Confederate “Heritage” Versus Confederate History

We are a week away from the formal opening of the Museum of the Confederacy’s Appomattox branch.  Many people will find this a cause for celebration, while others will find in the museum much to contemplate.  That said, we also know that at least one “heritage” group plans to protest the opening with a demonstration featuring various Confederate flags.  “Return the Flags! Restore the Honor!” (Isn’t someone borrowing from Glenn Beck?)  In this case, of course, there are no flags to “return,” and I don’t see how a museum can take away honor (someone must do a little reading on the concept of honor, especially in a southern context).

However, this debate, as well as the ongoing skirmishes between self-identified defenders of “southern heritage” (read “Confederate heritage” … none of these folks are terribly interested in defending any other sort of heritage) and white supremacists (who draw freely on southern and Confederate history to demonstrate the connection between white supremacy and Confederate and secessionist ideology) serves to remind us that “heritage” and history are two different things.  One cannot escape the notion that many proponents of Confederate heritage look to a selective and distorted reading of the past to seek justification for their present world view, cultural beliefs, and political philosophy (just as certain white supremacists look to the selected sayings of secessionists and Confederates to justify their own principles and to ground them in a historical past).

That said … what is Confederate heritage?  Its proponents have trouble defining what they mean.  They call for defending Confederate heritage, but they lose their way when called on to define what exactly they propose to defend and how exactly it is being threatened.  Restore the honor?  What exactly does one mean by this?

Most Confederate heritage groups highlighted by their visibility on the internet have at best a very vague notion of American history, let alone southern history and the history of the Confederacy.  What reading they do is highly selective and designed to reinforce existing prejudices.  Many of them reject that with which they do not agree by assailing the motives of the historian (they are not alone in this, by the way: even some of their loudest critics do the same).  Their understanding of secession and war rejects the ample evidence that exists of a divided South (and, for that matter, a divided North) in an earnest effort to simplify matters so that they can pretend to understand them.  Confronted with the fact that the Confederacy was founded upon a cornerstone of white supremacy, they seek to absolve Confederate heritage of the charge of racism by portraying a diverse and multicultural Confederacy incorporating all of the colors of the rainbow, especially those legendary black Confederate soldiers (many of them seem to shy away from issues of sexuality, however).  They fail to see how the Confederacy’s very practices challenged the principles upon which it was allegedly founded, and that the Confederate experience further divided white southerners along lines of region and class.  The image of a Confederacy symbolized by a flag may appear to unite certain white southerners, but in fact it simply obscures the degree to which the Confederacy itself was a divisive experience for white southerners … and that the only way to achieve some sort of unity was by identifying an enemy consisting of outsiders (Yankees, carpetbaggers, abolitionists) aided and abetted by traitorous insiders (scalawags) and the ignorant, misled, or conniving (African Americans).

Many advocates of Confederate “heritage” behave in the same manner.  They attack the NAACP (in truth, the NAACP and the SCV need each other as dancing partners in the heritage waltz), scalawags (hello, Mr. Rawls), and carpetbaggers (formerly Kevin Levin), Yankees (27 championships and counting) and abolitionists (apparently I’m an abolitionist, as if that was a bad thing … next they’ll call me liberal).  They rarely interrogate the views of members of their own movement, despite ample evidence of diversity of beliefs (various Facebook groups devoted to celebrating Confederate heritage contain members whose views on race differ slightly if at all from Hunter Wallace, which helps explain why no one among their number rushed to Connie Chastain’s defense a few weeks ago).  One notes that there’s enough ranting about present-day politics, and again one must note that in many cases their political views are not all that different from the ones expressed on Occidental Dissent.

In short, one must ask whether those folks who want to honor and understand the service of their Confederate ancestors want to have these folks as the public face of Confederate “heritage.”  Do you really want to have yourselves represented by someone who expresses support for the assassination of Abraham Lincoln?  Do you endorse the idea of southern separatism and a relentless hostility to American values and political institutions to the point that these folks want to be identified as Confederate Americans?  Do you really want your beliefs represented in the media by people who twist the historical record beyond recognition in pursuit of their personal hysteria?  Do you enjoy being represented by such easy targets and low-hanging fruit?

That’s your choice.

As for me, I’d rather study history in an effort to understand the American past and to share that understanding with others.  If I have a blind allegiance to Yankees, it’s to the ones who wear pinstripes at home (and, as other baseball fans I know can tell you, it isn’t exactly blind allegiance, although it’s vocal support).  Besides, the Stanley Cup playoffs are on the horizon … and there’s still a little Super Bowl afterglow at the Simpson house, where the only Patriots we mock play for New England.  Get your priorities in order.

