Tag Archives: Sons of Confederate Veterans

A Black Confederate Bonanza

It looks like the local chapters of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and United Daughters of the Confederacy in Pulaski, Tennessee have struck a gold mine of black Confederates.  How many, you ask?  Well, would you believe that 18 were discovered in one cemetery.  This weekend they are planning a fundraising event in preparation for a marker dedication on November 8 at Maplewood Cemetery.  As for the research that determined the status of these men we must turn to the educational forums at Dixie Outfitters.  Scroll down for the letter by UDC Chapter President, Cathy Wood (though she claims not to be working on this project as a member of the UDC) for the following:

I found where there were 11 Black Confederate soldiers from Giles County that applied for a pension. I also found 5 that died before the pension was in place or just didn’t apply. Since then I have found 2 more that didn’t apply, making a total so far 18. I went to the archives and got the application for pension for the 11. Then I filled out the form for the markers and faxed them in. I faxed these late one afternoon and by 8:30 the next morning a lady from Nashville VA called and said that these men were NOT soldiers they were slaves. Well tell me how could they receive a pension? Now are you going to stand there and let someone shoot at you and not defend yourself or someome near you? I don’t think so. These men were defending their country and other soldiers. [my emphasis]

Don’t you just love Ms. Wood’s rhetorical questions?  Those of you who are regular readers of this blog know that successful pension applications did not imply status as a soldier in the ranks.

Ms. Wood concludes her letter with the following: “In my opinion VA is discriminating against the Black Confederate soldier. I know that there are Black Union markers in Maplewood Cemetery here in Pulaski.”  The reason that Ms. Wood can know that there are black Union soldiers buried in the cemetery is because black Americans did serve as soldiers in the United States Army.

Stay tuned for updates.  Perhaps Earl Ijames will give the keynote address and the women will show up in traditional mourning dress.

Joe Wilson Comes From a Long Line of Crazies

Ever since South Carolina’s Rep. Joe Wilson insulted the president and his office during Wednesday’s Health Care speech, the newspapers can’t get enough of his connection with the Sons of Confederate Veterans as well as his outspoken support for the public display of the Confederate flag and “Confederate honor.”  Today’s NYT’s column by Maureen Dowd takes this news thread to drive home an essentially reductionist connection between Wilson’s nutty little outburst, his personal past, and the broader history of his home state of South Carolina:

The congressman, we learned, belonged to the Sons of Confederate Veterans, led a 2000 campaign to keep the Confederate flag waving above South Carolina’s state Capitol and denounced as a “smear” the true claim of a black woman that she was the daughter of Strom Thurmond, the ’48 segregationist candidate for president. [Therefore] Wilson clearly did not like being lectured and even rebuked by the brainy black president presiding over the majestic chamber.

Others have tried to situate Wilson into a broader historical narrative that includes the likes of John Calhoun, Preston Brooks, and South Carolina’s own place in the story of secession, Civil War, and Massive Resistance.  These narrative memes are so predictable, but ultimately tell us next to nothing about what motivated Joe Wilson’s outburst.  Oh…I get it.  Because Calhoun, Brooks, and Thurmond are so easily lumped together in some vague reactionary category we might as well throw good old Wilson in there.  Dowd and others draw much too close of a connection between between Wilson’s past and the broader history of the state that he represents.  It’s almost silly that it even has to be pointed out.  SCV members are not necessarily card carrying racists; in fact, I read plenty of news reports of members who voted for Obama back in November.  It also doesn’t follow that those who identify with the Confederate past by flying a flag on private property are engaged in racial commentary or attempting to role back the clock to the Jim Crow Era.  How much do you think Dowd and others know about the SCV to be able to imply such a connection?  Please don’t get me wrong, this is not meant in any way as a public statement of support for the SCV or a signal that a Confederate flag is going up on my front porch.  I’ve made my position clear on both the SCV and the flag on this blog.

I get the sense that the many reports that have implied such connections present Americans with another opportunity to play with our Civil War memory.

