Where Is Your Southern Honor?

Note: Here is a link to a short update on the Washington Post’s blog.  I will keep an eye out for some video of the news conference.  As of Wednesday morning I can’t find a single Online article from a Richmond newspaper or anything else for that matter.  Did anyone even show up to this news conference?

The inauguration of Governor Robert McDonnell

There is something quite pathetic about the Sons of Confederate Veterans holding a press conference to denounce Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell and former Senator George Allen for what they perceive as violations of Confederate heritage.  As many of you are aware this battle between the SCV and the governor  started last spring over the latter’s handling of Confederate History Month.  I am not going to rehash that debate in this post so I encourage you to go through my old posts if interested.

Their argument is nothing new: Civil War history has become overly politicized and taken hostage by liberal academics and other illegitimate groups that have prevented the SCV from acknowledging and commemorating their ancestors.  These groups have successfully lobbied the governor to shun the SCV and their history as well as the roughly “2 million Virginia citizens [who] can trace their ancestry to a soldier who fought in the Confederate army” – the implication being that if you are descended from a Confederate soldier you automatically subscribe to the SCV’s preferred view.  Such a view paints the SCV as the victims of a conspiracy or even as modern day warriors defending a lost cause.  We are to believe that past celebrations of Confederate leaders and their cause from the late nineteenth century onward somehow fell outside of politics. 

What the SCV refuses to acknowledge is that public commemorations of the past have always been politically charged.  The only difference is that up until the 1970s Confederate heritage groups functioned in an extremely narrow playing field, in large part because local and state government reflected a narrow profile of the state’s citizenry.  Make no mistake, multiple narratives of the war were always present in various corners of the state, but without political support those narratives failed to make their mark in public pronouncements and on well trod public spaces.  This is one of the narrative threads that I explore in my forthcoming study of the battle of the Crater and historical memory.  [Yes, I am pleased to report that my ms. is one big step closer to publication.  I hope to be able to make an announcement in the very near future.]  By the turn of the twentieth century one would be hard pressed to find signs of any black presence in the form of historical markers and monuments on the battlefield or in the form of commemorative events as well as printed materials.  It’s as if the battle didn’t include a single black individual.  Interestingly, the one black participant in a well attended reenactment that took place on the battlefield in 1903 turned out to be a servant of Stonewall Jackson.  Even as late as the Civil War Centennial the battlefield reflected almost nothing of the sacrifices and heroism of an entire division of USCTs.  Throughout this period, however, a black counter-memory of the battle and war was alive and well.  In Petersburg the participation of black soldiers was openly celebrated by black militia units until the Virginia governor disbanded them at the height of Jim Crow and the in the 1960s the local chapter of the NAACP and Virginia State University remained vigilant in educating the city’s black youth.  Not until the 1970s did the change in the profile of local and state government open up space for additional voices and additional historical narratives.

In claiming that history has become overly politicized what the SCV is really asking us to do is return to a time when their voice spoke for everyone.  They are asking us to ignore scholarly advances that deepen and broaden our understanding of the war in Virginia and beyond.  They demand that prominent public spaces continue to reflect a time when only one view of the past was publicly acknowledged and they cry foul when textbooks that include inaccurate statements are removed from the classroom. Never once do they acknowledge the monopoly of influence that they enjoyed at the highest levels of state government.

What we see today at the beginning of the Civil War Sesquicentennial is a healthy and vibrant collection of stories that now occupy a prominent place in our public spaces.  If the SCV has any hope of surviving they are going to have to make their case in this new playing field.  They are going to have to explain why they ought to be viewed as the voice for the memory of Confederate soldiers.  Holding a press conference to issue a formal complaint is nothing less than an admission that they cannot engage the public with serious history.  Governor McDonnell has done nothing to prevent the SCV from commemorating the Civil War and Confederate soldiers.  Unfortunately, rather than engage the general public like every other organization the SCV has decided to surrender the field and admit defeat.

Where is the honor in that?

