Monday, July 6, 2015

Confederate Stuff, Part 4

Written for Facebook:

Part 4:

My plea for greater understanding shouldn't be misunderstood; those who wave the Confederate flag are, whether or not they know it and whether or not they acknowledge it--and whether or not they like it--venerating something that is utterly abhorrent. Let there be no mistake about this: the Confederate cause was mass murder in the service of human bondage and racial superiority and there's nothing honorable, benign or remotely worthy of reverence in that. As a counter to this, it's sometimes objected that most of the individual soldiers who fought for the Confederacy didn't own slaves and many had motives other than upholding slavery but even if those premises were sound--and as I'm about to demonstrate, they aren't--this line of reasoning is still terminally fallacious. Some buck private from Alabama doesn't set the policy and no more dictates the cause in which he's serving than do servicemen today. And the flag represents the cause.

In the case of the Civil War, the likelihood is that theoretical buck private was inducted into the army against his will, which, alone, renders rather dubious any appeal to whatever he thought he was there to do. The Confederacy had to resort to forced conscription almost immediately. In April 1862, just over a year to the day after launching the war, the first Confederate draft was enacted. The Southern planter caste, which had been entirely responsible for bringing about the conflict, exempted itself from the draft, so there weren't a lot of rich plantation owners in foxholes to offer up their reasoning for the war they'd brought about.[1] It is, however, a mistake to assume few in the South owned slaves.[2] Altogether, about 1/3 of families in the Confederate states were slaveowners. In Arkansas, it was 20%, the lowest percentage in the Confederacy. In Mississippi and South Carolina (the birthplace of secession), it was nearly half. Most slaveowners didn't own big plantations but the Confederate states' entire economy was built on slave labor.

Those deluded souls who brandish the Confederate flag under the popular slogan "Heritage, Not Hate" haven't just had their perceptions of the Confederacy shaped by false propaganda. They're also being, intentionally or otherwise, quite selective in what Southern "heritage" they're celebrating. To an extent, this could be forgiven--the other side of the story has, until fairly recently, been largely ignored by historians (in my view, a spectacular failure of the craft). Popular histories tend to leave the impression of a Southern population unified behind the Confederacy but nothing could be further from the truth. It's estimated that about half the white population of the South opposed the Confederacy. In addition, a large portion of the Confederate population were slaves, who, for obvious reasons, certainly had no loyalty to the Confederate cause.[3] Slaves made up nearly half the population of Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Louisiana and were a numerical majority in both Mississippi and South Carolina, the birthplace of secession. Most of the South was opposed to the Confederacy.

Sam Houston, the hero of the Mexican war and the governor of Texas during the onset of the crisis, was dramatically removed from office when he defiantly refused to support the Confederacy but in most accounts of the war, most Southern opposition tends to fall through the cracks. The anti-Confederate and pro-Union factions within the South, which overlapped but weren't always entirely the same, didn't publish much. Many of them lived in places where it wasn't physically safe to hold such views. Some waged guerilla war against the Confederate army. Their stories are collected in, among other places, the records of the Southern Claims Commission, which was established by the U.S. government in the 1870s to reimburse those who had, during the war, remained loyal to the Union and had furnished property to (or had property officially confiscated by) the U.S. Army. A fairly limited scope but it eventually produced a large and much wider-ranging record, a record of which historians have made far too little use.

The historical record has been further distorted by the ceaseless activities of Confederate apologists, as I covered in the last sheaf of these notes. In "Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong," historian James Loewen documents how Confederate apologists, pimping their mythologized version of the war in the decades following its end, managed, as part of their propaganda efforts, to erect monuments to the Confederate dead that seemed intended to erase from memory the existence of Southerners who opposed the Confederacy. The United Daughters of the Confederacy erected one of their monuments in Jones County, Mississippi, a county that remained loyal to the Union and that, at one point, launched an armed revolt that the Confederate military had to put down. Loewen:

"In the border states, the UDC and SCV (Sons of Confederate Veterans) erected pro-Confederate monuments and markers that make Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky and Missouri--states that were predominately Unionist--look predominately Confederate. Kentucky's legislature voted not to secede... Eventually, 90,000 Kentuckians would fight for the United States as against 35,000 for the Confederate States. Nevertheless, according to historian Thomas Clark, the state now has 72 Confederate monuments and only two Union ones! West Virginia seceded from Virginia to stay with the Union, yet in 1910 the UDC erected a statue of Confederate Gen. 'Stonewall' Jackson on the State Capitol lawn. The Daughters are still at it: the only memory of Civil War soldiers at the Charles Town, West Virginia courthouse is a pro-Confederate plaque the UDC affixed in 1986."[4]

In the most visible manifestation of opposition to the Confederacy, a massive number of southerners joined the Union army. The war is always said to have pitted "brother against brother," but the extent of this is little understood. For every two Southerners who served in the Confederate army, one served in the Union army. The South, in fact, provided more men to the Union army during the war than were killed by the Confederate army.

