Saturday, June 18, 2011

Sons of Confederate Veterans Still Distorting History, Vienna, VA June 18, 2011

In this post, I originally intended to discuss Saturday's 150th anniversary of the Battle of Vienna, reputedly the first time that a railroad was used tactically in military conflict.  (For background information on the June 17, 1861 incident at Vienna, see the blog "All Not So Quiet Along the Potomac." and "Vienna Railroad Fight.")

However, a perusal of the books and fliers on display at the table of a local chapter of Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV),  raised my concern about the continuing distortion of history by those claiming to defend their "heritage."  So, while it is not generally the aim of this blog to examine the causes of the Civil War or modern-day politics, but instead to focus on  the war's impact on our nation's capital, I felt the need to indulge myself by airing my thoughts on this debate that as a nation we should have moved beyond years ago.

While hopefully comprising only a small minority of Civil War living historians, a "neo-Confederate/heritage apologist element" is one of the reasons that I have resisted the urge to enlist in the hobby of reenacting.  (Other factors include an unwillingness to wear heavy wool uniforms in summertime Virginia, the fact that it would not have been a good way to meet girls when I was single, the expense, and my wife's clear disapproval of me playing soldier, but I digress).

As a teenager attending a reenactment event of the Battle of Honey Springs in the mid-1990s, I overheard a Confederate heritage enthusiast complaining about "the cotton-picking people of this country," who were seeking to have the Confederate Flag removed from state capitols and flags.  Unfortunately, I think this individual's opinions reflected the opinions of a not insubstantial number of Confederate heritage enthusiasts.  By his very choice of racially, charged codewords, this individual undermined his own argument that flying the Confederate flag was about preserving his ancestors' legacy and not a racially divisive symbol. 

Is there a way for Confederate heritage groups like the SCV to honor their ancestors' military accomplishments and battlefield sacrifices without downplaying the key role of slavery in leading to our nation's greatest bloodletting? I wish I had an answer. In most wars, the victors write the dominating historical narrative.  In the case of the Civil War, the leaders and veterans of the losing side were able to weave a myth of an idyllic antebellum South and of a righteous "Lost Cause," that dominated popular culture for nearly a century after Lee's surrender. (Think Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind and even Gods and Generals)  As part of the healing process in the decades after the Civil War, white northerners even embraced this story. 

Let me be clear. I am not personally impugning the SCV members I encountered at today's event in Vienna.  I had a pleasant conversation with them about their research into the war records of their great and great, great grandfathers.  One may be tempted to make inferences about how these members feel about the war's legacy based on the materials that they had on their table. I will not do that.  For all I know, the SCV members that I met are all progressive, liberal Democrats who went door-to-door for Obama in 2008. Instead, I want to make some comments based on "content analysis" of some of the literature that they were giving out. 

I have no doubt that most SCV members are genuinely committed to researching and honoring their Confederate ancestors' military service.   Certainly most of their ancestors did not even own slaves. But, by dismissing the role of slavery in the Civil War and downplaying the brutality of this "peculiar institution," SCV literature denigrates the hardships and deprivations suffered by the ancestors of millions of Americans, namely the descendants of enslaved African-Americans.  I wish SCV members could find a way to remember their ancestors' military triumphs and hardships without venerating the very ideology behind the Confederacy under the cloak of "state's rights." Justifying the nobility and honor of the Confederate cause, one SCV brochure quotes a postwar Jefferson Davis as saying "Nothing fills me with deeper sadness than to a Southern man apologizing for the defense we made of our inheritance.."  Well, if no less than an authority like Jefferson Davis said the South was right and honorable, then it must be so.  What self-interested motives could he have had after the war to make such pronouncements? This particular circular logic basically says Confederate motives were honorable and after the war Confederate leaders, who were of course honorable, said that their motives and actions were just, so therefore quad eret demonstrada.  Did I miss something?

Do I suggest that we strip Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis, and Jeb Stuart's names off of every highway or school?  No. (Besides, in these tough economic times, we couldn't afford all the new signs in Northern Virginia).

Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) table at the June 18, 2011 150th commemoration of the railroad battle at Vienna.  Items on display included a video entitled "Black Confederates," and a biography of Nathaniel Bedford Forest, a daring Confederate cavalry officer whose memory-- which today is deservedly tarnished by his unit's murderous actions at Ft. Pillow and for his role in starting the KKK after the Civil War-- some SCV members seek to preserve.  The historically inaccurate assertion that thousands of African-Americans willingly took up arms for the Confederacy caused a flap last year when it was discovered to be included in standard history textbook for Virginia fourth-graders.The textbook's author cited online histories published by SCV members as the basis for the information.
What first caught my eye at the SCV table was a book entitled The Real Lincoln:  A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War.  While this selective, revisionist history may be embraced by those who argue that the Federal Government, both then and today, have usurped states' rights, it is important that we remember what the rights in dispute were that the Confederate States declared independence over.  In their opinion it was their states' rights to protect their property, i.e. slavery, and to expand the practice to the new states in the West.  Throughout the contentious 1850s, slavery was always the elephant in the room in debates over interstate commerce, protection of property, popular sovereignty and Congressional representation. The private property that Southern leaders wished to defend was not their Honda Accords, lawnmower, beach houses, condos, firearms, horses or cotton, it was human chattel.