The Future of the Confederate Flag

My recent post on the unveiling of another large Confederate flag in Tennessee generated a number of comments.  It’s an emotional issue on all sides and it is unlikely that the interested parties will ever fully agree on whether it should be displayed in public as well as its meaning.  But that’s the way it is when it comes to controversial symbols.  By definition they are open to multiple points of view.  There is a certain amount of legitimacy on all sides and on occasion we can also see these same individuals/groups engaged in actions that betray ignorance and callousness.  Consider H.K. Edgerton’s ridiculous suggestion that if you don’t revere the Confederate flag than you ought to be considered a “traitor” or the Auburn official who plucked the Confederate flags from a soldier ceremony.  I could go on and on with examples.

Such a state of affairs is one of the reasons why I’ve suggested that the flag ought to be removed to a museum setting where it can be properly interpreted.  I don’t understand why more people in the SCV and other Confederate heritage groups don’t consider such a move.  Done right the flag would be taken out of a public debate that rarely evolves in a way where any real understanding of history is conveyed; it simply works to fuel passions on both sides.  As I see it the problem is that the flag is both connected to men who fought bravely in battle during the Civil War and it is a flag that was used as a symbol against civil rights in the 1950s.  You can’t change the history and, by extension, the way people identify with it.  To suggest otherwise is to misunderstand history and the nature of symbols themselves.  Go to the Museum of the Confederacy and you will see the flag in the context of the Civil War.  Across Broad Street, at the American Civil War Center at Tredegar, you will see the flag associated with the Civil War as well as a symbol of white supremacy in the 1950s.  The flag is there to be better understood.

Now, you might suggest that I am being a bit extreme in suggesting that the flag ought to be retired to a museum.  After all, its supporters want to see it in public as a rallying point and as a symbol of pride.  Fair enough and luckily we live in a society where that is permitted up to a point.  The sticking point as we know all too well is that the visibility of the Confederate flag is determined to a certain extent by society through local assemblies and other levels of government.  And let’s keep something very important in mind as we proceed: THIS HAS ALWAYS BEEN THE CASE!

The only difference in the last three decades following the civil rights movement is that a much broader segment of the population can now weigh in on issues having to do with how the past is remembered in public spaces because a broader segment of society is now represented in local government.  Because of this the debates are more heated and the outcomes no longer follow what some have taken for granted for far too long.  Does anyone really believe that if African Americans had been allowed to take part in local government during the era of Jim Crow we would not have seen a more vigorous and and even contentious debate about the public display of the Confederate flag along with monuments and other public sites?  Of course we would.  The defensiveness of some who believe that their “heritage” is under attack is a function of the fact that a certain segment of society has had a monopoly on public remembrance.  That has changed since the 1960s, but again, it should not be seen as anything more than the same democratic process at work.

So, what is the future of the Confederate flag (along with other symbols) and their meaning?  Its future will be determined in every community by those who choose to focus on whether this particular symbol best reflects their values and its collective past.  For instance, in Allegany County, Maryland the local school board has prevented the distribution of a pamphlet that depicts the Confederate flag.  In Jonesborough, Tennessee the mayor and aldermen voted to allow the placement of bricks with the names of Confederate soldiers from the county in a display to honor its veterans.  In both cases, as in so many other examples that can be found in newspapers across the country, these decisions are being made by elected officials who do their best to reflect the sentiment of their constituents. Get it right in enough cases and they stand a good chance of being reelected.  Get it wrong and they are out on their asses.  There is no fixed meaning of symbols with the kind of contested history as the Confederate flag, but if enough people rally to allow or prevent its display in a park or parade, etc than in that sense the community has issued a statement.  In each decision the meaning of the flag is fixed until the community chooses to change it.

On one of Robert Moore’s recent comment threads, fellow blogger Richard Williams suggested that the large Confederate flags are examples of “push back” against those who are perceived to be a threat to their preferred view of the past.  I think that is a fair characterization, but it is one that I hope I’ve explained in this post lies at the foundation of our democratic process.  Let me suggest that the supporters of the Confederate flag ought to be grateful that we now live in a society where “push back” is possible.

