A Multicultural Confederacy Embracing Diversity?

In my world, “diversity” and “multiculturalism” are terms invoked at various times in support of various policies and programs usually deemed to cater to what some people call “political correctness.”  My own view is that people walk a tightrope between issues of identity, multiculturalism, and diversity all the time, and I’m much more interested in people who live their lives embracing such notions than in talking about them.  In short, I’m well aware of the uses and abuses of these terms as deployed in the world around me, and I wonder about the sincerity or commitment of some of the people who seem eager to inject them at every opportunity, even as I see that there’s much to be learned and valued from incorporating the merits of these concepts into one’s own life and approach to living.

I offer this as background to bringing up a topic that is a cause of amusement and bemusement for me: the claim that the Confederacy was a multicultural experience and that it embraced diversity.

SCV leaders want us to know that there was widespread support for the Confederacy that crossed racial, ethnic, and religious lines.  As one reporter put it, “they have sought to redefine the Confederacy in multicultural terms, saying that Jews, Latinos and blacks fought for the South.”

After all, according to one SCV leader, “It has been our experience over the last 30 years or so that when the Confederacy is addressed at all historically, it is done in a way that serves a political agenda.”

Really?  And only the last thirty years?

There’s certainly evidence to back some of this up.  Given the composition of the populations of the Southwest, we can safely assume that some Latinos/Hispanic Americans/Chicanos donned gray; historians are well aware of various Native American tribes that supported the Confederacy; although the South was not a destination for most European immigrants in the nineteenth century (recall how many people argue that it was the Union army that filled its ranks with Irish and German immigrants), there are a few Irish Confederates to be found, among others; Judah Benjamin was Jewish, and other Jewish southerners supported the Confederacy; and so on (I assume for the moment we really don’t want to get into the details of the black Confederate debate, so let’s simply stipulate the presence of significant numbers of enslaved blacks who were to be found in camp and field with Confederate military forces).  I’ll note that for these discussions, I don’t see gender or sexual orientation as included under the “diversity” umbrella, and I do think that people who are sincere in their determination to embrace diversity and reveal its presence in the historical record have to move ahead on this score.

Not everyone endorses this notion, and not everyone who questions it can be classified as a liberal.  At the same time, there are certain folks who would like the census to develop a new classification to recognize white Confederate southerners as their own group.  As the advocates of this measure tell us:

In this age of honoring diversity, Southern/Confederate people are the last group in America that can be maligned, ridiculed and defamed with impunity. Using the Census to unite the Southern/Confederate community can be a significant first step to our obtaining rights and recognition that all American ethnic groups are entitled to.

I wonder where black Confederates fit into this.

Advocates of a multicultural Confederacy embracing diversity bring along H. K. Edgerton and cite his website, which features a picture of a reenactment showing a black Confederate soldier wearing an artillery jacket with the rank of sergeant (I wonder if that image provided the basis for a certain t-shirt portrayal of black Confederates that Kevin Levin once highlighted).  They can also cite as an ally none other than Thomas DiLorenzo, who approves of an emphasis on the Scotch-Irish in the Confederacy that hankers back to notions of Celtic influences on Confederate warmaking and culture.

Finally, of course, you know you’ve arrived as a movement when you have your own Facebook page.

You can decide whether these claims owe anything to “getting right with the past” (or the present) or so-called “political correctness.”  My own concern has to do with forming historically-correct understandings of the past.  Moreover, let me stipulate at the beginning that the North was no haven of tolerance; that religious, ethnic, and racial strife characterized the region; that northern society resembled at best a tossed salad rather than a melting pot; and so on.  In short, don’t try to answer these questions and respond to my queries with the “you, too” approach to historical dialogue.  I’ll take that as a concession that I’ve asked some very telling questions that some people don’t want to answer, and that those folks can’t defend the notion of a multicultural Confederacy embracing diversity on its merits.  Of course, many of you may not want to defend that notion, and that’s fine, too.

First, does an acknowledgment of such diversity in any way change our understandings of the reasons for secession?  If so, how?

Second, does an acknowledgment of such diversity in any way change our understanding of the fundamental role played by disputes over slavery or southern efforts to protect slavery in the road to conflict, secession, and war?  If so, how?

