History is never good when kidnapped for political purposes. So is the current frenzied campaign to expunge the Confederate flag from public view.
It should come down from the South Carolina capitol. And other capitol buildings as well. But for the offense caused, not a mindset yanked out of historical context. As former Sen. Jim Webb, a Virginia Democrat who celebrates his Southern heritage, put it, the issue is “complicated.”
The horrid slaughter in Charleston demonstrated that racism remains present, sometimes in virulently violent form. The fact that a murderous racist identified with the flag is not new. But the latest incident supercharged a debate long overdue. The Confederate flag should not be used to publicly represent Americans in any state.
Even before the killings, symbols of the Confederacy, irrespective of its role in America’s heritage, caused pain for a large number of Americans—and for understandable reasons. I look at the conflict, with which I have been fascinated my whole life, and see a kindred people torn apart. For African-Americans the Civil War is a battle between those who enslaved and freed their ancestors. Opined Russell Moore, head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission: “White Christians, let’s listen to our African-American brothers and sisters. Let’s care not just about our own history, but also about our shared history with them.”
Ironically, in 2000 Pastor Clementa Pinckney, also a State Senator, voted for the compromise which moved the flag from above (alongside the U.S. and state flags) to in front of the State House. Whether he did that because he believed it was the best that could be achieved or would contribute to social peace is unclear. Nevertheless, it will be hard for many black Americans to look on that flag after the murder of Pinckney and eight others.
Yet the Confederacy cannot be removed from American history. The Civil War transformed American society and government. One cannot study and experience the Civil War without understanding the Confederacy and why hundreds of thousands of men fought to leave the national political union. The flag merely represents a reality, part of the most important and traumatic single experience of the American nation.
There would have been no Civil War without the flag and what it stood for. Thus, it makes little sense for the National Park Service to stop selling Confederate flags and other items at the Chickamauga and Gettysburg battlefields. (Apple pulled Civil War games that showed the flag from its App Store, an even more bizarre decision: hopefully no World War II games include symbols of the German Nazis, Italian fascists, Japanese nationalists, or Soviet communists.)
While the modern meme conflates the Confederacy with slavery, that doesn’t well explain the conflict. As Webb said, the issue is “complicated.” The Civil War was no simple crusade for abolition.
Most white Americans were racists in 1861. While the North outlawed slavery, many Northerners had no objection to it in the South. The main complaints were the “slave power,” the disproportionate influence of the slave states in Congress, and Southerners’ attempts to expand slavery to the territories. Few Union men wanted freedmen to move north. Social and legal discrimination were ubiquitous. Abolitionists were viewed as disruptive trouble-makers. Very few supported political equality, including voting, for blacks.
Although a number of issues divided the two sections, slavery was the defining dispute. It was concern for the security of slavery that impelled the seven Deep South states to secede after Lincoln’s election. But eight slave states hung back. Only after Lincoln called for troops to suppress the rebellion did Virginia, North Carolina, Arkansas, and Tennessee secede. They fought as much for the principle of a voluntary union as for slavery.
Just as slavery triggered secession, slavery did not spark the North’s refusal to accept secession. There were many reasons men signed up to fight for the Union—raw nationalism probably was most important, though there was anger that Southerners refused to play by the rules and concerns over the possibility of a further break-up of the Union, foreign infiltration of the continent through the South, and continued free access to the Gulf of Mexico through the Mississippi River. Abolition became a welcome war measure, but as a war objective it would have deterred recruitment and support. As Lincoln famously wrote Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune: “My paramount object in the struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery.” Ironically, had the war ended quickly, “the peculiar institution” would have survived, hemmed in but undisturbed. (It likely would have eventually disappeared, as did slavery in Brazil, a couple decades after it did in America.)
Finally, while the Confederacy committed an act of war in firing on Fort Sumter, the North chose to wage war in response. For the Union to be preserved, the Confederate states had to be conquered. In contrast, Southern armies ventured north only temporarily, in hope of scoring tactical victories that might help end the war. Thus, it really was not a “civil war,” in which both sides seek control of the center, but a “war between the states.” And one can understand why most Southerners, the majority of whom did not own slaves, saw themselves fighting for self-government.
