Update: Thanks to the commenter below who clarified that individuals are not “made” veterans. They are veterans owing to their service. In this case, service in the United States army.

It is absurd to think that Memorial Day is a day to honor Confederates who fell in battle along side the white and black Americans who gave their lives to defend and ultimately save this country between 1861 and 1865. Many today base this belief on a supposed step taken by Congress in 1958 that gave Confederate veterans equal status under law  to that of  U.S. veterans. They did not.

It’s a myth that has surfaced at different times over the years, but it has received the most attention since the Charleston shootings in 2015. Here is a popular social media meme that can be found on Twitter and Facebook.

As this brief article from Facing South, published in 2015 makes clear, this is nothing more than a misreading of the legislation passed in 1958.

I am certainly not an advocate of removing Confederate headstones. They should be left untouched and those people who feel a need to commemorate and/or celebrate their service and sacrifice for a nation that was committed to the protection and extension of slavery should be allowed to do so.

This is a day to remember and honor the men and women who gave their lives for this United States of America and whose sacrifice makes it possible for each of us to work every day toward making this nation’s founding principles a reality.

49 comments add yours

  1. It should also be noted that one cannot be “made” a Veteran. Your service is what qualifies you as a Veteran.

  2. Lincoln issued a general pardon to most Confederate soldiers in 1863, and President Johnson pardoned most of the remaining in 1865. A pardon effectively erases any crime as if it never happened. That being the case, every soldier who fought in the civil war was a United States veteran.

    • Clearly, you didn’t read the post. A pardon did not grant veteran status.

    • Pardoned or not, they still never served in the United States military.

      I don’t know why this is so difficult for folks to get.

      • It is always hilarious to watch so many people throw a fit about actual history when it comes to things like these. The amnesties were official and that’s that. The pardons were official and that’s that. Yet, some individuals today can’t accept factual evidence and insist that their opinion, which is based upon nothing but what they are desperate to believe in, supersedes actual factual evidence.

        This is the problem we have today with neo-confederates who reject factual history because it doesn’t support their mythology. They utter statements which clearly would not have been supported by the people of the past. In fact, the people of the past wrote something else completely different. In the case of the pardons and amnesties, those who the pardons and amnesties were directed at accepted them as official and legally binding. They also knew they were not considered veterans of the US Army or Navy unless they had served in it.

        The Confederates who had not served in the US Army, Navy, or Marine Corps were not then, are not now, nor ever will be veterans of those institutions.

    • “Lincoln issued a general pardon to most Confederate soldiers in 1863, and President Johnson pardoned most of the remaining in 1865.”

      This is incorrect. Lincoln and Johnson in turn issued general amnesties that covered most Confederate military personnel. Fourteen categories of persons were explicitly excluded from Johnson’s amnesty, including army officers above the rank of colonel. These excluded persons were required to submit a formal application for pardon, “and so realize the enormity of their crime.” The Johnson administration issued about 13,500 individual pardons, which represents a tiny fraction of total CS military and civilian government personnel.

  3. A pardon can only be given to those convicted of a crime. It does not eliminate that conviction just penalties imposed and certainly does not restore a U.S. veterans status. The confederacy seceded from the U.S. and fought against the United States of America as a separate entity. They are not U.S. veterans.

    • Brian- Actually, pardons can be issued without a conviction. Some of the most prominent/notorious examples are President Ford’s pardon of Richard M. Nixon (whose status, at the time of the pardon, was that of an “unindicted co-conspirator”) . Of the six pardons which President George H.W. Bush granted in the Iran-Contra investigation, two (those of former National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane and former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger) were preemptive. In fact, the pardons were granted just before Weinberger’s trial was to begin.

      However, that doesn’t affect the fact that veterans of the Confederate Army were not US veterans (even though the rebel states’ secession wasn’t recognized by the US government). They were veterans of an army engaged in the service of an insurrection against the United States. US veterans were the ones who fought to suppress the insurrection.

  4. Veterans of not, it appears often in my genealogy research that CSA veterans applied for and received USA pensions. This may lend to the confusion. History is such a messy soup.

    • I’d love to see some verifiable examples of Confederate veterans receiving U.S. government pensions for C.S. military service. Enlighten me.

      • Andy- I believe what they applied for were pensions based on their service in the Mexican War. This is from an article on military pensions from the Virginia Commonwealth University “In 1887 a like provision was made for survivors of the war with Mexico and their widows, sixty days service being required, or engagement in a battle, or honorable mention in a resolution of Congress. This was made applicable, however, only to persons who were or should become sixty-two years of age, or subject to any disability [not incurred while voluntarily abetting the late rebellion] or dependency equivalent to some cause prescribed or recognized by the pension laws of the United States as a sufficient cause for the allowance of a pension. This apparent restriction may seem to bring the law within our second class; but when it is remembered that persons who were twenty-three years old at the close of the Mexican war were sixty-two in 1887, it will be seen that the act granted practically a mere service pension. At any rate, such has been its effect in its administration.” https://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/social-security/veterans-pensions-early-history/

        • That seems right. But still, I’d like to see some of the examples Stephen mentioned, that seems to claim U.S. pensions given for C.S. service.

