In my last post I alluded to a recent CNN poll that suggests that nearly three quarters of white Americans do not view the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of racism, despite Dylann Roof’s best efforts to the contrary.

Let’s think about this a bit. The actual question posed to respondents was, “Do you, yourself, see the Confederate flag more as a symbol of Southern pride or more as a symbol of racism?” Much of the furor over the continued exhibition of the flag on public property revolves around the contention that the flag is racially divisive and intrinsically insulting to African Americans. (According to the same poll, nearly four fifths of black respondents see the issue in precisely this light.) So here is a slightly modified question for white Americans that might be more relevant to the controversy at hand than the one that the CNN pollsters asked: “In your opinion, is it reasonable for African Americans to view the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of racism?” How would you answer? Here would be my response, as someone who has taught and written on the American Civil War for more than a quarter century: Definitely, absolutely, unequivocally, indisputably, and (lest there be any doubt) emphatically, YES!

The Confederate battle flag flying outside the South Carolina capitol

The Confederate battle flag flying outside the South Carolina capitol

I’ll explain in a moment, but let me start with a bit of autobiography. I was born, raised, and educated in the South. I still have family in the South, I’m proud of my southern roots, and I speak unapologetically with a southern accent, even though I have now lived nearly half of my life outside the region. (My best friend in the UW history department used to tease me mercilessly about my accent, saying that when I used fifty-cent academic phrases like “epistemological presuppositions,” it reminded him for all the world of Gomer Pyle singing opera.)

I’ll go further. In my youth, I was enamored with all things Confederate, including the Confederate battle flag. My lifelong fascination with history began with an obsession with the Civil War. The historian Arnold Toynbee recalled thinking as a child at the close of the nineteenth century that “history is something unpleasant that happens to other people.” (By “history,” Toynbee had in mind those once-in-a-lifetime upheavals—revolutions, wars, the collapse of dynasties and civilizations—that traditionally got all of the attention in world history textbooks.) Toynbee then went on to acknowledge that his understanding of what history entailed was surely influenced by his very privileged and protected upbringing. “If I had been a small boy in 1897 in the Southern part of the United States,” he mused, “I should not have felt the same; I should then have known from my parents that history had happened to my people in my part of the world.”

When I reflect on my early interest in history, I call to mind a succession of snapshots centered on my evolving awareness that “history had happened to my people in my part of the world”:

* Watching the two-part movie Johnny Shiloh on “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color” when I was six or seven. (The movie was about drummer boy Johnny Clem, who actually wasn’t present at the Battle of Shiloh, but no matter.)

* Talking with my grandfather, who had been born in 1890, and whose father had actually been alive during the Civil War and could remember troops riding into the farmyard to “requisition” the family cow.

* A trip at age eight or nine with my mom to the “Confederama” in Chattanooga, a diorama depicting the 1863 Battle of Lookout Mountain, otherwise remembered as the “Battle above the Clouds.”

* The Halloween that I was nine years old, when my grandmother dyed my old Sunday suit gray and I went trick-or-treating as a Confederate officer (and later wearing that uniform to meet my older sister’s Yankee fiancé).

* And yes, decorating the wall of my bedroom with a small Confederate battle flag.

“When I was a child,” the apostle Paul wrote in II Corinthians, chapter 13, “I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child, but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” My adulation of the Confederacy was not malevolent, and I don’t think it was racist, but it was undeniably childlike—innocent, maybe; ignorant, definitely. Indeed, my ignorance was unbounded. To begin with, I knew nothing of the war’s complicated internal dynamic in my part of the South. I grew up in East Tennessee, which overwhelmingly supported the Union during the war and sent more than thirty thousand men into the Federal Army.

I also had literally no inkling of the conflict’s connection with the controversy over slavery. In this regard, my early understanding of the Civil War was not unlike what you might learn from attending a Civil-War re-enactment today. In my mind’s eye, the war was a whites-only affair in which both sides were honorable and the underlying causes need not be mentioned. As I grew older, I did learn that the contest was also a struggle over ideas, but these ideas had absolutely nothing to do with the South’s benign “peculiar institution”—that was a damned Yankee lie. (I still recall the thrill that I felt when my seventh-grade civics teacher conclusively proved—to my 12-year-old mind—that the “War Between the States” was a principled struggle over state rights. Take that, damn Yankees!)

