A Shrinking Confederate Universe

cemetery2009A quick thought.

Tomorrow the local UDC and SCV chapters in Charleston, South Carolina will commemorate Confederate Memorial Day in Magnolia Cemetery. It’s a beautiful place that both evokes the scale of death that Confederates experienced and the lengths to which white Southerners went to honor their sacrifice during the postwar years.

As the debate continues surrounding the public display of Confederate iconography across the South, it is becoming more and more difficult to openly celebrate the Lost Cause. Here I am drawing a distinction between those who care little more than whether a local bakery agrees to accept an order for a Confederate battle flag cake and those who have a deeper attachment to Confederate heritage/history.

Regardless of whether you agree with the Confederate heritage crowd’s preferred narrative of the war, I am assuming that most of you don’t have a problem with a celebration of this sort taking place at a cemetery. I also assume that for most of you the display of the Confederate battle flag is not a problem in such a setting. In my view, it is an appropriate event to hold in a Confederate military cemetery. The tradition has a history all its own with significant meaning for those who choose to join.

The room to openly celebrate Confederate heritage in public spaces is all but over. This universe is shrinking at an exponential rate. Many in the Confederate heritage community will likely continue to flail about, but it is in their interest to acknowledge these shifting winds and confine their activities to places and times that allow them to peacefully gather and remember.

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25 comments… add one
  • Richard May 18, 2016 @ 11:59

    I grew up & have lived in the SOUTH for most of my life. ( 22 Yrs ARMY ).
    To Honor our Dead is Our Right. I think the entire subject of the war itself is a different matter. the Victor has always gotten to write the History books.
    I suggest, that History needs to be Learned by the young so as not to be repeated.
    Right or wrong. I think History should be taught to all children. Including the YANKEES who bought & transported slaves from Africa, from there african masters to the south. the TRUTH is way different from what Children have been taught is schools for the last 50 years. IF taught the truth this whole situation would fix itself.

    • Kevin Levin May 18, 2016 @ 12:05

      Thanks for your adding your thoughts, Richard.

      You are certainly free to honor whatever it is you choose.

  • TF Smith May 14, 2016 @ 12:04

    As a sidelight on the issue of appropriate honors in a military cemetery, it is worth noting that cemeteries as places of remembrance themselves are, as Drew Gilpin Faust points out in Republic of Suffering, a legacy of the Civil War itself. The Revolutionary and 1812-15 war dead were, for the most part, simply buried where they fell, often in mass graves and with little ceremony compared to the post-1865 effort by the US government to find, indentify if possible, and re-inter US war dead … which led, in turn, to the effort by southern civilian groups to do something similar for rebel war dead.

    The question of how what are, essentially, privately-owned cemeteries should function is, presumably, up to those institutions boards of directors, etc., as regulated by public health.

    The contrast with the national cemeteries, of course, is obvious. When a US veteran is interred today, the obvious honors – flag, taps, rifle salute, etc. – are pretty well prescribed by custom, tradition, and law.

    There is none of the above for the rebels, of course.

  • Falcon Taylor May 14, 2016 @ 7:36

    As our youngsters grow to replace us, I have to have faith that more and more, their ideals will be forward looking, progressive, and much more respectful towards African-American history and minority viewpoints and yes, political correctness, which really means “think about what you say and how it affects those around you” (IMHO).
    Confederate battle flags belong now in our history books, museums, and those beautiful cemeteries.

  • Shoshana Bee May 14, 2016 @ 1:33

    In the maelstrom of hollering that usually accompanies this topic, it is refreshing to read a quiet, pragmatic view for a change. I served on a historic cemetery board for 10 years, and occasionally we were called upon to make decisions regarding allowable rituals during burial (the cemetery was still active) One of those decisions involved allowing the whole reenactment unit of the deceased to honor him with full regalia. I spoke in favour of allowing the procession — complete with battle flags — and the rest of the board concurred. The funeral proceeded without incident, as the only memory that I have was that of profound sadness and loss. I stand by our decision as a board and I stand with you on your opinion regarding this topic.