          • Andy and Margaret: Astonishing as it may seem, in 1958 the two men recognized by the U.S. government as surviving Confederate veterans were granted U.S. pensions based solely on their (alleged) Confederate service, as were more than 1,000 Confederate widows. I have examined the pension files of several of these genuine widows. One of the two “veterans” was Walter Williams, widely celebrated on his death as the last such former service member. Posthumous research exploded Williams’ claim, suggesting he was age five in 1860. The fact that these pensions were granted still did not make these men U.S. soldiers. See “Redefining Reconciliation: Confederate Veterans and the Southern Responses to Federal Civil War Pensions,” by Jeffrey E. Vogel, “Civil War History,” vol. 51 (2005). Thus you could fight against the United States, and – if you lived long enough – be pensioned for that fighting.

      • Andy, does a North Carolina pension count? Or is that invalid because it’s state and not federal? Because I have pension records from my family in the 20th century, for CS service.

  5. I mean…so? The idea here is we are now free to spit on the graves of soldiers now that we’ve found a semantic loophole? What’s clear is that the extreme left want a culture war and to do so need effective boogeymen. Their main tool is words, convincing many that words are so scary and harmful that we need to be protected from them. Another tool is the notion that we need protection from 100 year old boogeyman statues. They are so dangerous and we are so stupid and incapable of understanding the past that we need benevolent leaders to destroy them. The good news is that right now most of us see this for what it is; ridiculousness.

    • Brian,

      I appreciate you taking the time to comment on this post, but it has absolutely nothing to do with its content. There is a specific claim about the status of Confederate veterans that is being challenged.

      • Kevin-

        I am addressing a broader issue that is very relevant to your piece. Has it not occurred to you why suddenly millions who have never thought twice about the Civil War are suddenly frothing at the mouth with opinions about it?

        • I still don’t see how any of this is relevant to the narrow historical question of whether Confederate veterans were acknowledged, via an act of Congress in 1958, as United States veterans.

  6. This “debate” is absurd when you consider it. If one person chooses to remember the confederate dead and another chooses to despise them we need to re-learn respect for another’s freedom of choice and expression. Indeed, we are allowing a politically disgruntled minority to dictate our culture to us. Kevin, as you seem to be a historian with a true interest in the Civil War, I hope you haven’t been sucked into this disgusting vortex. The notion that those who want to preserve Civil War history are merely “racists” is pure propaganda.

    • You apparently have a very different agenda that extends beyond the scope of this post. I am ending this thread.

    • For someone who wants to know more about Culture Wars, I suggest Gary Nash’s very excellent work on the subject, “History On Trial: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past.”

  7. What if a soldier such as Robert E. Lee served in both armies? How did that work?

  8. The idea that Confederate veterans, who fought to destry the United States, are US veterans is obviously absurd. However, we are frequently reminded that absurdity is no bar to making a case at law. I think the case would depend on how confederate soldiers were called into service. If they were called by their states, then it could presumably be argued that, since the US government maintained that secession was invalid and the “seceeding” states were always legally part of the US, those answering the call of any state were entering the service of the US. Nonsense, of course, but how exactly would you refute it?

  9. My GGGrandad fought in the civil war for the army of Northern VA. His grandfather was a Revolutionary War hero, a Sgt. In the famous Virginia Rifle Company at Several battles in the War of Independence. They moved to VA from PA because British Loyalists drove them out of town because of his service in the Colonial Army. Later in the Civil War, Their farm, families and residences were destroyed by Sheridan in his raids into VA. Wife and children killed. He put up with the Yankee Reconstriction for two years then moved to CO. To escape the their retribution. No one had clean hands in that war or the aftermath. Their history should be honored for their part in making this country better, their memorials are a reminder that they often made the ultimate and eventual sacrifices for their way of life and family and those are irrefutable facts that future generations should acknowledge and learn from, not take offense to or deny or deface like spoiled children.

    • “No one had clean hands in that war or the aftermath.“
      Maybe so, but one side, including many former slaves, fought for the United States, and one side fought to destroy it and build an empire based on African American slavery. The former were US veterans, and the latter were not.