It was not until my junior year of high school that I fell from this state of innocence. My American history teacher took a chance and required us to read a small book by Georgia-born Yale historian C. Vann Woodward: The Strange Career of Jim Crow. “Jim Crow” was a phrase that came to serve as a nickname for the pervasive system of segregation that emerged in the former Confederate states after the Civil War and persisted for nearly three generations. In Strange Career, I read about Jim Crow school systems, Jim Crow streetcars, Jim Crow drinking fountains, Jim Crow restrooms, Jim Crow telephone booths, and Jim Crow Bibles for swearing on in segregated courtrooms. I was appalled. Although I had been born and raised in the South, I lived in an overwhelmingly white Appalachian community, and I was just young enough to miss most of the furor over forced integration of southern public schools, so I was truly unaware of the South’s complex and tortured racial history. The Strange Career of Jim Crow did not touch on the Civil War itself, but it became the point of entry through which I now revisited the South’s history with new eyes.

I was troubled by what I discovered, but I didn’t stop loving the South. True love “is not blind,” G. K. Chesterton reminds us. “That is the last thing that it is. Love is bound; and the more it is bound, the less it is blind.” Indeed, because I love the South, I think I can sympathize with why so many white southerners feel compelled to defend the Confederate battle flag. I want to speak for them, if I can, in a later post. But first, we have to deal with some hard truths.

Let’s start with the basic question of why eleven southern states seceded from the Union during the winter of 1860-1861. A one-word answer will get us started: fear. A chorus of politicians and journalists told southern whites that the election of a Republican president signaled the beginning of the end of their way of life, and they made clear—again and again and again—that the central pillar of that way of life was the enslavement of African Americans. Demonstrating this systematically would quickly grow tedious, so here are a few representative samples from a plethora of possibilities (I assure you I’m not cherry-picking):

Charleston MercuryLet’s begin with the Charleston Mercury, one of the most outspoken voices for secession in the event of a Republican victory in 1860. Three weeks before the presidential election, the Mercury laid out a systematic case for secession in an editorial titled “The Terrors of Submission.” The writer listed eleven reasons to favor secession, ten of which involved the effects of a Republican victory on slavery. The South’s “abject prostration to Abolition rule at Washington” would undermine confidence in slave property, cause slaves to depreciate in value, and encourage abolitionists to “renew their operations on the South.” But more than southern pocketbooks were in jeopardy, the Mercury warned.

The ruin of the South, by the emancipation of her slaves, is not like the ruin of any other people. It is not a mere loss of liberty, like the Italians under the BOURBONS. It is not heavy taxation, which must still leave the means of living, or otherwise taxation defeats itself. But it is the loss of liberty, property, home, country—everything that makes life worth living.

Stephen Fowler Hale (1816-1862), mortally wounded at the Battle of Gaines' Mill in 1862

Stephen Fowler Hale (1816-1862), mortally wounded at the Battle of Gaines’ Mill in 1862

As support for secession grew from South Carolina to Texas, the states of the lower South regularly sent agents or “commissioners” to the state governments of the upper South to enlist their support for disunion. The letter of Alabama commissioner Stephen F. Hale to the governor of Kentucky was fairly representative of their arguments. Writing in late December 1860, more than a month and a half after Abraham Lincoln’s election, Hale set out in lurid detail the predictable consequences of submitting to the Republican administration soon to be installed in Washington, D.C.

The Republican Party was determined to destroy “the sovereignty and equality of the States,” Hale insisted, “resting its claims to popular favor upon the one dogma, the Equality of the Races, white and black.”

What Southern man, be he slave-holder or non-slave-holder, can without indignation and horror contemplate the triumph of negro equality, and see his own sons and daughters, in the not distant future, associating with free negroes upon terms of political and social equality, and the white man stripped, by the Heaven-daring hand of fanaticism of that title to superiority over the black race which God himself has bestowed?

