How Should One View One’s Confederate Ancestors?

In the aftermath of a discussion about the commemoration of the inauguration of Jefferson Davis as provisional president of the Confederacy some 150 years ago, Kevin Levin at Civil War Memory wondered out loud about the purpose of the SCV.  As he put it, “The SCV doesn’t simply bring together descendants of Confederate soldiers, it brings them together around a set of shared beliefs that have little do with remembering individual soldiers.”  Kevin then offered a set of propositions:

If the mission of the SCV is to honor and commemorate the Confederate soldier, why does it choose to take stances on issues that detract from this mission?  Here is what I believe:

  • You can honor your Confederate ancestor and not believe that secession was constitutional.
  • You can honor your Confederate ancestor and not believe in states rights.
  • You can honor your Confederate ancestor and believe that Lincoln was one of this nation’s greatest presidents.
  • You can honor your Confederate ancestor without believing that Lee and Jackson are worthy of adulation.
  • You can honor your Confederate ancestor and be thankful that the Confederacy lost the Civil War.
  • You can honor your Confederate ancestor and be a member of the Democratic Party.
  • You can honor your Confederate ancestor and read books published by university presses.

Here’s my question: once we go through this list, while one “can honor” one’s Confederate ancestor, what would one honor and why?

This is no simple academic question, at least for me.  My wife is the direct descendant of Confederate soldiers.  So are her two children from a previous marriage, as well as our daughter, who in fact has already visited several battlefields where her ancestors fought (on both sides).  So what would one “honor”?  Are we back to “fighting for what they believed in”?

This is a distinctly different question than studying and attempting to understand the generation of Americans who fought for the Confederacy.  Kevin veers that way when he suggests that the SCV’s goal “ought to be to help one another to better understand what this generation experienced.”  To me, that avoids answering the very question he implicitly asks in setting forth his propositions.

Note that I’m not arguing whether descendants of Confederate soldiers should or should not honor their ancestors and their service.  The fact is that I’m not sure what to think.  Explaining why they served or what they fought for is not necessarily the same as honoring them.  I sense that this is what some people do when they argue that their ancestors did not own slaves (or fashion some explanation to neutralize the fact of slave ownership, such as they were kind masters or that their slaves loved their owners), and thus they were fighting to protect family and home, two reasons for service usually deemed honorable.  Indeed, I suspect that most folks today would agree that fighting to protect slavery was not honorable, which is not necessarily what their ancestors may have thought.  I’d advance the argument that many of those people who feel the need to honor their ancestors think it’s critically important to detach their ancestors from slavery as a horrible and inhuman institution because otherwise they could not honor those ancestors (which approaches the issue of “shame” some people like to emphasize).  Others might accept certain unpleasant facts, place them in context, and juggle understanding, excusing, criticizing, apologizing for, and honoring ancestors (note: I’m setting aside “ancestor worship” as a category because of how some people use the term to denigrate folks).  I’d observe that practice need not be limited to descendants of Confederate veterans, either.

Having said all that, I return to my original questions.  Given what Kevin’s said, how and why should one honor one’s Confederate ancestors?  Should one do so?  How should one view those ancestors?

The comments section is open, as always.  But in this case it would be useful if you indicated whether this question affects you personally as a descendant of a Confederate in military service or whether you are not so related.

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28 thoughts on “How Should One View One’s Confederate Ancestors?

  1. I discovered this past summer that I have a Confederate veteran in my ancestry who served in the 33rd Texas Cavalry. Quite frankly, I had no idea what to do. I still don’t. I signed my dad up for the SCV, because he gets teary-eyed at the thought of Texans killing people. A certificate proving that he has Confederate blood in his veins made him proud. I did not join though. Neither did my brother. I am not sure why. So far, everyone I have met from the SCV seems like decent people. The guys I worked with to get my dad certified were extremely helpful. There is even talk of replacing my ancestor’s busted gravestone with a military one while they hold a ceremony. The SCV offered to do all this for free, which really made me appreciate their services. In fact, it made me want to join.

