Confederate Heritage and Terrorism

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris last Friday Americans have again engaged in a discussion about terrorism, including a lively debate over the wisdom and the humanity of admitting refugee populations seeking sanctuary in the United States. It’s a revealing conversation, betraying barely-hidden assumptions about peoples and religious faiths.

At the same time, there is an ongoing debate on college campuses concerning whether the icons celebrated on those campuses deserve their place of honor and remembrance. Today media coverage focuses on whether Princeton University should continue to honor Woodrow Wilson, who served as president of that institution before he became first governor of New Jersey and the the 28th president of the United States. After all, Wilson promoted segregation and endorsed Birth of a Nation. “It is like writing history with lightning,” Wilson asserted after viewing the film, “and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” That the movie freely quoted from Wilson’s own scholarship must have pleased the president greatly.

These are troubling times for advocates of Confederate heritage, because a discussion of the horrors and evil of terrorism reminds us that such terrorist activity was an essential element of how white southerners defeated Reconstruction. Moreover, it stands to reason that many of these white supremacist terrorists were Confederate veterans. If we accept estimates that the Confederacy mobilized some 80% of its white male adult population to serve in the Confederate military, and that a healthy percentage of those who were not mobilized actively opposed the Confederacy, it stand to reason that white supremacist terrorist organizations drew a significant proportion of its membership from the ranks of Confederate veterans. Indeed, it was logical for such people to view their service in such organizations as an extension of their service in the ranks of the Confederate military, because both Confederate independence and the overthrow of Republican regimes and the suppression of black freedom shared the same goals of preserving white supremacy and protecting one’s way of life by making sure that white southerners would be in control of their own lives as well as of the lives of black southerners. One may be able to distinguish between the fight for Confederate independence and the redemption of white supremacist rule, but one is hard-pressed to separate them altogether.

One need not remind Americans that some defenders of Confederate heritage imitate white supremacist terrorists in their behavior. Indeed, some, such as the League of the South‘s Pat Hines, advocate terrorist acts. Other defenders of Confederate heritage honor Confederate leaders who after the war were associated with terrorist organizations, including Nathan Bedford Forrest, Wade Hampton, and John B. Gordon. Indeed, some defenders of Confederate heritage have no problem with their work appearing in antisemitic white supremacist newslettersbut you already knew that.

So, how do we address the call to honor Confederate leaders and soldiers, given these circumstances? Do we ignore what these leaders and soldiers did after the war? Do we recognize that their actions after the war were of a piece with their actions during the war? And what do we make of the warm embrace of these people (including some outright justifications of post-Appomattox white supremacist terrorism) by individuals who sometimes look as if they wished to emulate those whom they celebrate?

You tell me.


A Receding Tide? Flagging Interest in Confederate Heritage

We are coming upon forty days since a person fond of the Confederate flag gunned down nine people in cold blood in a church in Charleston, South Carolina. Within days outrage and anger about that event became transformed into a rather testy debate over Confederate heritage and its symbols, with South Carolina’s decision to remove the Confederate flag from the state house grounds in Columbia marking a important moment.

Of course, the debate did not stop there. People argued about removing the Confederate flag from license plates, famous TV cars, and National Park shops; there were discussions about moving (or simply removing) statues and one pair of bodies. As might be expected, defenders of Confederate heritage rose up in opposition and did their best to suggest that they were making up ground, although several of these protests were somewhat less impressive than their supporters claimed. For example, at its height a protest in Fredericksburg, Virginia, drew less than three thousand hundred dozen people, as this film suggests … and not a lot of people were paying any attention:

By the way, my understanding is that this was not a Virginia Flaggers function … too many people for that. But I also understand that 149 people promised to show up. Desertion remains a Confederate tradition.

By now we have a pretty good idea about what will happen. The once-surging tide will now begin to recede … not because Confederate heritage advocates have prevailed (they have lost serious ground) but because people soon get interested in other things. What happened in Columbia remains the emotional high point of this recent controversy. As many people pointed out, at most it was a first step in addressing far more serious questions. But it did not mark an end to gun violence, as we’ve seen since then; it did not mark an end to racism or to white supremacy; and in fact it remains to be seen whether the discussion that commenced on the heels of the Charleston murders will persist before people grow tired of it or turn their attention to the Kardashians or Donald Trump. Certainly the debates have grown predictable once more (and a little boring); while I expect to see a few more flashpoints in the fight over Confederate heritage in the coming weeks, I think the front is stabilizing, so to speak, as people sort out gains and losses.