23 comments… add one

  • Margaret D. Blough Jan 18, 2011

    What they appear to want is a return to the days of the antebellum South in the decades immediately preceding the war when any opinion that did not whole-heartedly praise the Peculiar Institution was either suppressed or driven into exile and the Postmaster-General of the US with the support of the President (during the Jackson administration) tacitly endorsed the destruction by postmasters, especially in the South, of US mail in the form of abolitionist pamphlets being sent to slaveowners, not slaves. It’s actually a mentality that found expression in South Carolina’s Declaration of Immediate Causes:

    >>We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection. <<

  • Larry Cebula Jan 18, 2011

    This is one of my favorite posts, Kevin. I like the description of submerged multiple narratives that are now reemerging. A very similar dynamic is at work in Indian Country where natives have been reasserting their version of events.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 19, 2011

      Thanks for the positive feedback, Larry.

  • Will Stoutamire Jan 19, 2011

    Excellent post, Kevin. To add to your commentary, I think we shouldn’t discount the importance of the Centennial in gauging SCV response to Sesquicentennial events, or even just annual Civil War commemorations (like a history month) that fall within the next few years.

    I have little doubt that Bowling and others know that their organization dominated much of the conversation in the early 1960s. No need to rehash the details here. Suffice it to say that I think there is an underlying regret on their part that the Sesquicentennial will not be the Centennial, redux. As you pointed out so well, we now recognize the multiplicity of narratives from that era and challenge the notion that being a “Virginian”, then and now, can mean only one thing – white, pro-Confederate. Call it nostalgia, not only for an idealized Confederacy but for a time in which they could ‘honor their heritage’ without drawing the public ire that events like the Gala Ball in South Carolina have in recent months. I think their response to the laudable actions of Gov. McDonnell in recent months may be as much reflective of this sense of loss as anything else.

    Sign me up for a first edition of your book. Hope you’ve got some good news for us soon!

    • Kevin Levin Jan 19, 2011

      I couldn’t agree more, Will.

  • Corey Meyer Jan 19, 2011

    http://wmal.com/Article.asp?id=2086356

    This is all I have seen about the SCV news conference/Press release.

  • Corey Meyer Jan 19, 2011
  • Edwin Thompson Jan 22, 2011

    Kevin

    You have created a wonderful website. I only found out your website from the NYTimes Disunion article you authored; an excellent article.

    However, “Where is Your Southern Honor?” falls short. After reading this article, I went to the SCV webpage, and I find a man dressed in a Confederate uniform (that’s OK), speaking about southern heritage (that’s good), and speaking about protecting the south from an illegal invasion (ah – que?).

    Your article should directly confront the SCV and state clearly: the Civil War was over slavery. Your article should clearly state that the SCV is marginalized because they choose to whitewash history and not recognize slavery. Your article should be titled “Why Does the SCV Disgraces Southern Heritage”.

    As a northerner who lived in the heart of Dixie for a decade (1975 to 1985), I learned a lot about southern culture and social norms. While most southerner’s admit that the Civil War was over slavery (my experience anyway), these same people are not willing to confront more vocal, aggressive people who deny the cause of the Civil War (my experience again). The SCV has no Honor; they are people who have unsuccessfully attempted to manipulate history to support hateful beliefs. They do not represent the Confederate Veterans.

    Challenge the SCV. And never- ever – ever use the word Honor in the same sentence as the SCV until they reconcile the cause of the Civil War. Only then can the word Honor be used.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 23, 2011

      Thanks for the comment and the kind words. I suggest you read further into the archives to get a more accurate sense of what I’ve written about the SCV. Click on the tag “Sons of Confederate Veterans” at the end of the post, which should give you what you are looking for. Nice to have you aboard.

    • Sherree Jan 23, 2011

      “As a northerner who lived in the heart of Dixie for a decade (1975 to 1985), I learned a lot about southern culture and social norms. While most southerner’s admit that the Civil War was over slavery (my experience anyway), these same people are not willing to confront more vocal, aggressive people who deny the cause of the Civil War (my experience again). ”

      This is not quite true, Mr. Thompson. There are several white southerners who are readers of this blog who do not fit the profile you describe. There are also many white southerners who are historians who do just that–confront those who deny that the cause of the Civil War was slavery, and through their work offer the most devastating and effective critique of false histories. As far as racism goes–I have personally been confronting racists in the south since I was twelve years old, as have many other white southerners. You qualified your statement by adding that this was your experience, however, so you seem to understand that blanket generalizations are not helpful. That is good.

