Why Doesn’t the Confederacy Just Fade Away?

Historian David Blight has written a little editorial that is making its way around various newspapers today.  The last section caught my attention and I thought it would make for a thought provoking post:

In 1907, Mosby drove a dagger into the heart of Lost Cause mythology about slavery: “I am not ashamed that my family were slaveholders. The South went to war on account of slavery. I am not as honored for having fought on the side of slavery – a soldier fights for his country … the South was my country.”  Why doesn’t the Confederacy just fade away? Is it because we are irresistibly fascinated by catastrophic loss? Or is it something else? Is it because the Confederacy is to this day the greatest conservative resistance to federal authority in American history? Or is it that nothing punctuates the long and violent story of white supremacy in America quite like the brief four years of the Confederate States of America?

Is it really all about federalism? Or the honoring of ancestors? Or valor and loyalty? Or regional identity? Or about white racial solidarity in an America becoming browner and more multi-ethnic every day?  In 1951, in an essay probing how and why Americans have a difficult time facing their racial past, AfricanAmerican writer James Baldwin left a telling observation:  “Americans have the most remarkable ability to alchemize all bitter truths into an innocuous but piquant confection and transform their moral contradictions, or public discussion of such contradictions, into a proud decoration, such as are given for heroism on the field of battle.”

We should decorate our battlefield heroes, and we have been doing so for a century and a half. We can only wonder whether this time, during the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, we can finally face the past and probe the real causes and consequences of that conflict, or whether we will content ourselves again with unexamined moral contradictions and piquant confections in our public memory.  If we do it better this time, we will need stronger verbs than “involved,” and a good dose of Mosby’s candor.

Update: Check out Richard Williams’s thoughtful response to this editorial as well as the comments section.

Historians Respond to Gov. McDonnell’s Confederate History Month Proclamation

Today I picked up the most recent issue of Civil War Times (August 2010) which includes my editorial on Governor Robert McDonnell’s Confederate History Month Proclamation.  I joined an impressive group that included William Marvel, Susannah Ural, Lesley Gordon, S. Waite Rawls III, Catherine Clinton, Harold Holzer, Harry Smeltzer, and Michael Fellman.  I enjoyed reading the other selections as well as Gary Gallagher’s essay on the controversy.  Readers of this blog won’t find anything new in my submission:

The response to Governor McDonnell’s proclamation reflects the extent to which white and black Americans no longer identify with a Civil War remembrance that fails to acknowledge the centrality of slavery and emancipation to the war in Virginia.  His subsequent apology ought to be understood in light of a dramatic shift in public perception that has taken place over the past few decades.  Changes to the racial profile of local and state governments in the wake of the Civil Rights movement has allowed black Americans to take part in public debate.

A tour of Virginia reveals a historical landscape dominated by monuments that celebrate the common soldier as well as the Confederacy’s political and military leaders.  In addition to remembering the past, these sites reflect the values and racial profile of the ruling party throughout much of the 20th century.  The original proclamation would have us continue to remember Virginia’s Civil War through this narrow lens. On the eve of the Sesquicentennial, Virginians demand a proclamation that commemorates a more accurate and richer past.  In doing so we ensure that 2011 will not be a repeat of 1961. (p. 44)

Apparently, representatives of Sons of Confederate Veterans were contacted, but chose not to contribute to this forum.  I’m not surprised.  Perhaps they were too busy worrying about stories such as the following, which I read about this morning.  Last week hundreds of eight graders from Burke County, North Carolina traveled to hear Rev. Herman White as part of the area’s Founders Day Festival.  The good reverend “asserted that slaves before “the War of Northern Aggression” had more rights than African Americans have today and disparaged the Gettysburg Address as “political garbage.”  You can read more about this travesty here, but I think the response by the local SCV is both incredibly disturbing and helpful in understanding their position on the governor’s proclamation:

The Waldensian Trail of Faith, a local nonprofit organization, sponsors the Valdese-Waldensian Founders Festival. The association’s president, State Sen. Jim Jacumin, said the Burke County Tigers, a Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) group, recommended — “raved” about — White as a speaker. Jacumin said, “We don’t research. That’s something we don’t do. We don’t have the money or the time to do that… It’s like a pastor who comes to your church and preaches, you don’t research him.” According to Tigers’ chaplain Larry Smalls’ introduction, White is the pastor of Archdale Church of God, has a bachelor’s and master’s degree in ministry and is working toward his doctorate. He said White is a state and national SCV Life Member and has been the SCV N.C. Division chaplain for six years.”  (White) is a purebred unreconstructed Southerner and not ashamed to say so,” Small said, “and Dixie burns in his heart.” Tigers’ adjutant Elgie McGalliard said the organization did not know specifically what White would speak about, but knew he focused on the history of the South.  “He’s a minister; he just talks what’s in his heart,” McGalliard said.

I guess it doesn’t matter that “what’s in his heart” is a lot of racist and historically inaccurate crap.  I would suggest that the above quote nicely encapsulates the SCV’s place on the landscape of Civil War remembrance.  It really is hard to imagine that people still think along these lines.  I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Governor McDonnell to Speak in Fredericksburg to Mark Memorial Day

Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell will mark Memorial Day with an address at the Fredericksburg National Cemetery, which contains the graves of roughly 15,000 Union soldiers.  Over at Mysteries and Conundrums, John Hennessy offers a brief history of the earliest Memorial Day observances, which were organized by the town’s African Americans.  This continued until the early 1880s when Confederate veterans accepted an invitation to take part with the stipulation that African Americans be excluded.