This is not to minimize the importance of the discussion, merely its persistence. While the participants may continue to argue, the attention-span of the broader American public, always short, will decline absent another vivid event. Some people swept up in the initial fervor that looked as if it would sweep everything before it will find that there are other things to talk about, and it remains to be seen how many proposals will be acted upon. More will happen than one might have anticipated two months ago, but less than one hoped (or feared) might happen three weeks ago.

What do you think? What really happened over the last forty days? What will persist? What has changed? You tell me.

Who’s an American Veteran?

People like to point out that Confederate veterans are American veterans (although they clearly are not United States veterans). After all, Congress says so (these same people distrust and dismiss what Congress says whenever it pleases them so I take this at face value).

So let me ask …

Are Native Americans who battled the United States for far longer than did the Confederate Native Americans? Should their descendants benefit in like manner?

Are those Americans who remained loyal to the Crown during the uprising of 1775-1783 American veterans? How about Benedict Arnold? He covered both bases.

Are those Americans who joined various terrorist groups (and apparently continue to do so) American veterans?

Whatever your answers, explain them. Surely you don’t want to rely upon the answer that simply because Congress says it, it’s true. You don’t always offer that answer, do you?

From The Soldiers’ Flag to the KKK’s Flag: Some Thoughts

Defenders of Confederate heritage who have made known their support of the Confederate Battle Flag often argue that the battle flag (in both its square version–Army of Northern Virginia–and its rectangular version–Army of Tennessee) was the soldiers’ flag, and that in honoring it one honors service and sacrifice. Some advocates go further, and claim that Confederate soldiers did not fight to defend slavery (in part because they claim so few Confederate soldiers owned slaves).

Those issues are open for discussion, of course, but let’s set them aside for the moment. Rather, let’s turn to the use of the Confederate flag by the Ku Klux Klan … and why that group uses it.

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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.

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“Restore the Honor!”

One of the pet phrases of the Confederate heritage group known as the Virginia Flaggers is “Restore the Honor! Return the Flags!” The target of this declaration is the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, because the Virginia Flaggers hold that institution accountable for the removal of Confederate flags outside the Memorial Chapel back in 2010. Never mind that that other groups, including the local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, were complicit in that decision. No one forced the SCV to sign that agreement.

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Remembering … and Misremembering … Reconstruction

Recently I came across a diatribe on Reconstruction from a Confederate heritage advocate. That person offered the following observation:

Then there was the debt run up by carpetbagger legislatures that taxpayers were saddled with for generations. (I may be mistaken about this — I’m going from memory of something I read years ago — but South Carolina’s carpetbagger debt was not paid off until the 1960s.) So there was very little money for infrastructure, public education, etc. — and then Southerners were ridiculed not only for being “lazy” but for being poor and uneducated.

This is interesting. Ever explore what state governments throughout the South spent money on? Why, that’s right: public schools and infrastructure, otherwise known as railroads.

South Carolina is particularly interesting, as that state legislature contained many black representatives (carpetbaggers were but a small percentage of southern Republicans during Reconstruction). Its debt indeed rose during Reconstruction, but nearly all of that increase was cancelled by the early 1880s (not generations, and not until the 1960s). The state’s formerly enslaved population was indeed criticized by many people as being lazy, poor, and uneducated … by white southerners who opposed efforts to give a greater meaning to emancipation than the mere demise of slavery. In contrast, people don’t tend to pay as much attention to the state governments that emerged during the period known as Redemption that followed Reconstruction, in which white native-born southerners did not always govern effectively except when it came to suppressing black rights, regardless of the consequences. When it came to that, however, they were skilled indeed.

But there must be some people who believe that was a good thing and a sign of good government.

Who Was Worst?

Another presidential poll has come and gone, this one populated by political scientists, who tend to measure presidents according to how closely they approximate their conception of the modern presidency (thus historians tend to rate Ulysses S. Grant higher than do political scientists). But the folks at the bottom include three Civil War-era names: Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, and Andrew Johnson.

Which one do you think was worst … and why? Often the criteria one uses is critical to understanding these assessments.