Remembering and Defining Confederate and Civil War Heritage

It is to be expected that some people would take advantage of the 150th anniversary of the surrender at Appomattox (sometimes seen as the end of the Civil War, although that’s wrong) to reflect on how Americans remember the Civil War. However, that topic tends to be confused with speculation on whether Confederate heritage persists or is eroding.

I find discussions about the persistence of Confederate heritage to be problematic. What, exactly, is Confederate heritage? Who defines it? Who interprets it? Who presents it to a broader public? These are not minor questions. Perhaps the easiest way to offer a devastating critique of Confederate heritage is to assume that certain groups define and represent that concept. After all, certain groups have provided a great deal of entertainment for us: critics of Confederate commemoration should be thankful that such groups exist, because they present easy targets. Members of such groups claim that contributions to their efforts increase in response to criticism of those groups: that’s a sad confession that on their own, these self-proclaimed defenders of Confederate heritage can’t raise funds based on the merits of their own appeals. Apparently they aren’t changing many hearts and minds, and, by their own admission, they aren’t opening up many wallets, checkbooks, and pocketbooks.

Thus, if we take these Confederate heritage advocates at their word, what allows them to have any chance of survival is to continue to be the targets of criticism from people who find it all too easy to pound away at Confederate heritage by claiming that these travelling circuses are representative of supporters of Confederate heritage as a whole. Complicit in setting that impression are other spokespeople for Confederate heritage (such as Ben Jones, chief of heritage operations for the Sons of Confederate Veterans), who are reluctant to distance themselves from such supporters because they need the numbers and the noise to generate controversy and discussion that they have been unable to spark on their own.

Confederate heritage in such hands has become an exercise in reaction to initiatives that revisit the display of Confederate icons and symbols, most notably the various forms of the Confederate flag. Without the actions of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the Museum of the Confederacy, the city of Lexington, Virginia, or Washington and Lee University, for example, there would be nothing to protest. That those institutions, once closely associated with the preservation of Confederate heritage by its advocates, have now reassessed their attitude toward how to address the issue of Confederate heritage, is at the heart of these protests, and that they continue to persist in holding their new positions will continue to fuel those protests. In places where, for one reason or another, efforts to alter the representation of Confederate heritage have met with frustration or simple compromise (Danville, Virginia, and Pensacola, Florida, stand out), heritage efforts fizzle quickly, because they, too, need targets in order to survive. Simply put, Confederate heritage groups have problems surviving primarily on the merits of Confederate heritage (that elusive term) nowadays: what inspires Confederate heritage’s loudest advocates is resistance to efforts to revisit that heritage.

Understanding this does not mean that one should criticize these institutions and governmental entities for revisiting their presentation of Confederate heritage. None of them seek to obliterate it. They offer different understandings of it within a larger historical context that sees the Civil War in a different light. Nor should one take out after critics of the more visible or more vocal Confederate heritage groups, as some historians have. One should not criticize those people any more than one should criticize the institutions whose decisions sparked the protests in the first place. After all, if historians today look at the formation of historical memory in the past and sometimes question the role played by historians in shaping certain narratives, then what will the historians of tomorrow have to say about those historians who criticized people who highlighted the problematic defense of Confederate heritage by certain groups?

At the center of all this, of course, is an effort to control historical understanding by all concerned–whether it be the institutions who initiated changes, the heritage groups that responded to these changes, the people who criticized the self-style representatives of Confederate heritage, and the people who criticized those critics. The discussion about African Americans’ involvement in the Confederate military is a case in point. One can comment on the people who propagate a myth of black Confederates or about those scholars and historians who offered a rather devastating critique of those claims–or one can comment on those historians who saw this debate as a distraction from what they wanted to talk about (I have witnessed prominent historians sigh in exasperation when someone in an audience brought up this theme, as if to say that any discussion would simply absorb the time they wanted to talk about what they thought was important).

I’m sure someone will get upset at the word “control,” just as others will point to it as a sign that there is indeed a conspiracy afloat on behalf of political correctness or its cousin, heritage correctness. However, anyone who offers a narrative of events knows that the narrative is inherently interpretive and entertains hopes that the understandings offered in that narrative will someday be a key part of a broader master narrative explaining an event, a person, or a theme. To deny this is foolish: historians offer interpretations believing that they are basically right, or at least more right than someone else. So do others. We may say that everyman is his own historian in the spirit of Carl Becker, but we don’t really mean that everyone is entitled to their own understanding of history as an understanding that’s equally valid with everyone else’s understanding. We may remark, “believe what you want to believe,” but implicit is this qualification: “but I think what you believe is wrong or at least badly flawed.”

Historians who are concerned about how Americans understand the Civil War and who want to contribute to the ensuing conversation should waste little time speculating about the resilience or decay of Confederate heritage. They should instead work harder at offering an interpretive narrative of that event that enriches and improves our understanding of it, and then endeavor to share that understanding with a broader public that pays scant attention to matters historical even as many of its members proclaim a love for history. It is in the end a contest for hearts and minds, with the understanding that some of them will never be changed. Let’s not worry about those people, whose minority view will persist for various reasons, many having to do with personality, philosophy, and political beliefs. There’s a much more worthy and worthwhile objective to be attained: helping Americans understand their past, in part so that they can address their present and future.