In 1861, Confederate leaders made no bones about what they were fighting for.  Confederate Vice-President Alexander H. Stephens bluntly stated, "Our new government is founded on the opposite side of the equality of the races ... its corner stone rests upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man. This .... government is the first in the history of the world, based upon this great physical and moral truth."  Article I., Section IX of the Confederate Constitution unambiguously stated "No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed."  Section III of Article IV stated, "in all such territory the institution of negro slavery, as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected by Congress and by the Territorial government; and the inhabitants of the several Confederate States and Territories shall have the right to take to such Territory any slaves lawfully held by them in any of the States or Territories of the Confederate States."

I will not defend Lincoln or his Administration as being absolutely perfect.  His suspension of habeas corpus without Congressional authorization certainly was constitutionally suspect and some of his earlier public statements on race issues and support of colonization of freed blacks raise an eyebrow today.   Did Lincoln earlier in his political career make statements we would today consider blatantly racists?  Yes.  But, he did not start a government based on this very notion.  Let us judge Lincoln based on his actions.  For Southern leaders, both their words and actions, undermine the myth of slavery not being a key factor of the war.

Even more troubling was a one-page pink pink brochure entitled "Facts about Southern Slavery."  The unsigned author purports that "the few facts presented here are simply an attempt to facilitate an factual discussion of this institution and are in no sense intended as a justification of it."  Really?  Lets examine some of these "facts about Southern Slavery" as put forth in this flyer. [My comments are in the brackets.]

--- "The overwhelming majority of slaves were certainly obtained by the European traders in Africa by purchase or negotiation with local rulers, merchants or noblemen." [Yes, Europeans first brought slavery to North America.  But, slavery had long been abolished in Western Europe by the time of the Civil War.]

--- "Between 1699 and 1772, the Virginia House of Burgess's passed no fewer than twenty-three acts aimed at the slowing down of the practice of slave importation."  [This is irrelevant.  A cynic might even argue that Virginia slaveowners preferred reduced importation of slaves in order to increase the value of the slaves they already owned, but that is beside the point]

--- "The slave diet was not only adequate, it actually exceeded modern (1964) recommended daily levels of the chief nutrients." [While this assertion in of itself is questionable, even more concerning is this propensity by some Southern heritage defenders to try to play down the barbarity of slavery.  I am shocked that presumably educated individuals in modern America would hand out a brochure spewing such trash and not feel ashamed of themselves]

--- "Over the course of his lifetime, the typical slave field hand received about 90 percent of the income he produced?" [This assertion is preposterous and no statistical evidence, other than a book citation, is provided to back this up.]

Is it any wonder that there is still controversy over the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s (see MS Governor Barbour's unfortunate comments about the legacy of the Sovereignty Commissions) when we can't get past the meaning of the struggle of the 1860s?  So, is there a way that we can stop ideologically re fighting the Civil War 150 years later?  I believe that the answer is a resounding no. 

The Civil War centennial failed to capture the American public's attention as there were greater, and quite divisive, political issues at home and abroad.  In 2011, when we have governors who openly muse about succession, state proclamations honoring Confederate History Month without mentioning slavery, and members of my own state's legislature  proposing an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to allow "nullification" of federal laws, is it no wonder that we cannot move past the competing and vastly different narratives of what the Civil War was about. Maybe by the Civil War's bicentennial-- for which I will be in my mid-80s -- we will have moved past the inherent tension between historical facts and the romantic "Lost Cause" story. Though, I'm doubtful.

SCV Table, Vienna Battle Commemoration, June 18, 2011.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I, like you, do not have any loyalties to Southern heritage, but you have numerous inaccurate facts and arguments:

    1) Europe still engaged in slavery after the American civil war in their colonies, and the US was not the last sacred bastion of slavery in the world.

    2) You are mixing Civil Rights with a slew of digressive arguments. For example, nowhere in your article do you cite that there were mass number of Black freemen, nor Black freeman who owned slaves.

    3) Slavery dates back to the advent of human history and was found in every society until the 20th century. Black africans engaged in slavery, just as much as their white counterparts in America, and frequently sold their enemies captured in battle (akin, to the Romans).

    4) The Civil War was fought over whether the ability of states to secede from the union should be allowed without the consent of the other states in the Union (i.e., perpetual union clause as delineated in the US Articles of Confederation). While slavery was a major force in increasing tensions between the states, it was not the only one. There were many, including Northers trying to tax the Southern States exports (See 1830s Southern nullification crisis).

    5) After the Dred Scott decision (and judicial activism), the North did not want to take any chances with allowing the South to have their day in court. Later this was confirmed by the North not prosecuting Jefferson Davis over concerns that they might even lose the legal argument for sucession.

    Before you criticize the Southern perspective, it is suggested that you read more from different perspectives to understand the whole picture. While I do not claim to know every thing, there clearly was alot more going on. Hence, why the called it a civil war, where families and communities of good upstanding people were equally divided.

    Good luck in your further studies;)

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