    Yet, there is such a negative connotation with the whole group. I could care less about celebrating secession, but I don’t mind pointing out that my great-great-great-grandfather fought in the Civil War. This has led to some interesting conversations, as I met some descendants of USCT in Harrisburg this past November. We theorized that my ancestor possibly surrendered to theirs. I don’t know if he owned slaves. I couldn’t find any evidence of it. I know that earlier ancestors did, but I am not sure about this one.

    With that said, I have no freaking idea how to honor him. A new headstone? Sure. A ceremony for the placing the headstone? Possibly. After that? I don’t know.

  2. My way of honoring my Confederate ancestors is to not be ashamed of them and to recognize their humanity in toto. I’m not terribly interested in public displays of symbolic remembrances of these people. However, I’m not distraught that they wore the gray, owned slaves, or did whatever else is deemed abominable by us today. I’d have been right there with them probably if I had lived in their time, and that thought doesn’t disgust me in the slightest.

  3. I grew up in a small town in Kentucky, on the Mississippi River halfway between Belmont and Island No. 10. Last year my older brother, as age 79, decided he no longer wanted to deal with the large home my family had occupied for 105 years. In the course of going through family documents, I found, right there with the Confederate money, information about an ancester on the Henry Clay side of the family, who served in a Mississippi regiment during the Civil War. The documentation was put together for my mother’s application to the Daughters of the Confederacy.

    Even before I turned those papers up, I had received an invitation to join (even though I live in Denver, Colorado) the Paducah, Kentucky, chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. That local chapter was instrumental in preserving the Lloyd Tilghman house and museum . The museum is run by a transplanted “yankee” who took the job with the condition that it wasn’t going to be turned into a “glorification” site.

    So I learned for the first time, at age 64, that I have at least one Confederate ancester. How will I “honor” that ancester? I don’t think I’ll run up a Confederate flag, as one of my friends from high school does. I’m going to learn as much as I can about this ancester — and I know little about the Clay side of the family — and how he, and others in my family, lived their lives in that era. Confederate service was only for four years at most, but my family members spent a lifetime as part of their communities. What did they do? How did they serve? What was their impact? And, how did their experiences as Confederate soldier affect their lives and the community in which they lived.

    I’d be just as interested in a Union ancester, and I would ask the same questions, just as I would my father and uncle who served in World War II. One was drafted shortly before reaching the max age for draftee and spent the war at an air base in Florida. The other would have been in the invasion on the Japanese home islands.

    Confederate, Union, World War II veteran — I’d honor them in the context of their whole lives.

    • I think you bring up an important point — that while one’s ancestor may have served, that service in itself does not totally define that person, and that one can honor an ancestor who happened to serve in the Confederate armed forces as opposed to defining that person as a Confederate ancestor.

  4. I have a number of close Union ancestors, whom I proudly remember. I am not closely related to a Confederate soldier, though I rather imagine there’s one or more in the woodpile somewhere who are less closely related. So far, I haven’t found them. That being the case, I’ve asked myself: how would I feel about finding a Reb? Would I embrace that memory immediately, or would I pause? Would I have new sympathy for the Cause, or would I hesitate to even mention the connection? I honestly don’t know yet.

  5. I know of one Confederate ancestor, although I expect I have more. He was Joseph CF Epperson, who served one year (only) in Co. A, 2nd Virginia Cavalry. I’m intrigued by the “one year” thing. He was in his 40s, so it may have been too rigorous for him, or he may simply have not had his heart in it. His records list no reason—no wounds, no desertion, nothing. I honor him as I would any of my ancestors.

    • Veterans pension applications and widows pension applications sometimes can at times have some interesting information on them.

  6. These are the very questions I have been struggling with recently. Having collateral ancestry that jumped from KY to TN specifically to fight for the CSA, as well as other collateral ancestry that jumped from TN to KY specifically fight for the USA, has led to very complex thoughts. I have decided to embrace my Confederate lineage, partially because I was brought up to believe that my life is a product of the continuum of my family’s history and values, and also because I honestly feel an exciting connection to history through them; but this works the same way with my Unionist side! You ask “how” I do so; I try to understand the perspectives of the people in their time, to ponder how their legacies are a part of me, and to learn from them all. Importantly, I reserve such feelings and analysis for evaluating my ancestry and heritage, which is NOT to say that my ancestry influences my opinions of Secession or 1860’s Democrat/Republican politics or 2011 Democrat/Republican politics.

