Is There Any Room in our Common Heritage for the Southern Soldier?

They were typical Americans of their time; proud, independent, industrious – and obscenely racist in their view toward the black race. They embarked on, what in hindsight, was a suicidal rebellion against the United States government and fought with uncommon courage and a determination that eventually precipitated the extermination of their way of life, and the economy upon which they all depended.

But not until 600,000 lay dead and 4 million bondsmen were unmoored from their familiar surroundings and habits of life – set adrift in a country that despised them – did the South finally surrender. Ever since, we haven’t quite known what to do with them. Were they evil racists, forever stained by the sin of having kept slaves? Or were they gallant knights forever holding their flag high despite the fact that they were fighting in a lost, ignoble cause?

Today’s Southern Traditionalists hold that the rebels should be remembered for their courage in battle, as should the sacrifices made by citizens of the confederacy be recalled. There are several Southern patriot organizations that care for confederate graves, tend the statues of confederate heroes, and generally keep the flame of memory alive for each generation who grows up below the Mason-Dixon line.

Like it or not, agree with the traditionalists or not, this is part of our heritage. You can’t just erase from history the millions of southerners who lived, fought, and died during the Civil War because of slavery. Neither can we erase the original sin of slavery as it was practiced in the south, or the casual, nauseating racism so commonly displayed in the north. It is nearly forgotten today that several regiments of union soldiers deserted as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation and with the exception of some New England regiments, most of the union army was, if not opposed to freeing the slaves, then certain were ambivalent about the matter.

Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell has cracked open a hornets nest by re-instituting a controversial recognition of this heritage by declaring April to be “Confederate History Month” in Virginia.

The two previous Democratic governors had refused to issue the mostly symbolic proclamation honoring the soldiers who fought for the South in the Civil War. McDonnell (R) revived a practice started by Republican governor George Allen in 1997. McDonnell left out anti-slavery language that Allen’s successor, James S. Gilmore III (R), had included in his proclamation.

McDonnell said Tuesday that the move was designed to promote tourism in the state, which next year will mark the 150th anniversary of the start of the war. McDonnell said he did not include a reference to slavery because “there were any number of aspects to that conflict between the states. Obviously, it involved slavery. It involved other issues. But I focused on the ones I thought were most significant for Virginia.”

The proclamation was condemned by the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus and the NAACP. Former governor L. Douglas Wilder called it “mind-boggling to say the least” that McDonnell did not reference slavery or Virginia’s struggle with civil rights in his proclamation. Though a Democrat, Wilder has been supportive of McDonnell and boosted his election efforts when he declined to endorse the Republican’s opponent, R. Creigh Deeds.

What then, do we do with these people? How should we see them? They are our countrymen, after all, most of them fighting not for slavery but to protect their homes from what they perceived was an invading army. More than 90% of southern soldiers didn’t even own slaves. Dimly, they may have been fighting also for the maintenance of a way of life – a life made possible by slavery. But few historians wouldn’t argue that the southern soldier – dirt farmers and landless tenants for the most part – gave no more thought to preserving slavery as the northern soldier gave to freeing them.

Of course, this doesn’t let the confederate government off the hook. If you want a villain, look no further than Jefferson Davis and the Fire Eaters in Congress who agitated for secession when the election of 1860 went against them. One might argue that it was the nation of the confederacy that was evil and deserves our disapprobation in that the preservation of slavery was both a cultural and economic necessity to them. The institution was so weak that they feared anyone who spoke of limiting it in any way. So they worked themselves up into a fine paranoid lather over what Lincoln might do as president and followed South Carolina over the cliff – all 11 states.

There are those who, for a variety of political and cultural reasons, wish to lump all southerners who fought or supported the Civil War together and brand them “bad as the Nazis.” This kind of generalized condemnation means that there is the belief that we should refuse to recognize a common heritage with those who fought for the confederacy.

I don’t see how this is possible. McDonnell is dead wrong not to mention slavery – preposterously wrong by saying that he focused on issues that “were most significant for Virginia.” Of course slavery was a very significant issue and it’s dishonest for him to say otherwise. Beyond that, McDonnell’s not mentioning slavery is a slap in the face to African Americans.

Ta-Nehisi Coates:

A lot of you have e-mailed me to note that Virginia governor Bob McDonnell has decided to honor those who fought to preserve, and extend, white supremacy. I don’t really have much to say. The GOP is, effectively, the party of willfully unlettered Utopians. It is the party of choice for those who believe global warming is a hoax, that humans roamed the earth with dinosaurs, and that homosexuals should work harder at not being gay.

That the party of unadulterated quackery also believes that Birth Of A Nation is more true to the Civil War than Battle Cry Of Freedom, is to be expected. Ignorance does not respect boundaries. It is, at times, qualified and those who know more, often struggle to say more. But people who believe that the Census is actually a covert attempt to put Americans in concentration camps, are also likely to believe that slavery was incidental to the Civil War.

Interesting that Coates takes the most fringiest of the fringe beliefs (that’s actually the first I’ve heard of the census being used to imprison Obama opponents and I pride myself on keeping track of the latest lunacy of the right – a sure sign that Coates is being hysterical) and smears his opponents. I doubt very few conservatives who might approve of this recognition of our common heritage by McDonnell believe in a version of the war as portrayed in Griffith’s Birth of a Nation as opposed to McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom. Coates may have forgotten – or may not have even read – McPherson. If he had, he would know that the historian went to great pains to document northern racism – the kind of casual obscenities that appeared in Democratic newspapers where (talk about weird), it was printed as fact that Abraham Lincoln was 1/4 black and cartoons of the president routinely portrayed him as a monkey.

But that doesn’t fit the narrative so forget about it.

Truth be told, both sides were fighting for “white supremacy.” Any doubts along those lines would be answered by the draft riots in New York city in July of 1863. Irish immigrants, fearing that an influx of cheap black labor as a result of emancipation would take their jobs, ravaged the city, pulling blacks out of their houses or attacking them on the street, lynching several dozen. The proximate cause of the trouble was the draft, and the ability of the fairly well off to buy there way out of military service. The Irish were refusing to fight in a war that they believed would lead to their ruin.

The New York Irish were not alone. The feeling was widespread in the north, fed by racist Democrats who sought to make political hay of these fears. The idea that white northerners were fighting for black equality is belied by Lincoln himself, who casually remarked to a friend that there may even be a few freed blacks who might be smart enough to vote.

The northern soldier, like his southern counterpart, had very personal reasons for joining up and fighting. In the end, they were all Americans. You can blame the soldiers of the south for the sins of their government – or excuse northern soldiers because of the more noble, although far from perfect goals of the Lincoln administration. But you cannot ignore the common heritage for which we are all a part. The good, the bad, the noble, the base – all our stellar qualities and all the imperfections that shame us – matters not when remembering what unites us; those “mystic chords of memory stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land.”

McDonnell is a fool for not including any reference to slavery or even civil rights in his proclamation. But I don’t fault him for the effort to acknowledge our common heritage with those southern soldiers who were greatly admired by their foes, and who fought bravely for what they saw as the protection of their hearth and home.

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