First was coming to terms with my own past. When I was a ten-year old boy, I was fascinated with the Confederate States of America—for the wrong reasons. I knew no African Americans personally, nor had I been exposed to diversity at that point, and thus elements of racism and the Lost Cause dominated my thoughts into my early teens. I really believed my ancestors had fought and died for something more noble than slavery. Confederate flags adorned my room, and I loathed black people. It wasn’t until I saw the film Schindler’s List at the age of sixteen that I understood what racism could lead to. But even afterward I still had the nonsensical belief that the Civil War was fought in defense of state’s rights. Eventually, that myth also died in my mind.
Oh, I still read books on the subject; I still tear up when Chamberlain leads the bayonet charge down the slopes of Little Round Top in the 1993 film Gettysburg. I visit Civil War sites and reenactments in my area. And like anyone who has never seen real combat (and is thus ignorant of its horrors) I still armchair-general the great engagements like Gettysburg, Antietam, or Chickamauga with countless ‘what if?’ scenarios.
But something had changed inside me. Like all wars, the Lost Cause became the Greedy Fool’s Cause.
By now readers of this article will assume that I think the South was in the wrong, or that all Southerners were (are?) a bunch of racist rednecks who thought the sun rose and set in Robert E. Lee’s pants. I do believe the former, but not the latter. Both sides were racist; neither really wanted blacks to be freed and share equal rights, save for the Abolitionists. Even Abraham Lincoln is on record for saying that blacks weren’t the equals of whites. That isn’t the point of this article. We know all this already—or do we?
In the South, there exists a great denial about the Civil War. This doesn’t exist in other parts of the country. Most Southerners will vehemently argue that the war was fought for freedom— a second American Revolution—and that Northern aggression brought on the calamity that claimed the lives of 600,000 Americans. There is the lionizing of early Southern victories like First Bull Run, the Seven Days’ Battles, and Chancellorsville; that Confederate armies were thus better. Better led in the beginning, perhaps. But some take it too far; a right-wing politician even claimed the Army of Northern Virginia was the greatest fighting force in history. Obviously the guy had never heard of Alexander’s Companion Cavalry, Hannibal’s Iberians, or the Mongols.
And as for aggression—the South fired the first shot at Fort Sumter. The South swore to secede if Lincoln was elected—and it did. This was because they opposed Lincoln’s policy of not spreading slavery into new western states. In short, the South wasn’t interested in peace or negotiation. It wasn’t interested in letting go of its labor force, or the possibility of spreading their lucrative slavery economy into the young western territories.
It always comes back to this issue, no matter how one looks at it. Northern jealousy of the Southern cotton economy, or Lincoln acting the tyrant in forcefully keeping the Union intact, or Federal armies invading Southern states—these are nonsense arguments and I will debate them in depth with anyone. They are excuses for keeping people of a different color as property.
I’m not degrading the men who fought for what they believed in. Confederate generals such as Lee, Jackson, and Longstreet served the South as an act of solidarity with their homes and families, not out of loyalty to the slave trade. There is much to be said for the valor shown by both sides in this great tragedy—for that is what the Civil War really was. A tragedy that is perpetuated in people’s ignorance of its causes and effects. But I certainly will degrade the cause the South fought for. That cause was slavery.
The poorer classes who fought for the Confederacy never knew they were dying so that rich white men could keep their slaves, the source of their economic power. Like all wars, those young men believed the propaganda that they were fighting for independence, or to defend a way of life. And just what way of life was that? All Southern traditions that existed before the Civil War continued after the conflict ended. That is, save one: slavery and its attendant plantation culture. Therein lies the denial.
The modern-day, twisted show of pride in the South regarding the Confederacy is sad. A tragedy in itself, like a rippling echo of the war’s tragedy. Am I saying we should forget the past? Of course not; that is the purpose of this article, to not ignore what has come before. But flying the Confederate Stars and Bars outside of historical sites is shameful. I see no problem with that flag having a presence on preserved battlefields, or even on the graves of Confederate veterans. What really smacks of hypocrisy is when politicians, hate groups, and the uneducated display this flag, serving as a denial of what they see wrong with society. It’s not about heritage. It’s not about glorious rebellion against the overwhelming odds of modernity. For me, the Confederate flag in such context is a statement against pluralism, equality, and progress. It is the last dying gasp of an older unenlightened world—one that still haunts us.
Would it be so hard for this country to come to terms with the truth of the Civil War? Southerners should feel no shame for what their ancestors did—unless they too perpetuate those same ideas. I’m not for slave reparations, either—no white person alive owned a black slave, and no black person alive was a slave, at least in this nation. It’s time to cease the division, to erase this mental Mason-Dixon line and realize that we really are one nation. It takes courage and dignity to face the truth. It takes an open mind to learn from it.
As Grant would have appreciated, I came to an unconditional surrender to these terms. It took years and several life-changing experiences. I am reminded of the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, when veterans—Blue and Gray—clasped hands across that stone wall at The Angle, where Pickett’s Charge met with empty glory and bloody failure. They too had learned, with the passage of time, that they were one and the same, and that the Civil War should be remembered for its lessons—not for continued partisanship, hatred, and ignorance.
Those lessons, for me at least, on this 150th anniversary, are unity, compassion, and wisdom.