    My only direct ancestry is Confederate, and not confined to the aforementioned groups. These families, notably, were not kin to each other, so there was no brother vs. brother factor there, which poses the question- if someone had that in their ancestry, how would that change his/her answers to your questions?

    And another thing to ponder without intending to hijack the comments thread- Does it / Should it make a difference if one was already interested in his/her own genealogy? In other words, does the realization of having a Confederate ancestor hit the historian or history buff differently than it does the person who already wanted to discover outstanding items in his/her family tree?

    Sorry to be a bit jumbled in organization on this one.

  7. Brooks, a fascinating discussion as usual. My ancestors were Confederates — one was a captain in a Tennessee regiment — and I have been fortunate to have several of their letters, photographs, and other artifacts passed down to me. I can detach myself as a historian, put myself into their mindset, and understand how they felt about their cause and their service. I cannot, however, respect the cause that they fought for, and I cannot “honor” them for risking their lives to defend a nation dedicated to preserving human bondage and expanding the reach of slavery. I recently gave an address in Charleston, S.C., about the pitches that Southern preachers and politicians made to persuade non-slaveholding Southerners, along with their slaveholding brethern, to support secession; the address was picked up by the Civil War Preservation Trust website and is reproduced at http://www.civilwar.org/whytheyfought. I think it makes clear why I just can’t get warm and fuzzy about Confederate causes and the soldiers who served in the Confederacy’s military arm, even if they were my ancestors. I sincerely hope that the 150th anniversary of secession and the civil war affords a platform for a reasoned discussion of the issues that you, Kevin Levin, and others have raised on your websites.

  8. I’m descended from eight Confederate ancestors, directly (all distant 2nd and 3rd great grandfathers), and I have no reason to be ashamed of any of them (and it appears there stories vary). Some appear to have joined of their free will, some evaded after the militia was disbanded, some were conscripts. “To honor” walks a fine line. I don’t honor “cause” because I don’t have anything that tells me what anyone of them “fought for”, exclusively. To me, the best way to “honor” is to be realistic about the possibilities that exists in each of them. Conclusions are hard to make, and possibilities… that’s the best I can do. I think we have a far better chance of honoring the ability to survive in difficult times… the human experience. What did the veteran make of himself after the war? How did he bounce back from those trying days? Apart from them serving as points of reflection into history, physically, I’ve take time to visit each of their graves (I can’t find one), and have cleared old cemeteries, set new headstones, etc. I enjoy telling my children about them, just as much as I enjoy telling them about our Union relatives. Most all of them, blue or gray, were Southerners.

    Don’t even get me started on the number of distant uncles and cousins.

    • I should point out, even if I did know why one or a few were fighting, their cause was their own… the cause and the time was then, not now, and therefore not my cause… for anything.

  9. LOL … I don’t have to worry about honoring my Confederate namesake ancestor. He was a slave-owner and a member of the 5th Mississippi Cavalry which was one of the first units over the wall at Fort Pillow. He was proud enough of his Confederate service to name his son “Robert E. Lee Gunter.”

    When I imagine why he served, I put him in the context of my dad’s family … very fatalistic, very conformist. My dad volunteered for Vietnam leaving a toddler and a baby on the way. I’m not sure he was “fighting for what he believed in,” he simply believed he should fight.

  10. I don’t have any problem with Kevin’s list (other than joining the Democrat Party, though it doesn’t bother me when other Confederate descendants do). My Confederate ancestors, several privates, one colonel, and a fire-eating Mississippi state rep (all of whom owned slaves, or their families did) did what they did for their own reasons and I know I can’t ever know for sure what those reasons were in all cases. Either for those who left explicit letters and diaries or those who left no written material.

    The fire-eater had multiple reasons but who knows what was in his heart? Some of the combatants just liked to fight.