      • “No one had clean hands in that war or the aftermath.“

        “Sure, I rob banks but you once stole a pack of gum from a convenience store when you were a kid so we’re both thieves.”

        technically true, but it sure ignores scale. One side fought to defend a horrible slave regime and one did not. Even if only the USCTs and a minority of the white Union troops fought to end slavery, none of the confederates did. And that makes all the difference.

  10. I am certainly not an advocate of removing Confederate headstones. They should be left untouched and those people who feel a need to commemorate and/or celebrate their service and sacrifice for a nation that was committed to the protection and extension of slavery should be allowed to do so.

    I take issue only with the above statement. While my ancestors fought on the side of the union, I recognize that the civil war had many causes and was fought on many fronts before bloodshed began. Southern aristocracy was more than ready to see the deaths of hundreds of thousands of southern men rather than give up their way of life. Their greed was much to blame for the carnage, but the great majority of the southern people were not aristocrats or slave owners, they were simply eking out a living by the sweat of their brow on family farms. For the northern industrialists the idea of a southern aristocracy born and bred and thriving on the back of the institution of slavery became a political issue pressed upon the government for resolution. So when laying blame for the war and trying to excommunicate southern soldiers in abstentia by claiming they fought and died for the preservation of slavery is a slander on the name of every southern man who was defending his home and nothing more. The southern soldier deserves his place of honor in history and posterity alongside the northern soldier, and as such is entitled to every regard and every recognition paid to another. It was a great day in our history when the evil of slavery was finally abolished. It is a terrible time in our history when there are yet those who would attempt to vilify, condemn, and disrepute soldiers of either side.
    +

    • The motive for rebelling is a moot point. What’s at issue here is that- except those men pressed into service against their will- they were rebelling against the USA. During the War of the Rebellion, they weren’t officially soldiers in the eyes of the law of the USA, they were well-organized criminals, because neither the USA nor any other nation recognized the Confederacy’s sovereignty. No one gets rewarded for revolting unless they win.

      Always remember- ALWAYS- that what we call war in this case was not formally a war. It was an insurrection.

  11. Vietnam veterans were called “baby killers”. To many Americans, the Vietnam War was immoral. It was a tragedy that young men and women fought in Vietnam for an immoral cause but it wasn’t their fault. Those young men and women depended upon their leaders for wisdom and guidance and those leaders let them down.
    No one denies that Vietnam soldiers were veterans. What many deny is the honor they deserve because they were baby killers. And I see this attitude against Confederate soldiers. What did they know about Constitutional law? At 26 years of age, where were they to gain moral wisdom?
    I personally like the idea of Memorial Day as a kind of communion with my ancestors, regardless of how they died, as opposed to bestowing some kind of honor just to those who died in the Armed Forces. I ask myself what I would have done had I been in their place.

    • First, this has nothing to do with the question of whether Confederate soldiers were ever classified as U.S. Veterans by the Federal government. You are free to do what you wish on Memorial Day. I am not going to wade in to your comparison between Confederate and Vietnam veterans.

  12. Okay. Perhaps in some future writing you will tell us if there is any basis for honoring Confederate soldiers that you don’t consider to be absurd.

    • I will definitely let you know if I come up with anything. In the meantime you should feel free to do so if you believe it is justified.

  13. The question here is whether public entities should continue honoring the Confederacy. That’s becoming less and less tenable, and there’s not really any way to separate the Confederate military, as a group, from the Confederacy itself.

    Washington & Lee University has addressed this by declining to honor or memorialize Lee as a Confederate general. Instead they will from here on focus on his civilian role as university president, which is immediately and directly relevant to their mission.

  14. Howard Zinn gave a speech in 2014 and in part of that speech he spoke of honoring those who fought in a dishonorable cause. Zinn was a bombardier in WWII and as such, he was involved in mass killings of civilians. Here is part of what he said: “I’m here to honor the two guys who were my closest buddies in the Air Corps — Joe Perry and Ed Plotkin, both of whom were killed in the last weeks of the war. And to honor all the others who died in that war. But I’m not here to honor war itself. I’m not here to honor the men in Washington who send the young to war. I’m certainly not here to honor those in authority who are now waging an immoral war in Iraq.”
    Even though Zinn hated the atrocities, e.g. the bombing of Dresden, he still honors those who died.

    • So does that mean that the US should recognize German WWII veterans as military veterans of the armed forces of the United States, give them pensions and access to GI Bill programs?

  15. Actually, we rebuilt both Germany and Japan and gave immunity to such creatures as Surgeon General Shirō Ishii – who performed vivisections on enemy soldiers. All were treated much better than the South after the war. There were many innocents in the South and many Confederate Soldiers simply fighting for their rights as they saw them – many ambivalent or against slavery. Politicians and Generals set policy. Soldiers simply die. They were U.S. Citizens – many attacked on their own soil. Remember this.

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