Who Do Sons of Confederate Veterans Represent?

Yesterday’s post on the sparsely attended Jefferson Davis reenactment in Montgomery, Alabama generated a great deal of interest and comments.  The Sons of Confederate Veterans, which hosted the event, has crafted a narrative that imagines itself as uniquely qualified to set the terms of how Confederate soldiers and the war as a whole ought to be remembered and commemorated.  They fashion themselves as engaged in a gallant defense of a history that is supposedly under assault by various individuals and organizations.  The zeal for their cause is wrapped up in the assumption that their lineage is both a necessary and sufficient condition for their preferred view; this functions to create a battle of us v. them.  The war being waged is against vague notions of political correctness, “carpetbaggers” the liberal media, and, of course, academics engaged in revisionist history.

The strategy works well enough to define the ideological boundaries of the organization; however, it also reveals its limitations as well.  The SCV doesn’t simply bring together descendants of Confederate soldiers, it brings them together around a set of shared beliefs that have little do with remembering individual soldiers.  I say this as an outsider, but I can’t help but notice how little time is actually devoted to remembering the Confederate soldier as a dynamic historical agent.  Instead we are bombarded with Confederate history month proclamations and Nathan Bedford Forrest vanity tags.  Where is the common soldier?  When was the last time the intellectual arm of the SCV organized a conference around the history of Confederate soldiers as opposed to trying to justify secession and highlight the evil intent of Abraham Lincoln?  Even more disturbing is the impression that membership implies a certain belief about the legitimacy of the Confederate experiment, whether it has to do with secession and/or treason.  Finally, yesterday’s ceremony reinforced the impression that the organization is concerned as much with contemporary politics as it is with heritage/history.

I can’t help but wonder how many proud descendants of Confederate soldiers are being left out as a result.  Where do Robert Moore, Will Stoutamire, and Andy Hall fit in?   If the mission of the SCV is to honor and commemorate the Confederate soldier, why does it choose to take stances on issues that detract from this mission?  Here is what I believe:

  • You can honor your Confederate ancestor and not believe that secession was constitutional.
  • You can honor your Confederate ancestor and not believe in states rights.
  • You can honor your Confederate ancestor and believe that Lincoln was one of this nation’s greatest presidents.
  • You can honor your Confederate ancestor without believing that Lee and Jackson are worthy of adulation.
  • You can honor your Confederate ancestor and be thankful that the Confederacy lost the Civil War.
  • You can honor your Confederate ancestor and be a member of the Democratic Party.
  • You can honor your Confederate ancestor and read books published by university presses.

Continue with the list as you wish.  My point is that none of that really matters in the end.  What matters is the individual’s identification with an ancestor that he/she may or may not know much of anything about.  The goal of the organization ought to be to help one another to better understand what this generation experienced.  I suspect that Andy, Robert, and Will represent a large constituency of folks, who would embrace such an organization.   So, why does the SCV only represent some Confederate descendants?

75 comments

Sons of Confederate Veterans Forced to the Back of the Bus

Even in the “Heart of Dixie” the Sons of Confederate Veterans can muster little more than a few hundred people from its ranks to commemorate the inauguration of Jefferson Davis.  Based on the YouTube clip below yesterday’s event sounded more like a political rally than a reenactment.  The speaker’s comparison of the SCV’s challenges with Harry Potter and Rosa Parks reflects an intellectual bankruptcy that is bound to continue to marginalize the organization throughout the sesquicentennial.

The news coverage of the event thus far has been minimal and anything but flattering.  [Consider the Associated Press's coverage.]  Just about every article that I’ve read takes note of the Civil Rights history of Montgomery, the decision on the part of local and state officials not to participate, and the lack of interest among local business and civic leaders.  This stands in sharp contrast with the centennial commemoration of Davis’s inauguration.

There is something truly perverse about the SCV appropriating Rosa Parks and the memory of African Americans being forced to sit in the back of the bus.  African Americans were forced into the position of second class citizens by law and not of their own choosing.  At no time has the SCV operated under these conditions.  They have been free to make their case in the court of public opinion and in recent years they have failed miserably.  A partial list of recent SCV debacles include:

The most recent circus is centered on a proposal to offer a series of vanity license plates in Mississippi, one of which will feature Nathan Bedford Forrest.  Even the editorial board of the Sun Herald in Biloxi, Mississippi thinks this is a bad idea.  “What is appropriate is a proposal in the Legislature to designate a Civil Rights Memorial Day as a counterbalance to the state’s Confederate Memorial Day. This would be in keeping with earlier legislation that combined observances of Robert E. Lee’s birthday with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s.”  Did they really have to propose Forrest?  Consider Robert Moore’s recent suggestion, which would have had my support and I suspect many others as well.

It goes without saying that bad history and a memory of the war that few people embrace is not a recipe for success.  Our next stop on the sesquicentennial tour will be Fort Sumter in April.  The SCV will be lucky if they arrive on the back of the bus.  At this point I am imagining something more along the lines of a Go-Kart.

117 comments

We’ll Always Have the Centennial

Update: I suspect that this is not the kind of coverage that the SCV is looking for. “They started at a fountain where slaves were once sold, past the church that Martin Luther King Jr. led during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and ended at the Capitol steps, where Alabama’s old and modern history often collide. It’s the spot where former Gov. George C. Wallace proclaimed “segregation forever” in 1963 and where King concluded the historic Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march in 1965.”

