Of Lost Causes and Confederate Flags

There’s been a hell of a lot of talk lately about the Confederate flag–that is, the Confederate battle flag, which actually wasn’t the official flag of the Confederacy. [Some later versions of the Confederate national flag incorporated the Army of Northern Virginia’s square battle flag, the one we’re all familiar with. A different flag is referred to in the song The Bonnie Blue Flag.]

Just today, the governor of South Caroline signed a bill to take down the Confederate flag from their state house. Other states have removed it from their state buildings and license plates. An article from the Washington Post has an overview of what’s been happening:

Once Politically Sacrosanct Confederate Flag Moves Toward an End

The reason for this is pretty clear: the murder last month of nine people at a black church by a young white supremacist. The rationale is clear, too: the Confederate battle flag is a symbol of hate for some and pain for those who have been victims of that hate.

And that makes all the sense in the world. In fact, I believe that state buildings have no business flying the Confederate battle flag. The Confederacy is dead. Slavery is dead. Segregation is dead.

I do fear, though, that what’s been lost in the litany of places from where the flag has now been removed–the Gettysburg gift shop, for one!–is discussion of the issues at stake. I have heard a lot of calls for removal of the flag, and almost no one talking about why, and more importantly about the bigger issues of race in America and how we got to this point.

The most insidious truth of the Civil War is that while the Union won the war, the Confederacy, in many ways, won the peace. For a hundred years, African Americans didn’t have the same rights as whites in this country: in many places, they couldn’t eat at some restaurants or use certain bathrooms. Things have changed for the better. Yet even today, even among educated people, and in sometimes very subtle ways, the Confederate version of events, the so-called “Lost Cause” version, remains with us.

Let me give two recent examples. I was at Appomattox, watching a reenactment of the surrender of Robert E. Lee to Ulysses S.Grant. Confederate reenactors stacked their arms in the same spot where, exactly 150 years earlier, Lee’s troops had stacked their arms, which had been put to use against the Federal government for the prior four years. And as I stood there, a very chatty boy of about nine or ten years, said, “I always forget who won. Who was it again? Oh yeah, that’s right. It was a tie, wasn’t it?” Maybe he was simply mistaken. He was young, after all. But he seemed to me old enough to know who had won the Civil War. And we were, after all, watching at that very moment a representation of the Confederates losing to the Yankees. Something about the way the boy said it, too, made me think that someone–his parents?–had told him the war had been a “tie.” Now, I didn’t think it was my place to grab the boy, look him in the eye, and set him straight. Apparently, neither did his parents, who weren’t standing far off.

The incident reminded me that for some people in this country, as Faulkner said, “not once but whenever he [or she] wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863.” The reference is to Pickett’s Charge, the “turning point” of the Battle of Gettysburg, which was a turning point in the war. This means, that for some, the war isn’t really over yet because they still carry a very old resentment against what they see as a different way of life. It also reminded me of the importance of history education.

Another incident, less striking but indicative nonetheless, was a discussion I had with someone I know. I respect him greatly and think of him as knowledgeable about history. I was discussing my trip to Savannah and mentioned the great fire that destroyed a lot of the city in the latter half of the nineteenth century. He said, “And there was also that other thing.” I was puzzled for a moment until I realized he meant the Civil War, especially Sherman’s March to the Sea. I was almost certain that Sherman had spared Savannah, and that the Southern version of the events made Sherman a Yankee devil of destruction all out of proportions with reality. I didn’t want to say something wrong at that moment, so I went back and double-checked to be sure I wasn’t imagining things, but yes, Sherman spared Savannah. There are several version of why, but basically it was because Savannah capitulated.

So, here was a very intelligent, educated person whose perception of the past had been colored, without his really knowing it, by the mythology of the Lost Cause. There is a Southern vision of Georgia in flames–not all that far from the truth–and the Gone With the Wind image of Atlanta burning to the ground (in reality, largely the Confederates’ own doing). So he assumed that Savannah was put to the torch. But it wasn’t.

The most noxious lies are that the war wasn’t about slavery at all, and that the South didn’t lose because of moral and structural failures but because of the North’s superior manpower and materiel. That, by the way, was Robert E. Lee’s assessment of why the South lost, in his farewell address to his men. I strongly disagree with both points.

First, and let me be utterly frank, the war was about slavery, top to bottom, beginning to end. It was only after the war that survivors and apologists began to insist that it was “states’ rights” that caused the war. Of course, that’s nonsense. First of all, all you need to do is look at any documents of the time that explain the reasoning for secession. For example, there’s the Texas declaration of secession which flatly declares that their new nation is founded on the basic truth that blacks are an inferior race that must be enslaved. Or read the Cornerstone Speech of Alexander H. Stephens, the Vice President of the Confederacy: “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone 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.”

How much clearer does it have to be?

What about states’ rights? That, actually, was an explanation that gained traction after the war rather than before or during the war. It came from people–Southerners–looking back retroactively. Slavery was dead by then, and Southerners wanted to pretend that the discredited “peculiar institution” hadn’t really been the root of the problem. They judged their Northern audience and decided that a states’ rights argument would advance their desire to be readmitted fully to the Union and to regain all their political rights. Of course, the idea of “states’ rights” begs the question (posed by a character in a novella I wrote): The right to do what? After the war, the question is: the political right to do what? The answer to the first is obvious: Southerners wanted states’ rights so they could perpetuate and maybe spread slavery. After the war, they wanted to return to political power so they could put the freed blacks into the same servile role as before the war but without the title of “slave”. As Lincoln might have said, it was the right of the wolf to eat the lamb. (Said Lincoln: “The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one.”)

The second point is equally disconcerting. Lee and others have argued that the South didn’t lose because their cause was unjust or because they lacked bravery, but because of an accident of geography that made the North more prosperous and populous. As if it weren’t the inherently stultifying effect of slavery that caused the South to be far less developed than the North. As if it were accidental that the North was able to supply its troops while the South starved. As if the North threw its men into a meat grinder for which any lump of flesh was as good as the next, while one Southern soldier was worth ten Northern soldiers. As if maybe God were sleeping when he failed to give them the victory they deserved.

Of course, it’s frustrating that these ideas are still hanging around. It’s terrifying that racism still lives and that the Confederate battle flag is used as a symbol of hatred. This should spur a lot of discussion about why racism persists. There should be more discussion about the myths and culture that led that flag to become a symbol of hate. The flag itself is just a flag. In the zeal to tear it down, it’s important to remember that removing the symbol doesn’t remove the thing it stands for.

For good measure, here’s a link including a video of Ken Burns (the filmmaker responsible for the wonderful The Civil War miniseries that first aired on PBS int he early 90s).


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