Remembrance, Not Reverence

The Civil War has been over for almost 150 years and still the Confederate flag ignites controversy. The latest conflagration is taking place at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. Originally just Washington University, it added the Lee in 1870 after the death of Robert E. Lee, who had served as its president since 1865. Lee is buried in the school’s Lee Chapel.

Recently some of the school’s African American students demanded, among other things, the removal of Confederate battle flags in the Lee Chapel. These were not original flags from the Civil War; they were replicas placed there after the originals had been removed because they were deteriorating. The university agreed to take the replica flags down. (You can read university president Richard Ruscio’s reasoned statement about the controversy here.)

The decision led to an eruption from those who decry “political correctness” and protest that the flags represent history and heritage. It’s not a position with which I agree. I share no sense of idolatry for Robert E. Lee, nor do I have any sympathy for the “Lost Cause.” I agree with what Ulysses S. Grant wrote in his memoirs about Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. “I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse,” wrote Grant. “I do not question, however, the sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us.”

I do not question the sincerity of those who advocate the display of Confederate flags (battle flags or otherwise), whether it’s in South Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, or elsewhere. Flag supporters often argue that they are on the side of “heritage, not hate.” I can understand their reasoning, without agreeing with it. Because I do think the Confederacy was, as Grant said, a bad cause. Not only did the men in the Confederate government seek to break up the United States (something anyone who claims to be a patriot should agree was a bad cause indeed) but they also did it because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.

Some people insist that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery. I have argued with a few of them. I cannot understand how anyone could say that. As I write in my book, Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg, “The South fought to preserve a culture that rested on a foundation of human bondage. Don’t take it from me—take it from the vice president of the Confederate States of America, Alexander Stephens. In a famous speech he made in March 1861, less than a month before the attack on Fort Sumter ignited the Civil War, Stephens declared that slavery ‘was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.’ Furthermore, he added, the foundation of the Confederate government–its very cornerstone, in fact—‘rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.’ Claiming that slavery did not cause the Civil War is like clearing the iceberg of any responsibility for sinking the Titanic. That’s why I find it galling to see the Sons of Confederate Veterans contend that the South’s ‘motivating factor’ for war was ‘the preservation of liberty and freedom.’ Except, of course, for the approximately four million people of African descent whom the slave-holding states kept in bondage. It’s a stain that will forever sully the story of the Confederate States of America. There’s no escaping it.”

I had one Amazon reviewer criticize my book for taking the “revisionist” view that slavery led to the outbreak of the Civil War. Revisionist! The real revisionist history was the one that came after the war, when ex-Confederates began recasting the story so they could airbrush slavery out of the picture altogether, like a guilty man cleaning up a crime scene. Of course slavery played a role in the Civil War. Just read South Carolina’s “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union,” which the state issued in December 1860. South Carolina, as everyone should know, was the first state to secede from the Union. After citing its reasons for thinking it could secede, South Carolina explained its motivations. (I’m using the text posted by the Yale Law School, which you can find here.) Here’s one portion of the Declaration:

We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.

The men who drafted this declaration did not have any hidden agenda. They did not think slavery was wrong—in fact, they believed it to be just, proper, and sanctified by the Bible. Slavery was the engine that drove their economy and they knew its eradication would have created great difficulties for the South. So South Carolina decided to leave the Union and, like dominoes, other states followed—and they cited slavery as a reason, too.

I can understand why some people refuse to acknowledge the fundamental role slavery played in the outbreak of the American Civil War. It’s the unpleasant truth at the heart of the Confederacy. It tarnishes the glory and blights the valor. It strips away what some like to remember as romantic, chivalric, and honorable aspects of the war. “States’ rights” is a much loftier cause. Of course, many men from the South fought bravely and well. No doubt many of them couldn’t have cared care less about slavery. They were fighting for their home states or out of loyalty to their friends and neighbors. But no matter what the motivations of individual soldiers were, the foundation upon which their cause rested was morally indefensible.

Slavery is, unfortunately, inextricably entwined with the heritage behind the Confederate flag. Is there any wonder why some people find public displays of the flag offensive? Is anyone really blind to the kind of heritage that many African Americans—though not only African Americans—see when they look at the Confederate flag, especially after the flag had been hijacked and used as a symbol by racist and hate groups? Confederate flags carry a lot of baggage with them, and sometimes the things denounced as “political correctness” are merely signs of people fumbling their way toward decency and respect.

I can also understand why some Southerners resent Yankees (like me) who seemingly use the issue of slavery to assert the moral superiority of our side. Slavery was a blight on the entire nation, north and south. Northern merchants and bankers grew rich on its proceeds. Northern ship captains brought captured slaves to North America. None of us can take any pride in its existence, but we can take a measure of pride that Americans did end slavery in our nation, even if it came at the cost of a long and bloody war. As Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural Address, “It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged.”

So if Washington and Lee University wants to take the Confederate flags down from the Lee Chapel, I am all for it. The original battle flags—not the replicas—will rotate through the Chapel’s museum exhibit, where they will serve as artifacts from history, not objects of veneration. I have nothing against display of Confederate flags in their proper context. I support remembrance. I am just against treating a Confederate flag as an object of reverence. We must remember—but we do not always have to revere.

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6 Comments

  1. Timothy Sawyer

     /  June 24, 2015

    I have read your writing ont the Confederate Flag and only have one point to make. Slaves and slavery did not start in the USA. It started in Africa with the Zulu tribe and slaves were sold to the white man by black man. If you think that the Confederate Flag is a symbol of racism because of slavery then someone needs to wake up and do more research.Slaves were sold to the white man after a war between two tribes in africa. the victor took the men and woman of the losing tribe and made them slaves. If they tried to run the slaves were killed or sold. So if the confederate flag is a symbol of slavery and racism and it offends you, then why are we not removing the flags from africa as well. Again that is where slavery all started anyways right?

    Reply
    • I’m not sure what point you are trying to make. African countries should deal with their slavery history as they see fit (such as the “House of Slaves” I’ve read about on an island off Senegal). But I’m talking about the history of slavery here in the United States. I haven’t heard of any Africans weighing in on the subject of the Confederate flag, or Americans who are telling African nations what flags they should fly. I assume there has been vigorous debate in South Africa about any remaining flags or symbols of the apartheid regime there.

      Reply
  2. Reblogged this on stillness of heart and commented:
    A particularly timely post by “Searching for George Gordon Meade” from July 2014.

    Reply
  3. Whilst I strongly agree that the Confederate flag is today a symbol identified with racism, what concerns me at the moment is how public opinion has become misdirected from the core issues of racism and gun control. Do whatever you please with the Confederate flag, it will not put an end to racism nor will it prevent mentally ill people from obtaining guns. Let’s not become distracted by what essentially is a fairly superficial issue, stay focused on racism and gun control, these killed the 9 people in Charleston not a flag.

    Reply
  4. Eric J Snyder

     /  June 26, 2015

    Jimdroberts, you are right in your comments. Unfortunately, as the Economist magazine points out, Americans cannot discuss gun violence or gun control anymore because of the political climate so we as Americans look at secondary and tertiary subjects when such a tragedy strikes. But, being white and having lived in Charleston,SC only a few years, my neighbor, born and raised here, 70 and black, said if the lives of 9 people is what it takes to rid our state with symbols like the confederate flag and statues and streets honoring John C Calhoun, then, and I quote, we have to act now. Black Americans have been so ignored in these states for so long in getting rid of these symbols that they finally feel there’s someone listening out there in this nation.

    Reply
  5. We must remember—but we do not always have to revere….very deep sentiments

    Reply

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