    But I can’t imagine disowning them or being ashamed of them (though I did keep my mouth shut about them when I was a teenager living in Massachusetts) or worrying overmuch about what someone else thinks about them. The war has always fascinated me and my connection to it through them just makes it more real to me. And, yes, I am very glad that they lost.

  11. Brooks, I have learned a lot from these comments and would like to see a similar post/thread with your thoughts and our comments about Union ancestry. Do we know as much about why our individual Union ancestors fought as we do about our Confederate ones?

  12. I have two Confederate ancestors that I know of–Confederate in the specific sense that they were enlisted in the armed forces of the CSA. One, my great-great grandfather Charles .B. Ames, was in 1860 a lawyer and a slaveholder (he owned 2 slaves according to the 1860 Slave census) in Macon, Mississippi. He enlisted in February 1861 and was a private for a year in the 11th Mississippi, Company F, Noxubee Rifles. The other, my great-great granduncle, was C.B. Ames’ brother-in-law, James Longstreet (Sarah Jane Longstreet, James’ youngest sister and my great-great grandmother, married C.B. Ames in 1855). Longstreet, as you’ll know, was a general officer, ultimately a Lieutenant General and commander of the First Corps, Army of Northern Virginia.

    How should I view these men? I think that the most important thing is to attempt to view them honestly and dispassionately, learning what I can about them and conceding what I cannot know. I would say one can “honor” one’s ancestors best by not misrepresenting them.

    As for the SCV and the Lost Cause, being related to Longstreet has given me a different perspective than might be typical for those in the South with Confederate ancestors. I have memories, for example, of being told by a middle-school teacher (a native Virginian, incidentally) that my relation to Longstreet was certainly not one to be proud of. These days, I try to temper feelings of pride or shame in connection with long-dead members of my family tree, but I will confess to feeling some stirrings of pride recently as I’ve been able to point out that Longstreet was perhaps the only Confederate general who actually did lead black troops in battle, and he did it in support of a Republican governor and against a vigilante force of former Confederate soldiers.

  13. I have unconditional reverence for all my ancestors and my American Civil War era ancestors were all part of the Confederacy. I honor them as I honor my father’s WWII service in the US Army Air Corps. I put it all in its historical enclosure and I do not bring any of it in to modern day politics. Keep in mind all evolved in the ACW are dead and gone. So is honoring the dead for the living? With most people I think it is. One way I honor my Confederate ancestors is to visit their graves and make sure their graves are kept, things of that nature. I’m not a big parade or band stand type in my honor of the dead. I think honoring the dead should be a more private ritual. I have no problem with what they did. A secession took place that ended up in a war and a lot of this comes down to geographic location . As with most in south and as those in the north too, they fought on the side of their state and what they considered the side of their people. My ancestors ended up on the loosing side , surrendered and became loyal Americans again. In my world everything is not divided up into righteous and wicked and fate is a major part. Kevin stated “You can honor your Confederate ancestor and be thankful that the Confederacy lost the Civil War.” Thankful? Not thankful or angered , I believe that was what was supposed to happen in the grand plan of the earth.

