History Month:

    Confederate History Month is a month annually designated by several racist governmental entities in the Southern United States for the purpose of recognizing and honoring the history of the Confederacy. April has traditionally been chosen, as Confederate Memorial Day falls during that month in many of these states. Common festivities include Klan rallies, making drunken, desperate claims that the South will "rise again," and attacking and alienating minorities that are legal citizens of the United States.

  5. Patrick K. LackeyApril 7, 2010 at 3:51 PM

    Wars' winners generally get to write history, but our Civil War is an exception. Leastways it's my impression that more histories of the war were written by Southerners than Northerners. The latter accept that they were right; the former are desperate to prove, no matter how many words it takes, that their ancestors died for a noble cause.

    I've lived in Kansas, Iowa, Virginia and Maryland. The only state in which the Civil War seemed recent and relevant was Virginia. And now the commonwealth's governor has focused attention on the war once more.

    Once I asked a former Atlanta resident how the city became as progressive as it had in a backward-looking state. She said that the city was surrounded by Georgia, not in Georgia.

  6. Patricia the Only Part Damn YankeeApril 7, 2010 at 4:29 PM

    Well, now, as the daughter of a North Carolinian, and grand-daughter of Virginians, none of whom ever owned slaves - although my grandparents had a black housekeeper cum maid-of-all-work - I have no manufactured guilt about the Confederacy. Your forebears may well have owned slaves, but how is this your fault? This seems to me to be a kind of indulgence - my aunt and uncle both had it - and gives them some kind of moral high ground about liberalism. I simply find it tiresome. Slavery was and is wrong. If you don't support it, say so and move on. I think Confederate History Month - which shares honors with Fair Housing Month - ought to be a chance to speak honestly about that period in our history - without propaganda from either side. Too much to ask, I know, but if history were taught reasonably, if at all,in the public schools, it might be easier to have this kind of debate. Meanwhile, I'm more than weary of hearing how moral the North was, and is. If the states above the Mason-Dixon line had grown cotton in the same quantities as did the South, the discussion would be completely different. As for states' rights, what do you think of Eminent Domain, when someone wants to build a shopping mall on your property? Or the Fed decides where your child should go to school? "They" are not the devil.

  7. On Facebook David Craig has pointed out an error in the original post:

    The Stars and Bars and the Bonnie Blue Flag were two different flags.


    I've corrected the text.

  8. As to the North's tiresome moral superiority complained of above, two things.

    First, there is nothing in the post about Northern moral superiority, so complaints might well be directed to other quarters.

    Second, once one has conceded that slavery was wrong, then one must presumably concede that Lincoln was right in calling it wrong, and the North takes on at least some tincture of moral superiority for eliminating it.

  9. The governor of Virginia announces that slavery was a Bad Thing:


  10. "As for states' rights, what do you think of Eminent Domain, when someone wants to build a shopping mall on your property?"

    Except that it isn't the Federal government taking your house for a resort or a shopping mall, Patricia. Eminent Domain is primarily a state's right.

  11. Patricia the TerseApril 8, 2010 at 1:42 AM

    See the recent Supreme Court ruling on E.D.

  12. The reason why the Southern cause isn't anything like as discredited as the Nazi cause is probably because there was no "Soviet Union" in the American Civil War.

    Imagine if Haiti was twenty times bigger than it actually is, and that it fought in the American Civil War on the Union side (and that the Haitians bore the brunt of the casualties). This alternate Civil War would end with the Confederacy partitioned between the Union and Haiti (just as Germany after WWII was partitioned between the Western Allies and the Soviets).

    In this alternate history Radical Reconstruction in the Union-occupied zone would have worked just fine, as fear of being thrown to the Haitian wolves would have kept Southern whites in line...

  13. And still more:


  14. I think we should just make it "White History Month". Or is that eacist?

  15. As an Australian I had no idea that leaders of the Confederacy wished not only to maintain slavery but to embrace the inequality of races in a constitution.

    The final two paragraphs of the "cornerstone speech", in particular, contain material well suited for an essay on hypocrisy. It's far more shocking than I thought it would be.