J. Tracy Power on the Confederate Flag and Civil War Memory

If you are a serious student of the Confederate army than you have read, and probably re-read, J. Tracy Power’s book, Lee’s Miserables: Life in the Army of Northern Virginia from the Wilderness to Appomattox (1998). In my mind it is one of the finest scholarly studies ever published about Lee’s army. My hardcover copy is now held together with two rubber bands. Lee’s Miserables was indispensable to me during the writing of my book on the battle of the Crater.

As many of you know for a number of years Dr. Power worked for the South Carolina Department of Archives and History, but he recently took a teaching position at Newberry College. This transition has made it easier for Dr. Power to share his views on the ongoing debate about the Confederate flag, which he did in the form of a short essay published on his academia.edu page last month. I only noticed it earlier this evening.

Having read through it I thought it was worth sharing on this blog. Dr. Power was kind enough to consent to my request.

I have studied the war (and the Confederacy) all my life—from the time I could first read, at the age of 5, when I read my first book on Abraham Lincoln in kindergarten. I was soon avidly interested in the Civil War (and in history generally). In 1972, at the age of 14, I decided to major in history in college, and to go on to graduate school for my master’s and doctoral degrees, and to pursue a career as a professional historian and a college or university professor.

I have NEVER been, and am not now, a latter-day- or neo-Confederate, as someone who identifies personally with the motives that caused most of the Southern states to break up the Union and fight a bloody civil war.

I am the descendant of men and women living in Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina from the time of the American Revolution. I have some ancestors who were slaveholders, and some who weren’t. I have several ancestors who were Confederate soldiers: a Georgian who lost a leg at Fredericksburg, a North Carolinian who died and is buried in a prisoner-of-war-camp at Johnson’s Island, a Georgian who served for three years in Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, and others.

I do not know why each of these men joined the Confederate army and fought for the Confederacy. I have no way of knowing, and even if I did their motives would not influence my own beliefs.

I DO, however, know a great deal about the impulses behind secession and the war secession brought about, about the motives of white Southerners who sought to establish an independent Southern nation, one based on the protection and perpetuation of its “institutions”—and one institution especially: Slavery. I have said that, written that, and taught that for long as I have been a historian. I always will. All anyone has to do to understand why is to read the spoken and written words of the men who worked so hard, in some cases for more than thirty years, to dissolve the Union. They were not equivocal, they did not leave any doubt for their reasons—in that moment—in doing so.

Make no mistake.

I am a historian OF the Civil War, and of the Confederacy. I am NOT a Confederate—in fact, I do not believe it is possible to be a Confederate, in 2015, 150 years after the end of the Civil War, and do not believe it is a good thing to embrace the cause of the Confederacy (as opposed to studying and learning from its history) in today’s America, in any way.

Why I highlighted this particular section of the essay should be clear to regular readers of this blog. It offers sage advice to the most vocal heritage advocates who somehow believe that the luck of ancestry somehow conveys a privileged status on how the Confederacy ought to be remembered and commemorated.

3 comments… add one
  • David Jul 16, 2015

    Good morning Kevin……..I profess to be NO civil war historian, and as I see that most people who comment on this blog are, try to stay an interested observer most of the time. But, 4 years ago, I had neck surgery, and to pass the time, started reading period pieces from the people who were actually, or indirectly, affected by the war. Much to my wife’s chagrin, I’ve lost count how many I’ve read. I recently found on Doc South’s web site: “Reminiscences of a Soldier
    of the Orphan Brigade” by Lot D. Young, B 1842. The Journal was written in 1912. This gentleman gave me the most succinct reason why the average, non-slave holding, run of the mill private in the confederate army fought, and died, that I have found so far. He says, (referring to a battle around Atlanta): ” Here, the old and somewhat
    sacrilegious saying of “Hell”
    broke loose in Georgia was
    and forcefully emphasized by
    the almost continuous
    thundering of 200 cannons that
    made the very earth tremble,
    besides the constant rattle of
    musketry and the shouts of
    more than a hundred thousand
    struggling combatants
    determined on each other’s
    destruction. Americans all, and
    all for what? That a God-made
    inferior race might occupy the
    same plane with the superior
    was the object of one, while that
    right was disputed by the other”.
    I don’t believe it can get any clearer than that……

    • Kevin Levin Jul 16, 2015

      Hi David,

      Thanks for taking the time to write. Confederate soldiers offered a wide range of reasons as to why they joined or what sustained them during the war. The preservation of slavery and white supremacy certainly animated many. Such views were not confined to the slaveholding class, especially after battles such as the Crater (July 1864) when Confederates in Virginia first confronted a large number of black soldiers on a battlefield. Their responses speak volumes.

  • Jerry McKenzie Jul 16, 2015

    That is the second reference to Lee’s Miserables I’ve come across today. I’m taking that as a sign to read this book!

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