Of course, the government that they defended was a slaveocracy, so in no way can the Confederacy, however restrictive its constitution, be viewed as a protector of liberty. There is no greater affront than slavery to the freedom of the human person. But for those in the path of Northern armies, the Union didn’t look so liberal either. How many Americans would urge war today to hold the country together if the cost would be six or seven million lives, roughly the equivalent of the dead of the Civil War? Jeffrey Rogers Hummel explores such issues in his wonderful Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men: A History of the American Civil War.
Which explains how people can identify with the South for reasons other than race. One is ancestry. My mother’s family came from West Virginia, so I had relatives on both sides of the conflict. My father’s family emigrated later and settled in Iowa, reliably Union territory. The Confederacy never mattered to me. But for Webb and many others, the Civil War represented a mix of heroism and tragedy in their historical DNA. They embrace the conflict in a way I can never understand.
There’s also appreciation for the romantic battle against the odds. The cause itself disappears into the background as the hopeless fight reaches its climax. It’s why we celebrate the brave Spartans who died battling Persian invaders at Thermopylae. Sparta was a monstrous place, by any objective analysis a far more horrid slave society than the Confederacy—or Persia. Just ask the helots, who remained slaves because the Greeks triumphed.
Moreover, the Confederacy fielded more than its share of fascinating, eccentric, heroic, and virtuous figures. At the same time, fighting for the Union did not impart virtue. Gen. Daniel Sickles, for instance, was quite the rogue (and murderer), despite fighting under the Stars and Stripes. Generals Phil Sheridan and William Tecumseh Sherman were talented commanders but practiced an early version of total war. Personalities make history come alive, especially in a time of conflict and crisis.
One can admire Robert E. Lee for his character. He opposed slavery and secession, rejected resorting to guerrilla war, promoted reconciliation after his surrender, and dedicated his final years to education. Few of us see states as did Lee and so many others, as their real “country.” He felt a conflict none of us would today.
Then-Col. Robert E. Lee opined: “I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union.… Still, a Union that can only be maintained by swords and bayonets, and in which strife and civil war are to take the place of brotherly love and kindness, has no charm for me.” That sounds a lot like Unionist Horace Greeley: “We hope never to live in a republic whereof one section is pinned to the residue by bayonets.” Absent Lincoln’s call for troops to coerce the seceding states, which brought Virginia out as well, Lee would not have had to choose between Virginia and Union.
Still, he and other Confederates defended a slave society. But, truth be told, so did the American revolutionaries. African-Americans were better off supporting the British. London ended slavery throughout the entire empire decades before the Civil War. Were the Confederates traitors? Victory makes all the difference. Had the British triumphed barely four score years before, George Washington and all under him could have faced the gallows for a similar crime. This is no argument that the secessionists were right—I believe they were wrong philosophically, constitutionally, morally, and prudentially. But judging them outside their time creates a standard that few Northerners as well as Southerners could have met.
Ultimately, we all have Jim Webb’s “complicated,” shared history. At Arlington Cemetery, the home of Washington as well as Lee, through his wife’s inheritance, Confederates also are buried, with a monument lauding their commitment to duty. Noted columnist Charles Krauthammer, it is “a gesture by the Union of soldierly respect, without any concessions regarding the taintedness of their cause.” That respect helped reunite a badly divided nation.
The horror of the killings at Emanuel A.M.E. Church, and the congregants’ profoundly moving response, will be with us for a long time. This tragedy should force us to ask a question too long ignored. How to recognize, without whitewashing or expunging, an at times ugly history? Finding answers will require an intense and thoughtful discussion. From state flags to school names to statues (witness Richmond’s famed Monument Avenue), there are many hard decisions to make.
The families and friends of the victims at Emanuel A.M.E. Church have demonstrated the best of America and their faith. We should honor them with our response. And that means recognizing the pain that symbols like the Confederate flag can cause. But as Rev. Pinckney himself apparently recognized, exactly how to respond is more difficult. The issue really is “complicated,” as Jim Webb explained. So must be our response.