Alexander Stephens (1812-1883)

Alexander Stephens (1812-1883)

Speaking at a public rally some three months later in Savannah, Georgia, the recently inaugurated vice-president of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, sought to crystalize the ideological core of the southern rebellion. The former U. S. congressman derided the view held by some of the Founding Fathers that slavery “was wrong in principle.” “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea,” Stephens assured his cheering audience.

Its foundations are laid, its cornerstone 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. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

Finally, a word from the president of the Confederacy, the former U. S. Senator and Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis. Two weeks after the opening battle at Fort Sumter, the Mississippi statesman stood before the Confederate Congress and rehearsed the causes for the recent eruption of war. After making the case that the Constitution was intended by its framers to be a compact among sovereign states, Davis turned his attention to the “spirit of ultra fanaticism” in the North that had led to “a persistent and organized system of hostile measures against the rights of the owners of slaves in the Southern States.” The Republican Party was bent on “impairing the security of property in slaves, and reducing those States which held slaves to a condition of inferiority.”

Jefferson Davis (1808-1889)

Jefferson Davis (1808-1889)

Unimpeded, the Republicans’ fanatical crusade would have tragic consequences. Not the least of its victims would be the slaves themselves, Davis lamented. “Under the supervision of a superior race,” the South’s African and African-American laborers had been “elevated from brutal savages into docile, intelligent, and civilized agricultural laborers.” The Republican agenda would also cripple the South’s production of cotton, rice, sugar, and tobacco—for “which the labor of African slaves was and is indispensable”—and destroy the region’s bounteous prosperity. “With interests of such overwhelming magnitude imperiled,” Davis concluded, “the people of the Southern States were driven by the conduct of the North . . . to avert the danger with which they were openly menaced.”

So much for the politicians and journalists. Do their views prove that the men and boys who put on the Confederate uniform were similarly motivated? Of course not. Historians who have studied the values of Confederate soldiers have learned that they entered the service for all kinds of pragmatic as well as ideological reasons: for adventure, for money, to impress women, to defend women, to get away from home, to defend their homes, to defend their “country,” to be true to their forefathers, to resist “tyranny,” and—in at least one out of five cases—because they were drafted and had no choice.

ManningAnd yet historians have unearthed precious little evidence that the Johnny Rebs in the ranks viewed the essence of the war any differently than their leaders. Especially when we focus on the soldiers who enlisted the earliest and fought the longest, it seems that the fighting men in gray saw eye to eye with Davis, Stephens and company. In her book What This Cruel War was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War, historian Chandra Manning relates that Confederate soldiers wasted little breath expounding on state rights. Reviewing literally thousands of documents, Manning found that in their letters and diaries Confederate soldiers “virtually never discussed political principles such as states’ rights.” She elaborates,

For the men who filled the Confederate ranks, secession, the Confederacy, and the war were not about state sovereignty or whether the central government could levy a tariff or build a road. Secession, the Confederacy, and the war were about securing a government that would do what government was supposed to do: promote white liberty, advance white families’ best interests, and protect slavery.

MarchingMastersSouthern historian Colin Woodward agrees. Over the course of years spent combing the diaries and correspondence of Confederate soldiers, Woodward discovered that “the proslavery ideology was entrenched in the minds of Southern whites of all classes.” In his book Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War, Woodward notes that, whenever Rebel soldiers reflected on what was at stake in the war, their thoughts always came back to slavery. They worried about the loss of economic opportunity if slavery was prohibited from further expansion. They claimed to be anxious for the purity of white womanhood if an inferior black race was set loose by abolitionist fanaticism, and they were troubled more generally by the loss of racial control that emancipation would bring about. Simply put, the war that erupted in 1861 “was about protecting slavery,” and all ranks “knew that going in.”

So let’s return to our original question: Is it reasonable for African Americans to view the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of racism?” Yes it is, but I think we can go further: it would be unreasonable for them to see it as anything else.

Back soon with more.


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  10. The cause of secession was slavery.
    The cause of the war was secession.
    There is a difference between the two; the war was not “about slavery” until 1 January, 1863.

  11. H. Paul Thompson, Jr.

    Thank you for addressing this topic! Have you seen this article from The Atlantic? Combined with yours, they make a powerful case!!

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