  14. I have a problem with “honoring” my ancestors – that smakes too much of “The Greatest Generation, who could do no wrong. Let me give a couple of examples from *my* ancestors.
    My mother joined the DAR, based on the short service of a Connecticut militia ensign named Tuttle. “Honoring” a sunshine patriot and fair weather soldier does not seem to me to be appropriate.
    We all have four great-grandfathers; mine happened to be the Civil War generation. One emigrated from Ulster about 1870. One was an Ohio farmer about 40 – he did volunteer when Bragg threatened Cincinnati and I have his “Squirrel Hunter’s Discharge. Still, there were a lot of 40-somthings who served through the War—he didn’t. No idea why,
    One was a Kentuckian. I have never been able to track his Civil War service, if any. Somewhere I have read that Kentucky truly wanted to be neutral – it sent, per capita, fewer of its white sons to the two armies (and more of its black sons to the USCTs) than any other state: perhaps he was one of the numerous Kentuckians who sat it out.
    The last, John Scott, immigrated from near Glasgow to Ontario with his family in the 50s and then drifted south – the 1860 census finds him near Indianapolis. A year later he was in Champagne, Illinois where he enlisted in the 25th Illinois. He evidently had some leadership abilities: in the area less than a year and his peers selected him as a corporal. He moved up, was commissioned, veteranized and ended the war as a captain and brevet major, the provost marshal of the Fourth Army Corps. In 1866, he applied for a commission in the Regulars and became the regimental quartermaster of the Fourth Infantry.
    The only relicts of Major Scott are his 1870 belt buckle – when I got it, it still had the leather belt on it, which held up my cap gun for many years, and the Allen bar hammer derringer that great grandmother allegedly carried out west, as well as a couple of pictures taken in Salt Lake in the 1870s. I pulled his service records from the Archives and shared them with my aunt, at that time the only one still alive from her generation. She remembered her feisty grandmother, John Scott’s wife, as an unreconstructed Rebel, who claimed that the only damyankee of any value had been her husband. Aunt Mary was terribly upset when the service records showed that Lt. John Scott, Fourth Regulars had become violent and was incarcerated in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in D.C., where he died in 1886. Her grandmother never talked about *that*!
    His son, also John Scott, enlisted in the Fourth Infantry in 1900 and was commissioned from the ranks, dying as a colonel in 1939 and Aunt Mary remembered his uncle as a world traveler: he was in the Philippines, Vera Cruz, with Pershing in Mexico, with the AEF in France and commanded Hickam Barracks in Hawaii in the 30s. He never married. Interestingly, my father, a corporal in World War II, disliked officers with a passion: why?
    Another issue: a year or so ago, long after Aunt Mary had died, I asked the right archivist at the Archives and he knew where to pull the St. Elizabeth’s records: John Scott died of “locomotor ataxia.” Thanks to the miracle of the World Wide Web, I was quickly able to discover what it was. Not much to honor there!
    Now the question is should I “honor” John Scott? I know almost about him, or his service. There is no regimental of the 25th Illinois and the only contemporary mention of him is in David Stanley’s memoirs, albeit a nice one. I have found only one biography or autobiography of someone in the 25th, Bobrick’s poorly edited _Testament: A Soldier’s Story of the Civil War_ and John Scott is not mentioned. USAMHI has a wartime picture and the NARA one of him playing croquet on the parade ground at Fort Bridger in 1873. Great-grandmother is also in the picture. http://www.archives.gov/research/american-west/images/043.jpg No letters by Scott appear to have survived. When did he meet great-grandmother? She was from Crab Orchard so perhaps he met her during the war.
    I have followed his regiment’s footsteps around Chickamauga, and, to the degree possible, around Stone’s River. But was he even with the regiment or was he, as quartermaster, with the baggage train? I would like to know more about him, not to honor but to simply humanize a “typical” soldier of the Civil War. But not to “honor” him.

  15. It is like my brother en laws and several of my cousins being Viet Nam vets. They fought in what many believe and believed was a politically wrong and unpopular war, they returned home in defeat. My late father en law fought WWII in the Italian army he returned home from Africa broken down in defeat, I loved, honored and respected him. I leave all the politics aside and have much honor and reverence for these people just as I do my Confederate ancestors. They were caught all up in a political situations beyond their control, they were asked to go to war with a group of people they shared a nation with and they went. How could I not honor them for that?

  16. The talk about “honoring ancestors” is an emotional smokescreen for glorifying racism; no mature adult should feel one or the other about ancestors who committed immoral actions. The whole thing is a way for neo-Confederates to make a “you’re mean” response to people who rightfully object to celebrating the confederacy and it allows them to present groups and events designed to glorify slavery as little more than dull events about ancestors.

