With all of the attention the Sons of Confederate Veterans have received over their silly little flag in Flordia it is easy to exaggerate their popularity and influence. It would be a mistake to believe that the SCV speaks for most white Americans; in fact, my guess is that in terms of sheer numbers their organization doesn’t even appear on the radar screen, which brings me to today’s editorial by John Martin, who is a staff writer for the St. Petersburg Times. Martin’s editorial serves to remind us that the overwhelming majority of the descendants of Confederate soldiers do not believe that the SCV’s mission and projects reflect their values.
I could join the Sons of Confederate Veterans. But I won’t.
As a giant battle flag of the Confederate States of America flew over Hillsborough County early this month, I thought about my Civil War story. Like millions of Americans, my ancestors fought for the Confederacy. The Sons of Confederate Veterans, whose local chapter raised the flag, extends an invitation to men like me, “descendants of any veteran who served honorably in the Confederate armed forces.” I’m convinced the Civil War still has lessons to teach us: About the costs of war, and motives for waging war that slip through your fingers. About fiery rhetoric that divides, rather than heals. About humanity and inhumanity and reconciliation.
But those are lessons you won’t find at the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ Web site. There is a lot of talk about honor and “heritage defense.” The “Second American Revolution,” as the Civil War is called there, was about honorable Confederate men, and honorable Confederate intentions. Honor has its place, but honoring without understanding is a set of blinders I’m not prepared to wear.
As the Confederate flag flew June 3 to honor (what else?) Jefferson Davis and the 200th anniversary of his birth, I thought of the threat that the flag symbolizes to many people. It’s impossible for me to downplay its power as an instrument of fear. The Sons of Confederate Veterans seem blissfully, defiantly indifferent to that.
Growing up in Tampa, I knew next to nothing about my Confederate ancestors. My grandfather could tell me only scant details about his Grandpa Riley. Grandpa Riley, he said, trudged back home to Georgia after Richmond fell, with only parched corn to eat. For a long time, parched corn was pretty much the extent of my Civil War story line.
Then one summer, at the Georgia farm where my grandfather was raised, my father found a Civil War-era bayonet. Its origins were and remain a mystery, though Sherman’s army had marched within a few miles of the land more than a century before. Years passed. The bayonet hung on a wall. My grandfather and father were now dead. In my day job as a news researcher, I saw firsthand the power of documents to tell stories. The stories might be painful or pleasant, but they can help you understand, provided you know where to look. So during the past decade, a journey, spent in libraries, archives, and online, has carried me to people I previously didn’t know existed. Their blood runs in my veins, but their thoughts don’t animate my life.
I’ve learned a lot about where I come from. Details of their lives are sometimes blurred or nonexistent. But they did live, and I am here because of them. One of them was Richard Creech Edenfield, a farmer and father of eight from Emanuel County, Georgia. His grandfather David had fought in the Revolution. Richard himself enlisted in March 1862. Some of his letters home survived. That May, Richard boarded a train for Charleston, where he joined the 48th Georgia Infantry. A few weeks later, his regiment moved north to Richmond. By August, he was dead, struck by a minie ball above the left eye at the Battle of Second Manassas. He was 33.
Richard wrote his wife, Welthy, in the weeks leading up to his death. (The letters were transcribed in an Edenfield family history compiled in 1979.) He tells her that he is spitting up blood. A “dam(n) rascal” stole his quilt, and he hopes she can send him another. He frets over the prices he is charged in the markets of Charleston. He urges his children to study hard and honor the Sabbath. I wouldn’t presume to know Richard’s motives for going to war. I don’t think the Sons of Confederate Veterans knows, either.
I turned again last week to historian Bell Irvin Wiley’s 1943 book, The Life of Johnny Reb. In it, Wiley used thousands of Confederate soldiers’ diaries and letters home to humanize the men who did most of the dying and endured most of the hardships. He later wrote a companion book about Union soldiers, The Life of Billy Yank.
Though a Southerner, Wiley wasn’t hidebound to venerate “heroes.” He respected his subjects, but he presented the mundane and unflattering details of their lives, too. Their motives for going to war varied. For me, Wiley makes those men, and that time, more fully human, warts and all. It’s a pattern I have tried to remain faithful to in researching my ancestors’ lives. In the foreword to a recent, updated edition of Johnny Reb, James I. Robertson Jr., an esteemed Civil War historian in his own right, writes that Wiley “scoffed at Southern assertions that states’ rights, not slavery, was the major impetus behind the Civil War.”
My family’s Civil War story continues to unfold. Manuscripts and microfilm take time to unearth. Other names factor in my story, men named Youngblood, and Lock and Strange. Of Grandpa Riley, he of the parched corn, the details of his Confederate service remain a mystery. I continue to search for him. Perhaps his military records went up in flames, as much of Richmond did in April 1865. But as the Confederate battle flag was raised to wave over Hillsborough County that recent day, I kept in mind that not everyone who factors into my Civil War story actually fought.
In Georgia’s Liberty County, on land now part of a U.S. Army installation, lived another man, my great-great grandfather. He was a 64-year-old planter, according to the 1860 Census, a man too old to fight, though his way of life was at dead center of the cause. He owned 54 slaves — people whose tales are still
too seldom told in Civil War stories.
His name was Martin. So is mine. He was not eligible to be a Son of Confederate Veterans. I am. I’m not joining.