22 thoughts on “Remembering and Defining Confederate and Civil War Heritage

  1. Andy Hall April 18, 2015 / 5:24 pm

    Without the actions of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the Museum of the Confederacy, the city of Lexington, Virginia, or Washington and Lee University, for example, there would be nothing to protest.

    There’s a common thread through all of these “heritage” disputes, one that’s not usually articulated, but present nonetheless. They all involve an institution of authority — a prominent museum, a municipality, a university — removing its effective endorsement of the Confederacy through the display of Confederate symbols or observance of specific events. Heritage advocates will assert that their faith in their ancestors and the nobility of their cause is unshakable, but nevertheless they react angrily when another organization or institution decides to stop endorsing their chosen narrative. That’s not a sign of strength; rather, it’s a sign of a deep insecurity, and a neediness to have their view of the Confederacy continually affirmed and embraced by prominent institutions and organizations. Real and abiding faith doesn’t need such superficial crutches for support. They are very much like the folks who get upset when someone at the mall wishes them “happy holidays,” as their sense of place in the world is too fragile to admit open acknowledgement of the legitimacy of views other than their own.

    • Michael Rodgers April 19, 2015 / 4:49 am

      Yes, that’s it, Andy, perfect phrasing (except I might change angrily to petulantly): “they react angrily when another organization or institution decides to stop endorsing their chosen narrative.”

    • Jimmy Dick April 19, 2015 / 2:00 pm

      The part that gets me is they reject any interpretation but the one they prefer. It is a case of their beliefs versus that of facts. They reject any fact that does not fit into their belief structure. There is no meaningful engagement with them either. They have a my way or the highway mentality which is suggestive of people who are incapable of learning. That is a cognitive disorder manifesting itself in a group of people who band together when they are incapable of employing a higher order of thinking.

      As a group they seek to reaffirm their beliefs through their symbols and words. As such they form their protective groups and cry foul as their precious lost cause mythology collapses from the rotten foundation it was rooted in.

      You are quite right with your last sentence. They cannot accept any view but their own. Their belief structure and self-identification would be irrevocably destroyed should they begin to question those beliefs. That is why they kick everyone out of their groups who is not a true believer. They might cause others to ask questions for which they are incapable of answering.

      • Michael Rodgers April 20, 2015 / 3:31 am

        They want the institutions to be shrines and temples to their chosen narrative, not exhibits and museums to the historical record. They want to own and control the existing institutions, not to purchase, build their own or otherwise get elected. They don’t own the existing institutions, and the owners now want to see the Confederacy for what it was. The institutions are continuing to display the history and ceasing to endorse the heritage.

        • Brooks D. Simpson April 20, 2015 / 11:31 am

          This suggests that unless they establish alternative institutions/shrines, they will find themselves forever frustrated. Flying a few flags by the interstate won’t cut it, any more than US flags flying about car dealerships helps us understand American history.

          “Hey! Lookie there! See that Confederate flag off the highway?”
          “Yeah … so what?”
          “I dunno … what do you think it means?”
          “Heck if I know. It’s not like they are the Golden Arches. That reminds me … I’m hungry. Wanna bite to eat?”

          • Jimmy Dick April 20, 2015 / 3:30 pm

            Soon to be followed by this conversation:

            “What’s that?”

            “I dunno, some flag I guess.”

            “I wonder who it’s for.”

            “Beats me. Must not be important.”

  2. Jarret Ruminski April 19, 2015 / 2:17 pm

    “Let’s not worry about those people, whose minority view will persist for various reasons, many having to do with personality, philosophy, and political beliefs.” But by offering better narratives for Americans to grasp, aren’t historians by extension countering the bogus narratives of the various heritage orgainzations? Perhaps, as you say, we don’t really need to single them out specifically, but we do need to be aware of the influence they may have on people who might otherwise not actively travel in Confederate Heritage circles. For example, the whole “States’ Rights” argument for Civil War causation is still accepted by plenty of people who otherwise don’t care about where a Rebel flag is planted.

    • Brooks D. Simpson April 19, 2015 / 4:14 pm

      We can construct narratives that implicitly counter their bogus claims without giving them attention as if they are part of a real debate over the past. But we should not be like them by reacting to them or by taking them seriously. Better just to do our own work.

  3. hankc9174 April 19, 2015 / 2:22 pm

    I suppose somewhere there is a ‘Confederate Heritage Days’ event.

    I’ve been to various ‘Pioneer’, ‘Scottish Highlands’ ‘Prairie’, ‘Appalachian’, and other, heritage festivals with various demonstrations of clothing, music, dance, food and food-making, manufacturing, home-building, crafts and other educational and living history events.

    what does a ‘Confederate Heritage’ festival look like and what makes it uniquely ‘Confederate’?

    • Buck Buchanan April 24, 2015 / 6:34 am

      Just like any other heritage event.

      Food vendors, a parade of folks in costume, period music, speakers which spew the preferred view of the crowd.