    • Kevin Levin May 14, 2016 @ 1:54

      I began every Civil War class in Charlottesville, Virginia with a walk over to a Confederate cemetery at the University of Virginia. It was the perfect setting in which to raise the big questions that the class would grapple with over the course of the semester and to discuss the relevancy and meaning of the cemetery today. Rarely did I have a student who even knew about the cemetery. We always took a few minutes to pick trash before leaving.

      Most of these sites are out of the way. There is no harm in a small group of people meeting up to share their interest in the Lost Cause and/or a Confederate ancestor.

      • Peter S. May 14, 2016 @ 16:12

        Re: “There is no harm in a small group of people meeting up to share their interest in the Lost Cause and/or a Confederate ancestor.”

        As I look at the pictures from today’s Confederate Memorial Day service in Charleston (link below), I am disgusted. Why aren’t you, Kevin? Why aren’t all people of good will who understand the nature of the Confederate States of America disgusted by activities that honor the Confederacy? I ask with sincere interest. I just don’t get it.

        Would you feel similarly unbothered if this were a Nazi Memorial Day service? Can you imagine Nazi flags and Nazi uniforms in the pictures from Charleston? People gathering to honor their Nazi ancestors? If you see any substantive differences between Confederate Memorial Day and Nazi Memorial Day, please take just a sentence or two to share some insight into your thinking on the subject.

        My position is that you would be doing black people (and all people) a service by condemning any activity that honors the Confederacy. Their cause was not honorable. They should not be honored.


        • Kevin Levin May 14, 2016 @ 16:25

          Have you actually read my blog or are you relatively new? I have been very clear over the years regarding my position on the display of Confederate iconography in public and on historical narrative embraced by organizations like the SCV and UDC. One way in which you can understand this post is that it is my hope that in the future these ceremonies will be confined to cemeteries so the rest of us don’t have to watch.

          Beyond this I suggest you go back through this blog.

          • Peter S. May 15, 2016 @ 16:27

            Thanks for your reply, Kevin.

            I have been reading your blog regularly for the past year, ever since I discovered it. As I have said previously, I appreciate your work. I often learn from you, and I often agree with you. You come across as an open-minded and caring person. I seem to remember you writing at one point that your views are not immutable.

            My question about Nazi Memorial Day is fair, I think. It certainly is sincere. Please consider what I wrote previously and respond. If not now, at some point in the future.

            If I may be honest and direct here, it appears that you and many other historians do not always take black suffering as seriously as one would hope and expect. When black people say how offensive Confederate monuments or building names are, many respected historians seem to discount these statements.

            In regards to the Nazi comparison I made in an earlier comment, it does seem to me that Nazis are somehow seen by you and others to be categorically different than Confederates. While the cases are not identical, I challenge the notion that what the Nazis did is somehow enormously worse than what the slaveholders/Confederates did, and that therefore Confederates need not be regarded with such a high degree of disapproval.

            In Germany, they do not have Nazi monuments, nor are there any Nazi Memorial Day services, that I am aware of. If there are any type of Nazi Memorial Day services in Germany, I strongly suspect that they are more widely condemned than are Confederate Memorial Day services in the U.S.

            To restate my main point, I think you and other historians would be doing black people, and all people, a great service by condemning any activity that honors the Confederacy.

            I hope you will consider responding, and in doing so, state clearly why you believe that activities that honor Confederates are not deserving of the same degree of contempt that we might feel toward, for example, a hypothetical Nazi Memorial Day service at a German cemetery in the year 2016.

            • Kevin Levin May 15, 2016 @ 16:32


              I very much appreciate your taking the time to read and share your thoughts, but I honestly don’t know how to respond to the following:

              If I may be honest and direct here, it appears that you and many other historians do not always take black suffering as seriously as one would hope and expect. When black people say how offensive Confederate monuments or building names are, many respected historians seem to discount these statements.

              Anyone who has carefully read what I have written on this issue over the past year cannot possibly conclude that I don’t take ‘black suffering seriously.’ Again, I appreciate your taking the time to share your thoughts.

              • Peter S. May 16, 2016 @ 18:15

                Kevin: Thanks again for your article and for taking the time to respond to my feedback.