It’s worth asking, in light of April’s controversial Confederate History Month declaration, why the governor has chosen to mark this important day in a Union cemetery.  I am curious as to what he will say.  In fact, I think I may attend.  What do you think?

Edward Sebesta is Back and Without Focus

As he promised in January Ed Sebesta has petitioned President Obama to discontinue the practice of sending a wreath to the Confederate statue at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day.  Actually, this petition goes much further than last year’s in requesting that the federal government “revoke the Sons of Confederate Veterans participation as a recognized charity in the Combined Federal Campaign, deny the SCV permission to host events for the United States Army, and prevent the SCV’s future involvement Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) programs in America’s high schools.”  In doing so Sebesta has moved away from focusing the nation’s attention on a specific public site in favor of a broader look at the neo-Confederate movement.  Unfortunately, any focus on the monument that Sebesta hoped to maintain is lost and I suspect that most people will not pay much attention to the SCV’s political activities and involvement in JROTC.  Before commenting further, I want to share what I wrote last year:

First, let me say that there is much in this new petition that I agree with.  The SCV promotes a Lost Cause inspired narrative of the Civil War that at times borders on racist.  You can indeed see this on the many chapter websites as well as their bookstore on the national site.  As far as I am concerned the fundamental problem for Sebesta is that President Obama made the right decision last year.  Rather than fuel the debate, which only worked to move interested parties further away from one another, the president sent an additional wreath to the African American Soldiers Monument in Washington, D.C.

Continue reading “Edward Sebesta is Back and Without Focus”

Confederates Were Traitors! How About You?

I have been thinking a bit more about yesterday’s post and specifically about the problem that I have in considering counterfactuals that end with a Confederate victory.  As I pointed out my difficulty with such scenarios center on the belief that slavery would have continued with a Confederate victory and that the United States would have ceased to exist as a Republic, including its democratic institutions and faith in the rule of law.  In a recent online search I came across this NPR interview from the height of the controversy surrounding Gov. McDonnell’s Confederate History Month declaration.  This exchange from that interview really does a good job of nailing down some of my thoughts from yesterday:

WERTHEIMER: But, you know, in fairness, this is a huge part of Virginia’s past. Republican Governor Jim Gilmore observed Civil War History Month in a much more inclusive way, but still he did observe it. This state has huge battlefields. It’s a big tourist draw. Should there be a way that is a proper way or an inclusive way to commemorate this history?

Prof. HARRIS-LACEWELL: Listen, this was a civil war where people who were traitorous to their nation made a choice to secede and begin a new country. It is not just sort of a thing that happened or a neutral position vis-a-vis the government. The confederacy was an attempt to break the union that is the United States of America.

So, even if you took race and slavery and the stain of racial inequality out of the story, even if you pretended that slavery had nothing to do with the civil war, the fact is it was an attempt to break the union. And so I think the idea of celebrating that – it’s one thing to commemorate it, to recognize that it happened; it’s another thing to turn it into an heroic moment that we should celebrate and potentially even emulate.

Now I know some of you will take issue with Prof. Harris-Lacewell’s conclusion about the legality of secession and her referencing of white southerners as traitors.  For the sake of argument, however, I suggest that we put this aside  for now and take one step back.  Americans clearly disagreed in the decades leading to the Civil War about whether or not the Union was a contractual agreement between states or indissoluble.  For most Americans the result of the war ended any serious consideration of secession and a formal breakup of the Union.

The reason why I identify with the professor’s response, however, has little to do with my knowledge of constitutional law or my personal connection (or lack thereof) with that generation of Americans.  It has to do with the fact that my Civil War memory is intimately tied up with my identity as a citizen of this nation.  It is my own self-identity that prevents me from entertaining or desiring an outcome that would have left 4 million Americans in bondage as well as a nation that could not enforce its own rule of law and defend its institutions.  In short, it is my sense of patriotism and identity as an American citizen that prevents me from seriously considering the actions of white Southerners, who steered their states out of the Union.

OK…but were they traitors to their country?  In approaching this question it is helpful to distinguish between my role as a historian and my identity as an American.  It goes without saying that my research into the Civil War, and the Confederate experience in particular, is not motivated by some deep desire to condemn.  Rather, my interest in the Civil War has allowed me to explore questions about race that I find interesting and which have helped me to better understand the broader sweep of American history.  On the other hand I value the rights that I enjoy as a citizen of this country.  I value its institutions and the rule of law.  I support swift government action in response to any attempt to threaten the rights that we enjoy.  That’s right.  If an attempt were made to break-up this nation from within I would support the swiftest response by the federal government and that means by force of arms if necessary.  Apart from a few people on the political fringes I assume that most Americans would support such a response as well.  So, were Confederates traitors?  Yes!  As a loyal and proud American what other conclusion could I arrive at?

This gets us back to the question of whether you can both identify and approve of the actions that led to the creation of the C.S.A. and at the same time self-identify as a citizen of the United States and maintain some sense of loyalty and commitment to its continued existence.   Perhaps it is possible, but I am going to need someone to explain it to me.