Centennial Commemoration of Jefferson Davis's Swearing In Ceremony

From Troubled Commemoration: The American Civil War Centennial, 1961-1965 (Making the Modern South)by Robert J. Cook:

“The pageant took place during the week of February 12, 1961.  Attended by an estimated 50,000 people, it was a colorful affair complete with voodoo dancers and minstrels.  The accompanying brochure bore witness to the business community’s support.  One advertisement–for Montgomery Fair, former employer of the bus boycott heroine Rosa Parks–featured drawings of Civil War regalia and a southern belle and boasted that it had been central Alabama’s “leading department store” since 1868.  Another, carrying a Rebel flag, proclaimed “Winn Dixie and Kwik-Chek Show Phenomenal Growth During a Century of Progress in Dixieland.”  Spectators who paid up to five dollars a ticket watched a sixteen-segment performance by a home-grown cast numbering over a thousand.  The two-hour pageant, a combination of the spoken word, music, and dancing, began with a salute to the Belle of the Confederacy an then took viewers through the major events of the secession crisis. In a section entitled “General Davis Speaks,” the audience heard an almost verbatim staging of the Confederate president’s inaugural in which he trumpeted the cause of states’ rights and the legitimacy of secession.  On leaving the coliseum, spectators were greeted with a crashing fireworks display to mark the founding of the southern nation.  A watching journalist pronounced the whole performance a genuine “spectacular,” though he did complain that in the inauguration scene Jefferson Davis had been portrayed “as a corn-pone politician at a Black Belt party rally.” (p. 81)

  • On February 17, a large crowd gathered at Union station to welcome a local attorney who played the part of Jefferson Davis.  Upon his arrival, Davis was escorted to the Exchange where he was met by the serving chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, J. Ed. Livingston.
  • The following day a large parade was held along Dexter Ave.  Carriages contained the sitting governors of Alabama, Virginia, and Mississippi.  For the reenactment of Davis’s swearing in, Alabama governor, John Patterson played secessionist governor A.B. Moore, city commissioners Lester B. Sullivan and Frank Parks acted the parts of the original reception committee, and state circuit judge Walter B. Jones played the role of Georgian Howell Cobb to administer the oath of office.
  • That night 5,000 people attended an elaborate secession ball.
  • Governor Patterson relayed shared the following assessment with Karl Betts: “…the Centennial observance here was most outstanding.  The entire city really got in on the act, and I do not believe that I can recall more community spirit and interest in any other event.”  A member of the chamber of commerce said that he had “never seen the people of Montgomery join in anything so wholeheartedly.” (p. 82)

The Washington Post reports the following:

“This Saturday, the 150th anniversary event will bear some similarities: Hundreds of men are expected to march through the heart of Montgomery. Some will parade in Confederate gray. Some will display the controversial battle flag. On the steps of the white-domed state Capitol, an ersatz Davis will place his hand on a Bible. A band will play “Dixie.”  But so far, this year’s festivities are generating scant buy-in from city and state officials, and relatively little buzz among locals.  Mayor Todd Strange said he probably won’t attend. Randy George, president of the Chamber of Commerce, doesn’t have the event on his to-do list. The office of Gov. Robert Bentley (R) – who, like Strange and George, is white – did not respond to a query on the matter.  “I hadn’t even heard it was happening,” Rhonda Campbell, 43, the manager of a payday loan business near the parade route, said, echoing many residents interviewed last week.”

We’ll always have the Centennial.

34 comments

Celebrating the Soldier and Not the Cause?

Organizers of tomorrow’s “Heritage Rally” in Montgomery, Alabama are making every effort to accurately recreate Jefferson Davis’s swearing in ceremony.  They have stipulated which flags can be carried as well as guidelines for proper period clothing.  As in the case of the recent Secession Ball in Charleston, South Carolina, we are unlikely to hear anything about the importance of slavery and race, which will no doubt be made easier by the fact that Davis’s speech does not explicitly mention it.  I do find it interesting that the February 1861 event did not include Confederate soldiers nor did it include the flags that will likely be visible from every point along the parade route.

What I find interesting is the close identification that is implied between the presence of Confederate reenactors from various units and, arguably, one of the most important political events of the period.  After all, it’s the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who constantly remind us that the common soldier ought not to be understood in political terms.  In other words, they fought for hearth and home, but they certainly did not fight to maintain slavery.  What tomorrow’s march up Dexter Ave. represents – even if it is unintentional – is the fact that the Confederate army operated as the military arm of the Confederate government.  The army itself was an integral part of a political entity.  By default the soldiers in the ranks fought to protect and preserve a constitution that was crystal clear about the importance of slavery and white supremacy as a defining principle of the new nation.

This close connection between the soldier and state will be reinforced tomorrow by the thunderous roar of hundreds of enthusiastic Confederate reenactors.  We should be thankful that the cause for which they will cheer tomorrow was ultimately unsuccessful.

15 comments

The Heart of the Confederacy

I am quite curious to see what the turnout will be this weekend in Montgomery, Alabama for the sesquicentennial commemoration of Jefferson Davis’s oath of office. According to Thomas Strain Jr. of Tanner, a member of the national board of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, “We are trying to present a historical account of what happened 150 years ago.” They are hoping to have hundreds of reenactors march up Dexter Ave. toward the state Capitol. Strain doesn’t perceive this reenactment to be at all controversial. Fortunately, Mr. Strain doesn’t get to decide what is and isn’t controversial. This commemoration cannot simply mark a discrete moment in the past independently of the events that took place in that city in more recent years. In this case that includes a history of civil rights protest by the very citizens of Montgomery – descendants of people that would have remained enslaved had the Confederate experiment in rebellion been successful. Because of this, Saturday’s commemoration will look nothing like the Montgomery of 1937 and that is something that we should all be thankful for.

42 comments