      I am a white southerner who lived in the heart of New England for five years and I got to know the social norms and customs there as well. You are a northerner, so whether you are African American, white, or of another background, I am certain you understand racism as it exists in your community. Perhaps you are confronting it vocally and publicly. That said, I agree with you. The distorted version of history that the SCV has so far unsuccessfully attempted to promote as the sesquicentennial begins is false and should be challenged. I hope that in adding the New York Times Disunion blog readers to this blog that Kevin can do what he does so well–get readers from different areas of the country and from different walks of life to communicate. I offer this comment with that goal in mind. Thank you.

      • Edwin Thompson Jan 23, 2011

        Kevin – I will look over the blog comments. It’s a large website. I don’t know how you keep up with all the traffic, but I’ll bet you’re having fun.

        Sherree – Thanks for your thoughts. I can only speak from my life experience. I was a young man then, and what I observed was a culture that banded around a two groups: white Protestants and blacks. As a white, New York, Catholic I was always on the fringes of the white Protestant group. I had experiences with aggressive white southern over the issue of slavery and Jim Crow laws. I don’t recall a friend sticking up for me when confronted by these people. But that was late 1970′s, and Alabama only integrated their football team in 1970. People were changing – including myself. Never in public did a friend stick up for me (I think – my memory is shot). However in private, they always said Eddie, you were right.

        Here is good story you will like. As a native New Yorker, I’ve always found this area the best place to live. Of course, I was born and raised here so it’s no surprise (although I rank Philly a very close second – sorry, I never lived in New England, but I’ll bet I would have liked it). Sometime in the mid 1990’s I was at a party speaking with an African American Doctor educated here in the north, but born and raised in South Carolina. He came north to study, met his wife (also from South Carolina) and started practicing medicine (we had kids going to the same grade school – that’s why we were at the same party). We started speaking about the north and south, and I told him how I found it much more comfortable living here in the north because I never felt like I fit in down south. To my surprise, he said that he and his family were moving back to South Carolina for the same reasons. He felt like he didn’t fit into the north and he was much more comfortable down south. Perhaps this says something about all of us.

        • Sherree Jan 23, 2011

          Edwin,

          Thank you so much for your response. You are kind to answer. I am truly sorry that you had that type of experience in the south. If you continue to interact on this blog and someone offends you, I will stand up for you.

          A couple of anecdotes you might like:

          My favorite place in Boston was the Union Oyster House where Daniel Webster supposedly ate. My Irish Catholic (as well as Beacon Hill blueblood) friends could not believe that I even knew who Daniel Webster was.

          Second anecdote–I am married to a man from New York . He gets offended if I criticize white southerners, since he worked in a coal mine with many men from the mountains of Virginia and bonded with them.

          So truly nice to speak with you. Sherree Tannen

        • Will Stoutamire Jan 23, 2011

          Mr. Thompson,

          Thanks for the comment. I have to point out, though, that judging Southerners (in this case, we obviously really mean white Southerners) and their perspective(s) on the Civil War in 2011 by what happened when you lived in the South more than thirty years ago is rather unfair. An entire generation of Southerners, raised during the height of the Lost Cause around the turn of the twentieth century, has passed on; another generation of Southerners, raised in a time in which that perspective on the war is increasingly discredited and its racist underpinnings unacceptable, is now rising to challenge that narrative.

          Of course not every Southerner of my generation (the younger one) supports this perspective, I don’t want to generalize too much. But I think what you will find is that the SCV is increasingly marginalized, even in “Dixie.” Fifty years ago, they dominated the interpretation of the war during the Centennial in the South. Don’t let the media coverage fool you about what is the “Southern perspective” on the Civil War during the Sesquicentennial. (I say that, noting that there is no true single perspective in the first place).