    • I don’t agree. I believe “honoring ancestors” and the dead is sacred and a personal ritual. It comes down to a persons belief system. I do not feel worthy to pass judgment on another person’s belief as to how they honor their dead ancestors. If a person is offended by another person honoring their ancestors maybe the offended person needs to look at themselves and not the person they feel is the offender . I would never interfere with a person’s honoring their ancestors or the dead as they see fit. Not good JuJu :-)

  17. Pingback: The SUVCW: Legacy as a function of ancestry | Don't Give Up the Ship

  18. Most of you folks really need some history lessons, not the federal government versions either. A lot of folks don’t know that only 2% of the population of the south owned slaves. Some of these slave owners were black folks.Another thing the federal government chose to omit from the history books was the fact that there were 65,000 black confederate soldiers, who by the way received the same pay as their white counter parts. The black union soldiers were paid only half of what a white union soldier got.
    I could go on and on about facts of history left out of the history books.

  19. More of Levin and Brooks attempts to propagandize the issue of ancestry, pride, heritage, and honor, that any reasonable person who loves their forefathers, and related men who had the guts, the determination, the love and the character to risk their very lives and to endure terrible hardship in defending their Southern States against the Yankee Invasion.

    If you are an ancestor of a Confederate soldier, yes, you have a heritage, and yes you should be proud of this and not be swayed by the Simpson-Levin Bullshit in thinking you should have doubts about the legalities, the Political correctness, the morality, and so forth of the reasons your ancestor was a Confederate soldier. If he was a Confederate soldier, he was doing a noble and moral duty to his family and to his state and region. The eleven Southern states were attacked by armed forces, they came and burned house, factories, looted, raped, robbed, shot and maimed and or killed many men women and children and cost the Southern people Millions in losses.

    If this is not reason enough to fight for, what may I as in Gods name is a reason. So do not get confused by the Liberals of the day, secession was pushed onto the Southern states, due to extreme import tariffs, and government controls, and when Lincoln took office all bets were that these taxes and controls would get even worse. So state by state left, but some, Virginia being one, left when the Governor stated that no armed federal army could enter Virginia to attack any Southern state, and so the reason for secession was not simply one single thing.

    Lincoln wanted war, he refused every effort by the South Carolina governor and their delegation to Washington to discuss Fort Sumter and such before the fighting started. They wanted to talk to the Lincoln administration, Lincoln refused to meet with them and would not allow his administration to meet with them. He wanted war, he got war.

    Yes my friends, be aware, if your ancestor fought on the side of the South, was a member of the Confederate States Army or Navy, or in the government, he or she did a noble thing, and you should honor and appreciate them, and stand up against these creeps, Brooks Simpson, Kevin Levin and all their Comrades who hate a who distort the truth about the War to Prevent Southern Independence.

  20. I have about 6 ancestors in the confederacy all of them privates in the army. When I discovered them I felt bad about my heritage at first, but the more I studied the civil war and history the more I began to realize they did what was right. If someone raised a army to invade your state would you defend your home? That’s what they did. When Lincoln raised a army to invade them they fought back. These men weren’t traitors or cowards they were brave moral people fighting for what they believed in, which wasn’t slavery but the right for them to live like they wanted and protect their homes. Many minorites fought for the confederacy. The confederacy had a Cherokee unit and a black unit. They all served with equal pride, not as black people or white people but as southreners. The confederacy was also had a Jewish man named Judah P. Benjamin as Treasurer. If anything the confederacy symbolized equality. The union on the other hand had terrible and restrictive laws against native Americans and continued restrictive laws against Africans. The soldiers for the confederacy were not any less American than their union counterparts. Many had ancestors in the American revolution and Most of our founding fathers desendants stood with the confederacy. Thomas Jefferson’s grandson George Randolph served as the secretary of state until his death, and George washingtons step greatgrandaughter Mary Custis married Robert E. Lee. The whole reason the confederacy broke from the union was not to destroy America but instead preserve its most important qualitys that were being ignored at the time. The confederacy also made many innovations such as the first submarine and many differnt medicines. If anything you should feel honerd to have such great ancestors in your family tree.

    • Mark, You wrote ” These men weren’t traitors or cowards they were brave moral people fighting for what they believed in, which wasn’t slavery but the right for them to live like they wanted and protect their homes.” How do you know this? Do you have letters from them, explaining why they enlisted?

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