Third, what happened to this commitment to multiculturalism and diversity in the twelve years after Appomattox?  Where do we see it, for example, during Reconstruction?  Was white supremacist terrorist violence an expression of multiculturalism and diversity?

Fourth, could you explain to me how this tradition of multiculturalism and diversity expressed itself during the age of segregation and Jim Crow?  For example, where does that commitment surface in Plessy v. Ferguson?

Fifth, could you show me expressions of this tradition of multiculturalism and diversity in the words and acts of Orval Faubus, Ross Barnett, and George Wallace, three southern governors, in the late 1950s and early 1960s?  Where can we find it in the actions of Bull Connor or the death of four black girls in a church bombing in Birmingham?

Let’s see where this goes.  Thanks for reading.

6 thoughts on “A Multicultural Confederacy Embracing Diversity?

  1. Andy Hall March 6, 2011 / 12:27 pm

    In this age of honoring diversity, Southern/Confederate people are the last group in America that can be maligned, ridiculed and defamed with impunity. Using the Census to unite the Southern/Confederate community can be a significant first step to our obtaining rights and recognition that all American ethnic groups are entitled to.

    You gotta admit, though, that sounds much more principled than simply whining about not having a “White History Month,” or “why can Chris Rock say the n-word and I can’t?”

    One really marvels at the determination these folks have to be perpetual victims, to define themselves that way, to wallow in alleged persecution as a form of mutual self-identification. It’s exactly why the SCV has spent so much time and effort recording and responding to so-called “heritage violations;” they keep the core base of the group continually riled up, resentful, and vocal. It’s good in the short-term for fund-raising and getting press coverage, I suppose, but it’s a losing proposition in the long run, as it pushes them further and further into the margins of historical and political discourse.

  2. Chuck Brown March 6, 2011 / 12:31 pm

    Thanks for outlining the dynamics of this issue so well. I’ve never understood Edgerton (or Walter Williams either, for that matter). In Edgerton’s case, I’ve always felt there was more to the story.

    The questions you pose are excellent.

    • Andy Hall March 6, 2011 / 1:08 pm

      Walter Williams, like his better-known ally DiLorenzo, has to be understood as an advocate for nullification and secession first, and who digs for historical justification to embrace it. That’s why he embraces the notion of BCS — it helps take the sting out of all that slavery business, and makes the Confederacy more palatable overall. But make no mistake: for Williams BCS are a means to an end, which is justifying secession. Note this piece from just a few months back, where Williams cites the same, tired (and flawed) sources, and then concludes with — surprise! — a paragraph justifying secession.

  3. Lyle Smith March 6, 2011 / 1:09 pm

    I’d argue, exactly like you’re arguing Professor, that ethnic and cultural diversity existed in the antebellum/Confederate South, but that that is not the same thing as esteeming or practicing “multiculturalism”.

    Interestingly the antebellum/Union North wasn’t arguably “multicultural” either. Know Nothings populated the North as well as the South. If I’m not mistaken, Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet was completely white Anglo-Saxon Protestant . As you point out his cabinet didn’t having anyone akin to the swarthy Judah P. Benjamin in it. And the United States’ first Jewish Senator (Judah P. Benjamin being the second) came from antebellum Florida (David L. Yulee). Oh the ironies.

    • Brooks D. Simpson March 6, 2011 / 2:22 pm

      I think what’s misleading in this argument is the sense that a diverse population is a tolerant one. When people today speak of diversity, they often mean it in a positive way, and that we should celebrate it. That may distort the record of actual interactions over the course of history, and of course issues of intolerance are not limited to the South. Indeed, ethnic and religious differences are essential to an understanding of northern politics in the nineteenth century, and the Know Nothings are but the tip of that iceberg. Thus, as you say, one should not automatically hitch “diversity” to “multiculturalism.”

  4. Riley March 6, 2011 / 4:23 pm

    Any pro-Confederacy Blacks would have been members of the free people of color, a mixed race class of slave owners and Indian tribes that fought for the confederacy also owned slaves. Let’s ignore how mono-cultural and stagnant the old South was and pretend that the confederacy would have been multicultural, how the dickens is a “diverse” slave based oligarchy something positive?

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