Should Descendants of Confederate Soldiers Celebrate Lincoln’s Birthday?

Well, historian and Sons of Confederate Veterans member, Greg Clemmer thinks so.  Clemmer is the author of Valor in Gray: The Recipients of the Confederate Medal of Honor, which was published back in 1997.  Unfortunately, he is one of the few voices of reason within the SCV.  Consider what he has to say about Lincoln’s birthday as well as his reasons for attending commemorative events at the Lincoln Memorial:

We have already touched on answers to that first question in previous Examiner articles. Yet most students of the war recognize that the Lincoln Memorial is a monument to democracy … that it is for everyone … that it primarily honors the martyred president’s success in restoring the Union … and that it remains a vivid reminder of our ongoing challenge to bind up the nation’s wounds….

Most recall that over the years the Lincoln Memorial has hosted a number of epic events, from contralto Marian Anderson’s live performance before 70,000 and a national radio audience in 1939, to Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech in 1963, to the inauguration celebrations of George W. Bush in 2001 and Barack Obama just two years ago. Yet few know that this memorial was built of Indiana limestone and Colorado marble, or that Daniel Chester French sculpted Lincoln’s seated figure out of marble from the hills of Georgia….

Yes, just as aged Confederate veterans attended the Lincoln Memorial’s original dedication in 1922, there has been a “Confederate presence” at the monument on this day down through the years. Representatives solemnly present a wreath to honor Lincoln, but a wreath accompanied by that Confederate battle flag—yes, the most recognized symbol of the civil war—walked across those marble steps in remembrance of the sacrifice of both sides … yet signifying to all, the binding up of the nation’s wounds.

Clemmer’s column serves as a reminder that there is a long history of Southern admiration for Lincoln and not simply among black Southerners.   On February 12, 1928, the Virginia House of Delegates rose for the first time in respect for Lincoln’s memory and adjourned “in honor of…the martyred President of the United States, whose death was a distinct blow to the South, resulting in a national calamity.”  Not surprisingly, a number of public figures, including Lyon G. Tyler (son of of the president) and Reverend Giles B. Cook (Lee’s staff) offered a request to “to Repeal the Resolution of respect for Abraham Lincoln, the Barbarian…” and an eleven-page resolution.  At least one newspaper editor encouraged its readers to “put aside old animosities.”

Consider the following 1929 survey of 4,658 boys and girls in Alabama living in Mobile, Montgomery, and Birmingham done by David Spence Hill.  Hill asked the following: Of all persons whom you have heard, or read about, or seen, whom would you most care to be like or resemble”?  One third of the boys and 60% of the girls named a relative or personal acquaintance; however, when it came to historic and public figures their answers were quite telling.  Of the boys, 26% chose Washington while both Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee came away with 5% each.  The girls also overwhelmingly chose Washington, but Lincoln earned 3% while Lee only earned 2%.  Barry Schwartz’s analysis of the data is worth repeating in full:

Hill’s survey shows Lincoln’s prestige to have been feeble among school children, but he also documents the decline of the Confederate tradition.  That Lincoln and Lee are named by virtually the same small percentage of respondents is surprising, given the belief about the South’s lingering resentments.  No longer can negative Southern attitudes toward Lincoln be attributed to nostalgia for the Confederacy and its heroes.  Moreover, Alabama children were discovering ideals in the present as well as the past.  Boys ranked Charles Lindbergh (22 percent) just below George Washington.  Girls also mentioned Lindbergh, along with film stars Clara Bow, Billie Dove, and Ruth Elder.  Not the Confederate hero but George Washington and contemporary entertainers were competing against Abraham Lincoln for Southern children’s attention and respect. (p. 55-56)

One of the most popular publications of Confederate nostalgia was Tyler’s Quarterly Magazine and in 1939 one of its contributors complained that “praises for Lincoln emanate in almost equal fervor from practically every section of America.”  Not too long ago newspapers inquired as to why Southern states were not taking part in Lincoln Bicentennial events.  Of course, anyone who bothered to look would have noticed that there are numerous events throughout the South which acknowledge in one way or another his importance to American history.  In fact, Lincoln is getting much more attention than both Lee and Jefferson Davis.  My guess is that the author of the piece was driven more by popular perception than any serious understanding of Lincoln’s place in our national memory.  One of the reasons why I find the study of memory to be so intriguing is that it has the potential to surprise.  I am constantly struck by the extent to which our assumptions about the past or the ways in which previous generations interpreted the past deviate from our own.  We should be careful not to use those who came before as a means to our own ends.  So, if you are a white Southerner who respects and admires Lincoln, it turns out that you are in very good company.

2 responses... add one

This is a great post, Kevin. Thanks for writing it.

You know, the funny thing is that I did not know that white southerners were not supposed to admire Lincoln until I started reading Civil War blogs. It never stopped me, though. I have admired Abraham Lincoln for many, many years, and will continue to do so. I suppose white southerners are not supposed to admire Dr. King either. Says who? Who creates these unspoken assumptions? How about Malcolm? I admire him as well. I also admire Frederick Douglass and the great war chief of the Chiricahua Apache Geronimo and U.S. Grant and Queen Elizabeth and Winston Churchill and many more towering figures of history. How foolish so much of this. How very foolish. Abraham Lincoln was the right man for the times. Thank God he was President.

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