          The media, cable and print, including the NYTimes, is in large part looking for controversy and ratings/readers. In the next five years, you may hear much about the SCV and very little about the hundreds of scholarly events, symposiums, exhibits, commemorations, etc., being held throughout the South. Perhaps this is because the SCV yells louder and generates more controversy. Perhaps, I might set forward, the SCV generates that much controversy because of how absurd their perspective appears to most Americans in 2011. You can’t judge how most Southerners feel about the Civil War by the media coverage of a fringe group protecting “Confederate heritage” today, just as you can’t judge their sentiments by a personal experience three decades old.

          I’m glad you found Kevin’s excellent blog through “Disunion.” Hope you stick around and I look forward to more conversations in the future.

          • Edwin Thompson Jan 23, 2011

            Sherree and Will

            Thank you for your thoughts. I did not intend to judge Southerners harshly. If I did, I apologize. I had been following Disunion for a while, but Kevin’s article on the internet and interpreting history was wonderful. He definitely drew me into the conversation.

            Ed

            • Will Stoutamire Jan 23, 2011

              Ed,

              No offense taken. Just wanting to provide a bit of caution about basing assessments solely on personal experience or the media buzz. :)

            • Sherree Jan 23, 2011

              Ed,

              I am not offended at all. I enjoyed the conversation. Sherree

  • Frank Miller Jan 22, 2011

    The degree to which so many closet bigots in this country seek to rewrite well established and documented American history is particularly disturbing. It serves to further illuminate how many of us are still unable to accept the evil exemplified by racism that sought moral justification for the “ownership” of human beings.

  • Fraser Jan 23, 2011

    Tennessee’s Tea Party movement is calling on the state to teach history in a way that “No portrayal of minority experience in the history which actually occurred shall obscure the experience or contributions of the … majority.” Of course, in many parts of the South that would require structuring the curriculum overwhelmingly around the slave experience, but I don’t think that’s what they mean.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 23, 2011

      I don’t think that is what they had in mind, either. :) Thanks for the comment.

  • Frank Miller Jan 23, 2011

    From my observations and limited interaction with one member of SCV, this group seems to be little more than collection of closet, right wing bigots trying to publicly legitimatize themselves by cloaking the SCV in the guise of something that it is not. They attempt to portray themselves as descendants of Confederate soldiers, whose sole intention is to keep alive and reflect upon honorable conduct of their ancestors. A brief visit to their website quickly reveals that to be very far from the truth.

    There may indeed have been many honorable soldiers in the Confederate army. The cause they for fought for was anything but. I have little in the way of academic credentials, but have had a lifelong in interest in Civil War history and studied it extensively. I also have a very personal connection. My father wrote THE ANDERSONVILLE TRIAL.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 23, 2011

      Frank,

      I have been quite critical of the SCV over the past few years, but I am also friends with members who have a sincere interest in the past. There is some evidence to suggest that the leadership of the SCV has taken a more overtly political turn and this has undoubtedly effected public perception. That said, there are local chapters that are engaged in honest work to commemorate the past. Our local chapter is in the middle of raising money to place headstones on the graves of those Confederate soldiers buried in a cemetery adjacent to the University of Virginia. I bring at least one of my classes to this spot each year to discuss Civil War soldiers or postwar commemorations.

  • Frank Miller Jan 23, 2011

    The current thrust of the SCV leadership seems to be focused almost exclusively on revisionist Civil War history and modern, far right ideology. That is irreconcilable from any responsible positions that may be taken by individual members. In addition, it gives rise to the obvious question, why would anyone who is genuinely interested, solely in the remembrance of the honorable conduct of his or her ancestors choose to belong to such a group?

    Their raison d’etre is not what they claim and their vociferous assertions to the contrary notwithstanding, there is little evidence on their part of a recognition of the established and accepted, academic history of the Civil War. Despite their efforts to appear as a mainstream historical organization, the available documentation I have observed seems to indicate quite the opposite.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 23, 2011

      This news conference is sufficient evidence that the SCV has become much less important to the Civil War commemorative community. They are a relatively small organization and I must assume that their recruitment numbers are way off. At the same time I still have friends who are doing good work and I want to make sure that they are acknowledged. I often wonder why saner heads don’t do something about the trajectory of the group.

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