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.