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?

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.

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.

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.

Vanessa Williams’s Civil War

I don’t mind admitting that I am a sucker for the recent string of television shows that trace the family histories of our favorite celebrities.  They perform an important function within the muck and mire that is popular entertainment.  Most importantly, they present the study of history as an exciting process that often leads to meaningful self discovery.  This episode of “Who Do You Think You Are?” follows Vanessa Williams as she searches for information about her great-great grandfather, who served in the USCTs during the Civil War.  Williams also learns that an ancestor served in the Tennessee legislature in the 1880s and even introduced legislation mandating public education.  All in all we have here another strong emancipationist narrative of the Civil War and Reconstruction that has made it into our mainstream culture.