      • Shoshana Bee May 14, 2016 @ 21:58

        Our cemetery is a very small enclave carved out in the middle of an industrial part of the city in which I live. Blink and you miss it. I was the youngest member of the board by nearly 30yrs, so for me, it was a learning experience and tradition all wrapped into one. I spent so many hours wandering the place, looking at dates, and contemplating the lives that once were. This is an American cemetery were fellow Americans lay side-by-side, so that whether they were to be commemorated for their confederate heritage or their union heritage made no difference to me, as they now lay together as one. Regarding the use of Nazi flags (mentioned in other comments) on our grounds? We are speaking of American citizens on American soil who fought an American War against fellow Americans. Nazi symbols would have no place in any ceremony held on our property (or in this country for that matter).

        • Kevin Levin May 15, 2016 @ 1:24

          References to Nazis and Swastikas is almost always a non-starter, which is why I tend to ignore it.

        • Rblee22468 May 15, 2016 @ 4:38

          A couple interesting aspects in this debate to me are:

          1) Why do people feel such a strong connection to symbolism? Typically, the conversation over Confederate iconography quickly turns to American flags. The argument is that America has done bad stuff too, so why honor America? I’ve got to say, I somewhat agree. Personally, I grapple with why humans need symbols at all. I know that I don’t. My position is that if you take away every American flag tomorrow, it’s not going to change my life. It just isn’t. I’m still going to wake up every day, eat, work, live, and eventually die. I just don’t think these symbols are integral to life. This is why I think that private displays are appropriate. While they are appropriate, some fully grown children take private displays to a whole new level as a response to societies rejection of their celebration of bad stuff.

          2) Free speech. A few weeks ago, Klansmen and other assorted racists descended on Stone Mountain. The park claimed that they could not stop them due to the First Amendment. I don’t agree. Here’s why. Confederate iconography is being removed from public spaces. While it’s being removed from public spaces, the argument is that because of 1A protections, those Americans who wish to do so can still enjoy these symbols in a private setting. This is true. We are already seeing that this is the response of the Heritage crowd; i.e. The Virginia Flaggers Roadside Battle Flag Project. The symbols themselves are speech. My observation is that, why can we stop this type of speech in a public setting but not deny the Klan and other racists a public venue for their hate? What is the difference between denying one type of speech and the other? In my view, there is no difference. I think Stone Mountain Park’s argument is bunk. Later that night, after the Stone Mountain gathering, some of those same racists went to a bar called the Georgia Peach and burned a cross and a swastika in a field behind the bar, in private. So in reality, the 1A protections allowed them to meet in both public and private. I think that the standard should be applied evenly. If we are going to say as a society that your speech is protected in a private setting, we should expect that Stone Mountain Park for example should deny a permit to hate groups because it is a public space. The hate groups still have the right to burn crosses and swastikas to their hearts content in private. In the same token, Confederate groups should be held to the same standard. The main point is that the government should not be in the business of advocating one set of views or ideas over another, or even at all. It is what this entire debate is over.

          3) Cemeteries are appropriate venues for these types of small ceremonies. If they want to honor the dead, let them honor the dead, even if they don’t recognize that the cause of those dead was white supremacy and treason to our nation. Outside of that, I feel that their activities should be confined to private property.

  • Peter S. May 13, 2016 @ 16:04

    Re: “I am assuming that most of you don’t have a problem with a celebration of this sort taking place at a cemetery. I also assume that for most of you the display of the Confederate battle flag is not a problem in such a setting. In my view, it is an appropriate event to hold in a Confederate military cemetery.”

    I’m sorry. I thought we were agreed that the Confederacy was created–and waged war–for the protection and expansion of slavery. If so, how can we think it’s not problematic for people–no matter how confused they are–to celebrate those who fought for such a cause?

    Are we also assuming that most of us here wouldn’t have a problem with memorial services honoring those who fought for Nazi Germany?

    You won’t be surprised to hear that I have a problem with that. Just like I have a problem with Confederate Memorial Day.

    • Kevin Levin May 13, 2016 @ 16:08

      Thanks for the comment. We agree that the Confederacy was created to perpetuate slavery and white supremacy. At the same time and regardless of whether I agree with them or not, local Confederate cemeteries seem to be appropriate places for individuals and organizations to commemorate the Lost Cause. It is not in a public place and you don’t have to look at it unless you go out of your way to do so.

      • Peter S. May 13, 2016 @ 17:45

        Thanks for your comment, Kevin. And for the article. And for all of your good work.

