I read an article today as I was skimming through Civil War related news stories, and one caught my attention. This was a littleittybitty story out of Oklahoma – about a group of fifteen-year-olds parading a Confederate flag around town, occasionally stopping to educate passers by on its true meaning. As you might guess – their mission was to distance their cause from slavery and emphasize secession for the preservation of “state rights.” The opposition confronted the group of Confederate apologists at least once, they had a amiable discussion, and they eventually agreed to disagree and parted ways.
I’ll commend the members of both small groups for not allowing passions to escalate into a more heated…potentially violent exchange. But I can’t help but wonder…why, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, do Confederate apologists insist that secession was not linked to the preservation of slavery? I know I know…state rights. But which ones?
I’m reminded this morning how the state rights argument is a compelling one for many. As I re-read Tony Horwitz’s acclaimed, Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War, and plan a class project that engages the text and public history, I can only recall my own upbringing. At a young age, I learned the persistent myths that involved my family, the state of Alabama, and the “noble cause” of state rights for which my ancestors fought. It made the very young me feel great about my state…which had stood defiantly against “oppression” and the tyranny of the federal government. But if they had added the preservation of slavery to the mix, well, that would have ruined everything. Of course slavery was something real, and living breathing slaves something tangible. Confederate apologists work best with abstractions – often conveniently ignoring what was actually happening. The good news – I soon overcame my indoctrination, as it were, into the church of the Confederacy – but only after looking at the evidence and drawing the most irrefutable conclusion.
So to my Confederate apologist readers: I understand why you do not want to associate secession with the preservation of slavery. But how – I mean really how can you not? Speeches, the contemporary press, even the secession documents themselves easily refute your claims. Yet you persevere. I am looking to hear from you. Which specific state rights did the southern slave states secede to protect?
You won’t get any great revelations or meaningful insights here today folks, but since you’ve asked, I have a few things to say…just to open up a discussion.
Readers of this blog will probably not be all that surprised, but guess what – I am no fan of the Confederate States of America. Despite my family connection to the Deep South (Alabama) and my Confederate ancestry (my ancestors fought in the 16th and 26th Alabama Infantry Regiments), there is no love lost between me and the boys in gray. They fascinate me to be sure, and I have spent a lifetime studying them – their motivations and their country…however short lived it might have been.
And of course the reason for my, shall we say, distaste for the “glorious cause” is simple. It boils down to why the Confederacy existed in the first place: to indefinitely perpetuate the institution of slavery.
This is where the Confederate apologists will check out (surely after a dramatic eye roll). Fine, if you don’t believe me, just read any contemporary newspaper, the secession documents, Alexander Stephens, etc, etc. To anyone with sense, the evidence is irrefutable. It was slavery, stupid.
And yet, all throughout the South (indeed, throughout the country) there are monuments to those who fought to ensure Confederate Independence and establish a slave-holding republic. How we got these monuments is an enthralling story, quite worthy of our investigation. While I will not digress, I can offer at least one recommendation to get you started: Ghosts of the Confederacy by Gaines Foster.
Now, these days there is a powerful movement to destroy public Confederate symbols, citing how they are offensive to a good number of residents – constantly reminded of the generals, politicians, and yes…soldiers who endorsed the white power structure and fought to maintain slavery. They have made a good deal of progress including the recent removal of monuments in New Orleans and elsewhere. Rather than me discussing the specific details of these removals, have a look at the work of Kevin Levin and others who have eloquently chronicled the events and offered their take.
Quite a few on the usual socials have been asking where I stand on the destruction of these symbols. Brace yourself…I think that Confederate monuments are very useful educational tools. As such, like any historical document, we should preserve them for posterity.
Well now, I bet you didn’t see that coming. But bear with me for a minute…there’s more to my story. And to my Confederate apologist readers that are still with me here, stop grinning. I’m not on your side. Not by a Confederate mile.
While would-be Rebels might think that these symbols preserve Confederate history, I think that they are confused. What they DO preserve is a history of oppression. Further, they perpetuate the memory of a romanticized Confederacy enshrined in the Lost Cause narrative. So why keep them around? Because that is a history worth knowing. I do not believe in the destruction of any historical documents, regardless of the form in which they come, and regardless of their power to offend.
First, I think that when we do this, we set ourselves up on a dangerous path. If we destroyed everything in this country that brushed up against oppression some way or another, be it racist, sexist, or whatever, well then…we would not have much left would we? Second, understanding what these monuments really mean in context (not of the war, but of the post-Reconstruction era) SHOULD make you uncomfortable. If they don’t, you might be missing a sensitivity chip. Discomfort challenges us to investigate and to understand. When I take my students to Confederate monuments (we have one in LA) that is my focus. We talk about the Lost Cause, the redeemers, reconciliation, and of course, Jim Crow segregation and disfranchisement. The monument provides the setting and it leads my students to profoundly important questions.
But there are, naturally, problems. Most of the monuments offer no context. They are simply there and more often than not, in prominent public settings and maintained by tax dollars. To a great many of our citizens, they are powerful reminders of a past wedded in every conceivable way to slavery.
So if we should not destroy them, then what should we do? Well…some folks with very good intentions suggest that historians, better known to Confederate apologists as revisionist libt—s, should come together and create appropriate contextual plaques to place near monuments, explaining what these things are all about. I have offered to do this at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles, where our local Confederate dead rest at the foot of their monument. Side note: they have not taken me up on my offer.
But even if this were to happen the monuments would still be there, looming over all of us – and they would still be offensive. So others have suggested relocating them to museums or to private property far removed from heavily trafficked public areas. Not such a terrible idea, but a logistical nightmare. If you have ever visited Monument Avenue in Richmond, you will quickly note that many of these things are enormous…nearly as big as Confederate defeat itself (but not quite).
So in short, while I really really really don’t like Confederate monuments, I do not think destroying them is the answer. To be honest, I am not really sure what we should do with them. So I am open to reasonable discussion (emphasis on reasonable) in the comments section. Until then…