Understanding the Civil War, Part 3

For the focus of tonight’s blog. I will now examine some more pro-Confederate myths.

Myth #2: The Confederate Flag is not about racism, just history!

One thing that you notice about Germans is that they virtually never display the swastika. Driving around in a car with a swastika bumper sticker in Berlin the way people in my hometown of Atlanta drive around in cars with Confederate Flag bumper stickers on them is likely to get you arrested. There is no “Nazi Heritage Day” in Germany. The reason for this is that most Germans acknowledge that the Nazi Party was evil and that it is a good thing that Germany lost World War II. It isn’t that they are ashamed of their German heritage, it’s just that they, unlike many Southerners, understand that not every aspect of a people’s history should be celebrated. Displaying the Confederate Flag in a museum exhibit is generally not offensive, because it is not being honored but instead merely being depicted for educational purposes. When a Confederate Flag flies on a pickup truck or a state capitol or over the graves of fallen Southern soldiers, it is celebrating the symbol. Going back to the German example, what would be the reaction of most Americans, Southerners included, if Hitler’s swastika was placed on Germany’s national flag? Perhaps Germany goes a bit too far in restricting free speech when it comes to this issue, the United States could take a lesson from the country where Hitler once ruled.

Myth #3: The Confederate Flag is no more racist than the American Flag, because slavery existed in the United States!

First of all, this a classic argument used by people who have no other leg to stand on. They think that if they argue that a country is no worse than the U.S., they can silence all criticism, because nobody will dare criticize the United States. Well, I am here to say this: If the Confederate Flag is truly no more offensive than the American Flag, this means that Old Glory is highly offensive and should no longer be flown. But in actuality, despite my disdain for the Founding Fathers, this claim is simply not correct. The fact of the matter is that whatever role racism may have (and probably did) play in the American Revolution, slavery was not the central cause of the war between Britain and the colonies in the same way that it was for the war between North and South. If anyone has evidence demonstrating the Revolutionary War was waged primarily to preserve slavery, please let me know. If I am sufficiently persuaded that the American Flag is in fact a racist symbol, I will write a blog post advocating that it be retired. Until then, however, I maintain that the evidence shows the Confederate Flag to be more far more offensive. None of this is to let America off the hook for the fact that it was a racist nation for the majority of its history or that the Founding Fathers gave slavery constitutional protection (though not to the degree that the Confederates did) and should be castigated as a result. But by the Confederate Flag=U.S. Flag line of thinking, it could just as easily be argued that the British Flag is as offensive as the Nazi swastika because of the fact that Jews experienced great persecution in Britain.

Myth #4: Confederate war memorials do not promote slavery

Confederate war memorials exist in various parts of the country. At one memorial located in Arlington, tradition dictates that every U.S. president must leave a wreath to honor the dead soldiers buried there. I cannot think of a single other war in which the soldiers who fought against the U.S. Army get their own monument on American soil. The Arlington memorial was erected at the height of Jim Crow by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, an organization whose support for racial segregation is well documented. The monument also depicts a loyal slave marching to serve a master fighting in a war to keep him in bondage. Confederate memorials mock the suffering of slaves and promote the idea that the South was in the right during the Civil War.

Myth #4: Robert E. Lee Opposed Slavery

This isn’t the exact same debate, but Lee’s name comes up so much when we talk about honoring the Confederacy that I figured he warranted a mention. Some time ago, I was at a fraternity party—a venue not exactly known for attracting the most liberal folks—and was asked my opinion of Robert E. Lee. My answer was and remains that he was a phenomenal general but that his character was another matter. I frequently hear that Robert E. Lee opposed slavery. This seems to be based on a letter he wrote to his wife in which he stated that, “In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country.” Sounds pretty unambiguous, right? But it turns out that this is a prime example of cherry-picking from somebody’s words to change their meaning. First off, please bear in mind that the letter, reprinted in full below, was written regarding a speech that then President Franklin Pierce gave to Congress attacking the antislavery movement.

“The steamer also brought the President’s message to Cong; & the reports of the various heads of Depts; the proceedings of Cong: &c &c. So that we are now assured, that the Govt: is in operation, & the Union in existence, not that we had any fears to the Contrary, but it is Satisfactory always to have facts to go on. They restrain Supposition & Conjecture, Confirm faith, & bring Contentment: I was much pleased with the President’s message & the report of the Secy of War, the only two documents that have reached us entire. Of the others synopsis [sic] have only arrived. The views of the Pres: of the Systematic & progressive efforts of certain people of the North, to interfere with & change the domestic institutions of the South, are truthfully & faithfully expressed. The Consequences of their plans & purposes are also clearly set forth, & they must also be aware, that their object is both unlawful & entirely foreign to them & their duty; for which they are irresponsible & unaccountable; & Can only be accomplished by them through the agency of a Civil & Servile war. In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence. Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild & melting influence of Christianity, than the storms & tempests of fiery Controversy. This influence though slow, is sure. The doctrines & miracles of our Saviour have required nearly two thousand years, to Convert but a small part of the human race, & even among Christian nations, what gross errors still exist! While we see the Course of the final abolition of human Slavery is onward, & we give it the aid of our prayers & all justifiable means in our power, we must leave the progress as well as the result in his hands who sees the end; who Chooses to work by slow influences; & with whom two thousand years are but as a Single day. Although the Abolitionist must know this, & must See that he has neither the right or power of operating except by moral means & suasion, & if he means well to the slave, he must not Create angry feelings in the Master; that although he may not approve the mode which it pleases Providence to accomplish its purposes, the result will nevertheless be the same; that the reasons he gives for interference in what he has no Concern, holds good for every kind of interference with our neighbors when we disapprove their Conduct; Still I fear he will persevere in his evil Course. Is it not strange that the descendants of those pilgrim fathers who Crossed the Atlantic to preserve their own freedom of opinion, have always proved themselves intolerant of the Spiritual liberty of others?”

It must be apparent from reading this letter that Lee viewed slavery perhaps as an evil but certainly a necessary evil and opposed any political restrictions on the institution. After slavery ended, he opposed the Fifteenth Amendment that gave blacks the right to vote and stated that he wished that someone could find a way to get the free blacks out of Virginia. Much has justifiably been made of Abraham Lincoln’s belief in black inferiority, and some have held up Lee as his moral superior. But the real difference between the two men is that in spite of his racism, Lincoln believed that African Americans were entitled to certain inalienable freedoms, while it is clear from this letter that Lee believed they had no rights at all, save those that their masters chose to grant them. Stay tuned for Part 4, the final installment, in which I articulate what I feel to be the significance of the Civil War in the here and now.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s