        To clarify my position, I would say that I recognize that neo-Confederates have the right to engage in these memorial services, and that I have a problem with celebrations of this sort taking place at a cemetery or anywhere else.

        I feel the similarly about Klan and neo-Nazi events that take place in private. I have a problem with them. I have a problem with white supremacy, and with any activity that celebrates it (admittedly or not).

        My two cents. Thanks again.

  • BPS May 13, 2016 @ 15:18

    I grew up in Mississippi (the gulf coast) during the 1970s. We are a creole family (mixed french,black, am indian). One of our favorite TV shows in those days was “The Dukes of Hazard”, my father (God rest his soul) really loved it and never missed an episode. I can remember him saying (something like) “I don’t mind if they remember the ‘lost cause’ as long as they remember they lost”. Some of my cousins used to have ‘rebel flags’ on the front of their trucks/cars. Not to signify any sympathy with “the lost cause” but just rebellion, southern hell raising, etc. It was an interesting time….I regret that the neo-confederates (or whatever you want to call them) took over the SCV from the little bluehaired ladies who maintained the monuments. They were, I think, really just honoring some long dead family, who died fighting for hearth and home (though, I’m sure, there were other sentiments mixed in with that).
    A chapel at one of the colleges in Oxford (I forget which one) has a plaque honoring the German students who died fighting for the Kaiser in WWI. That seems right to me. Though, I think, in the age of “Black Lives Matter” , reasonable people may not want to hear it, something is lost when our society dismisses an important chunk of our history (yes, OUR history) as “that’s just slavery and racism”, and can’t look at it as “how far all of US have come”. The “Johnny Reb” statue at every southern courthouse is a part of that. Perhaps the confederate battle flag on graves of dead confederate soldiers is a part of that as well.

  • Scott Ledridge May 13, 2016 @ 12:32

    “…it is in their interest to acknowledge these shifting winds and confine their activities…” – I won’t hold my breath. 🙂 But, I agree with you.

    • Kevin Levin May 13, 2016 @ 12:46

      It is also in their self interest to do so. Confining their activities, especially when it comes to the display of the battle flag, brings them closer in line with the way in which the veterans themselves and the ladies of the UDC regulated its use.

      • Scott Ledridge May 13, 2016 @ 16:40

        I hope they take your advice. But, the way the take disagreement with their heritage as an afront to being white. Or the way they refuse to accept that you are a conservative or a southerner unless you agree with the Lost Cause to me suggests they are insistent on being more vocal.

        Could you shed some light on how the general public used to view the Confederacy and their symbols? My parents were originally from the Louisville area, but moved to Chattanooga in the late 60s. They said they knew about the Civil War, of course. But, they weren’t prepared for how prominent it was in the South. I haven’t asked them about the controversy in Louisville now. But, I’d guess they’d be surprised it’s become such an ordeal.

        • Kevin Levin May 13, 2016 @ 16:44

          Could you shed some light on how the general public used to view the Confederacy and their symbols?

          That is a big question. If you are interested in the period around the Civil War Centennial than I highly recommend Robert Cook’s book, Troubled Commemoration.

    • mary mccarthy-bexfield May 13, 2016 @ 14:02

      I now live in florida, but im a native Bostian (Dorchester). Down here, in melbourne, fl they have a st patricks parade every year. My family, the mccarthys, have been marching in it for years now. We have a blarney castle (mccarthys castle) float. Anyway, there is also a group representing confederate sons and daughters. I was happy to see them in the parade and they got a lot of applause. My mother was a relative of cleburne. I think its wrong to get rid of confederate symbols and statues from public places. I am a Northerner, and i know that to the NAACP these symbols remind them of slavery, but they are a representation of an important historical time and how Southerners were willing to fight for their way of life, regardless of whether you approve of it or not. I think that removing flags and statues is wrong. Should we get rid of the American flag because of the horrible things white people did to native americans? I dont think a transgender flag should be flying over the Boston state house. It offends me, but i suppose they have the right to fly it. The heines concentration camps are now museums, so people dont forget the horror of the Nazis. Confederate symbols will probably all be removed and i think its a shame. We are too politically correct for our own good. These symbols are a source of pride to many people and an excellent conversation starter for our children who may want to ask questions about what or who they represent.

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