For those with longstanding roots in the South, this is their heritage as much as or, arguably, even more than than the Confederacy. Those who fly the Confederate flag while crowing about their "heritage" are choosing a very specific part of their ancestry to celebrate--the white supremacist part devoted to maintaining slavery. And, as noted, this is the case whether or not they know it and whether or not they acknowledge it. The Confederacy shouldn't be an ongoing concern; it belongs in a museum, not ubiquitously hanging from flagpoles and defiantly pushed in people's faces in a hurtful and divisive way. Southerners are notoriously hardheaded. I know; I'm one of them. I don't, for a moment, believe them impervious to reason on a matter such as this. Far too many of them don't understand it though, and become very upset and even offended when people cast a critical eye toward their reverence for their symbol of the Confederacy. Some of them have no interest in wanting to understanding it--they're deeply emotionally invested in it for various reasons and there probably isn't any helping them. For most, though, that's not the case. That's part of why I've spent the last few days up to my eyeballs in these notes, writing more about the subject than I ever wanted. If it contributes some little bit to a greater understanding, both from my fellow Southerners and from those outside-looking-in, I'll have accomplished my goal.

But most likely, no one will ever read any of it, so what can you do?



[1] The wealthy did the same in the North when, later, the U.S. established one. The cry of "rich man's war, poor man's fight" went up on both sides of the Mason-Dixon.

[2] Confederate apologists have often misrepresented census figures by placing the raw number of free people against the number of slaves, which makes it appear as if there were far fewer slave owners than there were. The relevant data concerns the number of families who owned slaves, numbers which are available in the same census data.

[3] In the last few decades, Confederate apologists, in an effort to counter greater public awareness of the horrors of slavery, have transformed their longstanding mythology about loyal slaves who accepted their lot and crafted a significant body of propaganda advancing the notion that there were black Confederate soldiers who took up arms in defense of the Confederacy. These soldiers are said to number in the tens of thousands and sometimes even hundreds of thousands.

The actual number is closer to zero. Slaves were hauled along with the Confederate army; their job was to act as bearers, servants, laborers. Race-based gun bans had existed in the South for many years before the war. Every Confederate state, in their respective legal codes, made it a criminal act, typically punishable by death, for anyone to arm or train in the use of arms slaves. Most of them extended this prohibition to free blacks as well.

By December 1864, the position of the Confederate army had become desperate. Robert E. Lee petitioned to be allowed to induct black soldiers. In reaction to this, Howell Cobb of Georgia, reflecting the general consensus that this violated the basic premise of the Confederacy, called the request "the most per­ni­cious idea that has been suggested since the war began." He wrote, "You cannot make soldiers of slaves, or slaves of soldiers. The day you make a soldier of them is the beginning of the end of the Revolution. And if slaves seem good soldiers, then our whole theory of slavery is wrong." Even with its military decimated and on the verge of total collapse, the Confederate congress only acquiesced to allowing the draft of blacks by a single vote and only out of utter desperation. The authorization was passed on March 23, 1865; the war ended a few days later, on April 9, 1865. The first group of black soldiers were put in training; they never saw any real action.

For years, G.K. Edgerton became a sort of mascot of the neo-Confederates, pimping the black Confederate soldiers myth and other elements of apologist ideology. He was embraced particularly warmly by those looking to separate the Confederacy from slavery because he, himself, is black. Here he is doing his clownish routine in my hometown. Edgerton was, at one point in life, the head of the Asheville, North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, which threw him out nearly 20 years ago (for unrelated activities). Skip Alsop, the executive director of the NC state branch, said of him, "His elevator doesn't doesn't go all the way to the top. It doesn't even reach the second floor." An utter crackpot, Edgerton spent years crisscrossing the country dressed in Confederate grey and spreading Confederate apologist lies. Slavery had nothing to do with the Civil War, slavery was "a great institution of learning" for blacks, there were black Confederate soldiers, etc.. He has a history of associating with white supremacists, including Kirk Lyons, an open neo-Nazi with whom he worked for years.

[4] Loewen covers how Confederate apologists, as part of their propaganda work, spread pro-Confederate monuments far and wide. One stands in Cleveland, Mississippi, a town that wasn't even founded until two decades after the war--at the time of the war, it was empty wilderness. Apologists managed to erect monuments to the Confederate dead in places as far-flung as Montana, which neither had any "Confederate dead" nor even existed at the time of the war.

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