      May also include dramatic readings and interpretations and weapons demonstrations.

      Oh yeah, and lots of tubby white guys.

  4. Rosemary April 20, 2015 / 6:07 am

    Without as of yet having read comments and admitting I’m a freshman on this blog, I wonder: Dr. Simpson, are you saying you are going to ignor the flaggers?

    • Brooks D. Simpson April 20, 2015 / 11:27 am

      Not at all. They are too funny to ignore (although recently they’ve become boring again, so mention of them has fallen off significantly). Besides, the Virginia Flaggers are not my problem. They are a problem for devotees of Confederate heritage. One can’t dismiss their claim that they are representing Confederate heritage, because if they were not, Susan Hathaway would not be in demand as a speaker (note that the other Flaggers are not compelling draws outside their communities). It’s simply impossible to take Confederate heritage seriously if it is willing to embrace the Virginia Flaggers and their various mouthpieces. Unlike other blogs, where posts about the Flaggers quickly vanish in a few days (as if someone’s embarrassed to keep those posts up), I think the Flaggers are interesting. That doesn’t mean I think they are important. What makes them significant is (a) their ability to attract attention from a simple-minded media looking for a story (b) the failure of Confederate heritage advocates to offer an alternative approach to wrestling with the heritage they seek to honor. If someone wants to mock the pretensions of Confederate heritage and have a good laugh, the Virginia Flaggers serve those functions nicely.

      By the way, Rosemary, you’ve attracted Connie Chastain’s attention. That’s a rite of passage. You’re no longer a “freshman.”

      • Rosemary April 21, 2015 / 8:52 am

        Dr. S. wrote: ” By the way, Rosemary, you’ve attracted Connie Chastain’s attention. That’s a rite of passage. You’re no longer a “freshman.” ”

        Oh man.
        I read up on Ms. Connie and I found out what she wants…. not only that, I learned she and I actually have stuff in common except for several many things including her wanting the South to stand “while the rest of America falls.”

        By South I’m thinking she means confederacy, not those USA states south of certain former boundaries. I favor all of ‘em standing, heck with boundaries.

        Ms. Connie, USA citizen, actually is lucky. Maybe her confederacy would be operating today if France helped. And maybe said confederacy, seeking a tight rein on the rabble, would like and take for its own French laws including the one whereby Ms. Connie’d be arrested and do time for stating her stuff about America falling.

        Before I found out Ms. Connie wrote about me, a mere former freshman, I was thinking about coming back and adding a post to this thread. I still want to mention my feeling that I don’t think the confederacy deserves to be commemorated.

        Sophomores rule!

        • Brooks D. Simpson April 21, 2015 / 11:00 pm

          Chastain continues to complain about you, and of course claims I’m obsessed with her … on a blog that exists as a monument to her obsessions.

          She’s not happy unless she’s angry.

          • Rosemary April 22, 2015 / 5:01 am

            Never had an anarchist on my case before.
            Ah, well. To paraphrase the plucky Scarlett O’Hara, it’s always a new day.

          • Brooks D. Simpson April 22, 2015 / 1:24 pm

            Chastain claims to correct me by saying I’m obsessed with the Virginia Flaggers, of which she now claims she’s simply an “honorary” member (here we go again … is she or isn’t she?). She does not deny her obsession with me.

    • Jimmy Dick April 20, 2015 / 3:33 pm

      Congratulations and welcome to the club!

      • Rosemary April 21, 2015 / 8:53 am

        Thank you. Thank you very much.

  5. Buck Buchanan April 24, 2015 / 7:12 am

    Just returned from a week long Civil War trip from Chattanooga through Atlanta to Savannah. Along the route I witnessed quite a number of Confederate Naval Ensigns flying along the Interstates.

    Also noticed that almost no care was given to treat them proiperly due to inclement weather and/or darkness.

    So much for the all due respect.

  6. Sandi Saunders April 24, 2015 / 11:46 am

    I believe without doubt that the heritage of the Civil War and the lessons to be learned from it should be studied and discussed and re-enacted and even on some levels celebrated, just so we never forget what happened when one group of Americans was denied their way politically and how that turned out for our nation. There are many fine museums, people like Dr. Simpson, Kevin Levin and Professor Bud Robertson that we can applaud and learn from. But under no circumstances will I respect, empathize or agree that the anti-government. anti-union, secessionist flaggers have anything worthwhile to say about or concerning my heritage. Virginia born and bred but I reject their short-sighted, self-serving version of what my ancestors fought for or believed in. They concentrate on a part of the whole and want it to be the whole and it never, not ever will be!

  7. Rosemary April 24, 2015 / 2:47 pm

    Dr. S. wrote: “She does not deny her obsession with me.”
    Well, you are kinda cute!

    …Hi, Sandi.

    • Rosemary April 24, 2015 / 2:50 pm

      Sandi wrote: “I believe without doubt that the heritage of the Civil War and the lessons to be learned from it should be studied and discussed and re-enacted and even on some levels celebrated, just so we never forget …”

      Yes, putting it this way, I agree the confederacy should be remembered… is that the same as commemorated? It is a complicated issue.

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