SCV Hoists Another Big Ass Confederate Flag

Here’s a sure fire way to announce to the world just how irrelevant you are.  More to the point, the SCV would have us believe that this is nothing more than an attempt to honor the men who carried this flag into battle, but anyone with an undergraduate degree in child psychology can see that this is a classic example of children who are desperate to be seen and acknowledged.  The best part of this ceremony, however, is the inclusion of everyone’s favorite black Confederate, H.K. Edgerton.  He is in classic form:

This place should be full of black folks.  I don’t know why [I’m the only one here]. Maybe your newspaper should have told them to come to celebrate and sing Dixie and salute our flag. It’s a shame white folks and black folks make people think this is an evil flag. This is a southern flag. You can’t attack this flag and call yourself a southerner. You can call yourself a traitor….I represent four and a half million black folks who’ve been beat down and would love to be here, too.  If they tell you they wouldn’t be, the first thing you ask is where they’re from. Then you tell them to go on back.

Tracking Civil War memory can at times be downright fun.  Way to go boys.

If the SCV were really interested in ensuring that the flag is interpreted “properly” they would retire it and push for its display only in museums where it can be given the kind of attention it deserves.  As always my thinking on this issue has been influenced by John Coski’s The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem (Harvard University Press, 2006).

Confederate Memorial Day As a “Line in the Sand”

UVA Confederate CemeteryI had a few hours to kill today so I decided to attend our annual UDC/SCV Memorial Day commemoration here in Charlottesville, Virginia.  The ceremony is held at the Confederate cemetery at the University of Virginia.  It’s a wonderful little spot that includes your standard soldier monument as well as the graves of 1,097 Confederate soldiers from all over the Confederate South.  I decided to stand in the rear to take it all in.  These ceremonies are pretty standard.  They typically include the Pledge of Allegiance, a salute to the Confederate flag as well as old favorites such as “Dixie’s Land” and “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny.”  Who can resist the lovely Lost Cause imagery in “Carry Me Back”, especially when the lyrics were composed by a black man:

Carry Me back to old Virginny/There’s where the cotton and the corn and taters grow/There’s where the birds warble sweet in the springtime/There’s where this old darkey’s heart am longed to go/There’s where I labored so hard for old Massa/Day after day in the field of yellow corn

The prayers included typical references to the “Spirit of ’76″, “Died for states rights”, “overwhelming numbers”, and the SCV’s rallying charge of “unequivocal confidence in the righteousness of the cause.”  One reference, however, got me thinking.  One of the speakers remarked that the graves, along with the monument, reflect a “line in the sand between modern day evils” and a “strong moral code” that animated the men buried, and, I assume white Southern society before modernity set in.  If you look at the profile of the audience the reference makes perfect sense.  There were reenactors with the 19th Virginia in attendance as well as members of the UDC in period costume.  More to the point, it is safe to say that the average age of the audience (approximately 100) was somewhere between 55-60.

There are two problems with this view.  First, it’s self destructive.  To argue that modern society is void of morals or individuals who care about morality/ethics is a sure fire way of alienating a very large constituency.  Unfortunately, today I didn’t see people who wer defending a way of life.  I saw people who fear modernity, which is fine, but it also means that the sound system you’ve been using for the past 50 years may not work when needed.  Let’s face it, given the profile of the SCV/UDC it is not a stretch to suggest that their days are numbered.  Seriously, how many of these chapters will be left in 20 years?  The bigger problem is that their view of the past is much too simplistic and anachronistic.  This notion that white Southerners resisted many aspects of modernity simply does not hold up under close scrutiny.  Many Virginians eagerly embraced industry and other forms of technology as a way to improve their lives and reclaim their rightful position as the leader of the nation.  Even the wealthiest planters hoped to encourage farmers to adopt modern soil practices and, according to John Majewski, vigorously pushed the Virginia state government to become much more active in encouraging the subsidizing of railroads and agricultural societies.  My point is that these were not people who were trying to turn back the hands of time despite what is posted at the entrance to the Wilkes family plantation.

I enjoyed the hour long ceremony.  I got to catch up with my friend and fellow historian Rick Britton who spoke eloquently about the 19th Virginia.  And I was also pleased to hear that our local UDC chapter is working to raise money to place grave markers for all the soldiers buried in the cemetery.  It’s a worthy endeavor and they’ve already managed to place an additional 60 markers since the program began and include the two markers in the above image.