7 thoughts on “Confederate “Heritage” Versus Confederate History

  1. Margaret D. Blough March 24, 2012 / 2:37 pm

    Many white Southerners who supported the Confederacy were, nevertheless, publicly appalled at the Lincoln assassination. Some I think were appalled at the use of assassination itself. Others (there probably was a good deal of overlap) had great hopes for the peace based on Lincoln’s policies in areas that had come under Union control during the war, like Louisiana, as well as the generous terms at Appomattox, especially that the ANV, up to and including Lee, were allowed to give their parole and return home. Not only was Andrew Johnson an uncertain factor but then there was an enraged “North” many of whom believed passionately that Booth was acting on orders from the Confederate leadership. It was a frightening time for them.

    • Brooks D. Simpson March 24, 2012 / 2:43 pm

      Margaret, there are people on today’s CSA heritage groups that have no problem voicing their approval of the assassination. That’s one of the differences between heritage and history.

  2. Phil March 24, 2012 / 3:57 pm

    My mentor’s PhD advisor at Yale was C. Vann Woodward. His take on the difference: Heritage is a consensual understanding of the past; history that has lost its power to piss people off. From that standpoint, I think we have a long, long way to go until there is anything approaching a consensual Confederate heritage.

    • Carl Schenker March 25, 2012 / 1:06 pm

      Phil —

      That definition of “heritage” does not work for me. In fact, I think heritage tends to be what divides and distinguishes people (Irish heritage, black heritage, Native American heritage, American heritage, Mexican heritage), rather than that on which everyone agrees. I am pasting below (slightly modified) something I posted here previously on this topic (on Dec 9):

      It seems to me that heritage is the portion of history “owned via inheritance” by a given group; the group then fragments in assessment of its inheritance.

      History: On August 6, 1945, an American warplane dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan.

      American heritage: We appropriately/inappropriately dropped the bomb.

      Japanese heritage: Ours died at Hiroshima wrongly/for our sins.

      Other heritages: ????

      World heritage: ????

      Obviously, complications arise due to uncertainty about the underlying history. Who burned Columbia, SC? Sherman, departing Confederates, or both? The heritage of the event should depend on what really happened. But that is unclear. Sherman said he didn’t do it, but would have done it if it had suited his purposes, with no more compunction than if it had been a prairie dog village.

  3. John Pelham March 24, 2012 / 5:33 pm

    Confederate heritage:

    (1) A state founded on the basis of racialism as a rejection of the theory that “all men are created equal.”

    (2) The practice of white supremacy and the ideal of the “white man’s country.”

    (3) The subordination of the negro in labor relations to the dominant caste and the denial of negro citizenship.

    (4) A clear preference for a federal as opposed to a national system of government. The belief in state sovereignty or the state as the “paramount authority” and the object of allegiance.

    (5) A clear preference for an agrarian way of life rather than one based on commerce and manufacturing.

    (6) A culture of honor based on agrarianism rather than a guilt culture.

    (7) The rejection of liberal republicanism in favor of classical republicanism. The Romans saw no conflict between liberty and slavery. The existence of slavery only reinforced the value of liberty to free citizens.

    (8) The rejection of eighteenth century civic nationalism in favor of nineteenth century romantic nationalism.

    (9) A clear preference for a conservative way of life. Southerners placed their faith in institutions as opposed to liberal abstractions.

    (10) Finally, the rejection of the Yankee as the enemy, the Other, the alien non-Southerner who was used as the foil around which these cultural practices could crystallize.

    Confederate ideology is not difficult to understand. It is a coherent way of looking at the world. You can see why someone with this mindset would have supported secession.

    Black Republicanism was a threat to their way of life. As Stephens said in his memoirs, the legal status of the negro was the straw that broke the Union. White Southerners believed their rights had been trampled on, that submission was dishonorable, and that negro equality was an unthinkable degradation.

    Of course there were anti-Confederates who clung to the old American nationalism. Most of them were the descendants of the same Tories who rejected the American Revolution. Their existence only shows that the South was less unified under the Confederacy than it would become after Reconstruction.

    The Rainbow Confederates never try to argue their point of view because it is indefensible. Even the anti-Confederate scalawags like Andrew Johnson were typically racialists and white supremacists.

    Most of those people are muddleheaded. They have a hazy vision of history. Their timeline is hopelessly confused and it is commonplace to see them project their own Baby Boomer values upon the past.

    Compare them to Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens. They knew what they believed, why they believed it, and had no problem articulating their beliefs.

    Stephens had denounced secession as madness. He went along with secession though because his allegiance was to Georgia. Lee’s allegiance was to Virginia. Their course of action was determined by their constitutional beliefs.

    If the majority of White Southerners had not believed in state sovereignty, secession would have been perceived as illegitimate. If they had not been so wedded to the culture of honor, they wouldn’t have reacted so rashly to Lincoln’s election. If they had not been so committed to white supremacy, abolition wouldn’t have been perceived as such a threat.

    Ultimately, their values and beliefs brought about the secession crisis. The South continued to clash with the North for over a century after the war. Even today, the South is still unlike the North.

    The Yankee provokes his antagonists around the world for many of the same reasons he is resented here.

      • John Pelham March 25, 2012 / 4:52 am

        I had to use an old WordPress account to post here. I think you can change the username. I will do that later today.

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