Confederates in the Attic

I’ve never truly understood the Confederate perspective in the Civil War. I’ve blogged about this before, including the Confederate flag, civil rights as an end to the Civil War, some interesting historical perspective and the question of whether or not a state can secede (which still draws comments six years later).

This summer I made my first in-depth trip to the deep South (short stays in Charlotte and Nashville don’t seem to count), spending a week in Oxford, Miss. It was hard to avoid the rebel spirit and I found myself again wondering about this war that divided a nation. I’ve always understood slavery to be the cause and considered this a racist war and continued support for the Confederate cause 150 years later is surely proof of continued racism. But that’s also my Northern perspective, gained from growing up in a state that seemed far removed from Civil War battles (Michigan); living in a state that was barely on its feet when the war started (Minnesota—though for what it’s worth we did volunteer the first regiment, by luck of timing); having roots in a state that served as a flashpoint over slavery and ultimately sided with the North (Kansas); and having never really traveled in the original Confederate states.

In short, it’s a perspective I’ve had very little exposure to over the years.

While browsing in a bookstore in Mississippi I came across Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War. It’s a fascinating read that essentially tries to do what I’ve never been able to—understand the fascination and respect that goes along with the defeated Confederate States of America.

A lot of it has to do with the underdog cause, with states rights versus an over-reaching federal government. Some of it is land and loyalty, going along with your people because they’re, well, your people (I’m not sure that’s something we can understand today as few people are as locally fixed as people were back then). And many Southern soldiers weren’t slaveholders—apparently you could be excused from fighting if you owned more than 20 slaves.

“They were poor men fighting a rich man’s war,” says high school teacher Billie Faulk. That seems equally true today.

Historian Shelby Foote offers an interesting defense of the Confederate Flag. It was a battle flag, not the political flag, and veterans revered it as soldiers do. It became associated with hatred during the civil rights era when educated Southerns allowed white supremacists to misuse the flag. “That’s when right-thinking people should have stepped in and said, ‘Don’t use that banner, that’s not what it stands for.’ But they didn’t. So now it’s a symbol of evil to a great many people.”

That’s where the shift gets interesting. There’s this on-going animosity in the South, which I suppose is to be expected of a conquered people. After the Civil War they didn’t celebrate the Fourth of July in Mississippi again until 1945. In Richmond, the Confederate capitol, there’s Monument Avenue, which is effectively a shrine to the defeated leaders of the Confederacy (except for black tennis star Arthur Ashe, added in the late 1990s with its share of controversy). How odd is it to have monuments to what amounts to insurrectionists and traitors? And Richmond certainly isn’t alone. Confederate monuments are sprinkled across the South (Vicksburg, Miss., is apparently home to more than 1,300 plaques and monuments).

That’s what is perhaps most surprising about the Civil War. For four years brother fought against brother, but when it was over we became one nation again. Reconstruction wasn’t exactly pretty (which is why I’m even writing this today), but that it happened at all was amazing. Most Confederate leaders were never tried (only two Confederates were brought up on war crimes, commander of the Andersonville prisoner camp Henry Wirz and guerrilla fighter Champ Ferguson). Even Confederate President Jefferson Davis was released after two years in prison and no charges were brought against him. The Confederacy was not labeled as an insurrection and all supporters branded traitors.

In the end I’m not sure if I’ve made any ground. At the very least, I’ve come to understand the whole situation as being incredibly complicated. I do think its disingenuous when Confederate supporters and rebel flag flyers dismiss slavery as part of the issue. It’s part of what makes America uniquely, well, American (and how American is it to talk about how unique we are?). We were founded in the contradiction that all men are created equal, except for the slaves and Indians, maybe those Jews and immigrants we don’t like, and oh yeah, the Irish. We eventually went to war with ourselves over it and came out united. Of course freeing the slaves didn’t exactly fulfill the promise that all men were created equal and it was another hundred years before that was carried out.

Even today we continue to live with the contradiction. Though we’re past slavery and segregation, we still have racism and self-imposed segregation. Though equality isn’t exactly there, the fact that we finally have a black man as president shows how far we’ve come. That he opted to hang a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation in the halls of the White House is powerful (the fact that no president did that before shows how blind we can be to the power of our own history).

I don’t know where I’m going with any of this, but it’s an interesting history to wade through.

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