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I Would Have Been A Confederate Soldier

If I had lived during the 1860s, I probably would’ve done exactly what my mother’s grandfather did. Cursing, I would’ve picked up a gun and left my Mississippi family to protect my homeland. I would’ve fully understood I was fighting for a cause I did not support—preserving the right to own people. But the irresistible love of home would’ve forced me to take on lice and rain and mud and cannon fire.  I would’ve tromped through land that so recently had been someone’s backyard, aiming to kill men I had no quarrel with.

When the war ended and my side was the glorious loser, would I have wanted to see monuments erected to the politicians and generals who’d gotten us into the war? Helllllll, no! Those fools forced me to fight a war I didn’t want to fight, and then the sons of bitches f**ing lost!

So I’m not surprised veterans didn’t erect the Confederate States of America statues strewn across the American South. Almost all were erected after 1900. Quick reminder: the American Civil War ended in 1865. Reconstruction—the post-war era of Southern occupation by Federal troops during which it might not have been prudent to erect statues—ended in 1877.

It wasn’t until 40 years after the war that CSA statues gained momentum. (You think we waited a long time to come to terms with the Vietnam War and erect a memorial? Saigon fell in 1975. The Vietnam Memorial Wall was fully completed by 1983). Those still seared by the heat of war didn’t erect the CSA statues. White people erected the statues in a cold, calculated move to assert white race dominance.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s speech, given as New Orleans removed four of its Confederate statues, explains the history:

The historic record is clear, the Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and P.G.T. Beauregard statues were not erected just to honor these men, but as part of the movement which became known as The Cult of the Lost Cause. This ‘cult’ had one goal — through monuments and through other means — to rewrite history to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity. . . . These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.

True, the statues are “historical.” But the only history they teach is about America’s continuing surges of white supremacy. If you can’t answer the question, what was happening in 1900, 1909, 1957, and 1962 that led Americans to erect statues of a war that ended in 1865?, we can’t begin to have a conversation about whether the statues should stay.

You might say, “My ancestor fought in the Civil War!” But, yeah, so did mine. It’s not enough. You have to ask yourself, would my great-grandfather really want me to peg my identity on the worse experience of his life? Isn’t it more likely that his fervent prayer would be that his children and grandchildren live good lives? To be better in all things than they were? If your ancestor didn’t fight to preserve slavery but to defend his homeland, allowing the war to take center stage offends the reason he served. So there’s your choice: my ancestor fought to own people (unacceptable) or my ancestor fought to defend his home and I’m gonna ignore that to focus on the war (unacceptable).

I know—there’s that sticky thing called pride. Listen, I absorbed my family’s story about a relative going overseas with a legislative committee to buy one of these damn statues. We were proud of our relative—he sailed across the ocean to France, mind you. Only with time did the glow fade as we collectively absorbed the fact that the honoree was one of the most virulent racists the state ever produced. Personal pride can’t trump maturing enlightenment.

We must stop loving the South for its war. We must love it for the same reason our ancestors did. For the ripe figs and pebble-bottomed creeks and the light calling us home at night. To do otherwise sells the South down the river. We can’t cling to our ancestral myths when we really do know better.

With the whole picture in front of you, what do you choose to focus on?

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Comments (16)

  • We historians are fond of saying “the past is another country.” By which we mean that however much we try to understand and appreciate the past, our efforts always fall short. Part of the story of the coming of the Civil War involves the strong opposition to the idea of secession and to the war itself among many white southerners. Being from Mississippi, you probably know the story of the “free State of Jones.” There was very strong opposition in other places too. The western counties of Virginia seceded from their own state to become the new state of West Virginia. There was strong opposition in North Carolina,parts of Georgia, and almost all of East Tennessee.
    Most historians also agree that what broke willingness to compromise about extending slavery into areas the United States added before the Civil war was the Kansas Nebraska Act which expressly repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which forbade slavery north of the 36 30 line (northrern boundary of Arkansas). The nation split in the 1850s over the question of the expansion of slavery. Free Soilers in the North opposed this vigorously, while slave-holding southerners believed that if slavery could not expand, it would die. Both sides were postponing the question of how our society might contend with the problem of millions of free African Americans.
    AS the war broke out, both sides found lots of exuberant support for their cause which soon died down and made the draft necessary. High desertion rates on both sides suggested that many preferred to run rather than fight.
    The Union victory was so overwhelming that it became necessary to invent the myth of “The Lost Cause” to ease the pain of the South’s loss. Ironies abound. The Union fought against secession (not slavery, some slave states remained in the Union) but accepted West Virginia’s secession from Virginia. Only after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 did the war become specifically about slavery. It was also possible to be white, opposed to slavery, and join the Confederate Army. And some southerners, George H. Thomas, for example, fought for the Union side. So, among other things, we have to be careful about how we use the past. It was far more complicated than we realize. And yes it is possible to love the South and not the Confederacy, and southerners do come together across racial lines when they sit down to eat.

  • Your post taught me a lot about the history of these contentious statues and as always you bring a new perspective on this awful history. These words are framable and should be hung in the Oval Office: “Personal pride can’t trump maturing enlightenment.”

  • Hi Joe. Good stuff. The only thing I’d put in context is your statement that the war only became about slavery after the EP. I think you mean on the part of the Union. The Mississippi 1861 resolution of secession declares it thoroughly identified with slavery. And, of course, the EP only applied to the Southern states–so, yes, history is complicated.

  • Good point. I could have been clearer. However they expressed it, Confederates fought for the preservation and expansion of slavery. My other point was to emphasize the widespread racism of both sections.
    Glad you are back blogging.

  • Exactly! Especially in these present times. But the above is my family’s history – diverse belief systems, loyalties and fears as you know throw a wrench in all the myths and shady ‘facts’ that we all have in our histories. Many of my family members are still what I call racists (and none read this blog, so I feel safe calling them thus) and are in denial. Yet many are not wedded to the flag, statues or any residue of the confederacy. We disagree on some issues, find common ground on others, yet we gather and love each other at every opportunity. Fear is not going to go away merely because I try to convince one of the more conservative members of my family that no one is going to take his/her job/land away. Fear goes so deep in our past that it will take generations to dissipate. That’s probably what some in my family said in 1865, too. And how many generations have passed since then? I’d love to know percentages, but emotions cannot be measured, only _________ [what? fill in the blank!]

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