HERITAGE OF HATE
In March, while driving across Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana, I found myself noticing the occasional Confederate flag flying in yards along the way back to home base, which for me is always Iowa.
I was still here for the primaries in June, where I was treated to the astonishing sight of Steve King — the Iowa congressman with a Confederate flag on his desk — going down in defeat.
More than 13,000 Iowans died in the Civil War and another 8,500 were wounded fighting for the Union Army.
So why are we still seeing this intensely emotional connection among some — North and South, apparently — to a group of guys who long ago in another part of the country fought for a cause, the preservation of slavery, that Ulysses Grant called “one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse”?
Maybe a better way to try and think about this is to ask instead, what idea of the Confederate soldier is being celebrated here?
He seems to be one part good ol’ boy, one part simple family man defending his home and family, and one part dangerous and crafty fighter. If the Confederates are not rowdy hell-raisers or normal country folk, then they are the bad boys of American history. And for some today, the thinking seems to be that if the Confederates of old can get the today’s coastal elite all upset, then sign us up for that.
Whichever one it is, it is an idea based very loosely — to put it charitably — in its actual history.
And that’s my job as an historian.
This whistling past the fact-based record of the Confederacy’s attempt to destroy the United States and to permanently enslave millions says a lot about today. The pull of the Confederacy for many Americans is real, but it is toxic. And honestly, it’s just not worth the effort.
As an historian, I get asked a lot whether the recent removal of statues is somehow “erasing” history.
When it comes to removing Confederate statues, it is not; at least not in the way most people think. So, in full disclosure: I support the removal of Confederate statues from public spaces. I very much prefer, however, that they come down as the result of a deliberative process, as by far most have been, and relocated to museums for educational purposes.
The vast majority of statues commemorating Confederate soldiers or officers were put up in public places in the early 1900s. The white South by this time had regained political control of their cities, counties and states with a passive assist from an indifferent white Northern population that had decided to focus its attention elsewhere.
In two separate court cases in the 1890s — Plessy v. Ferguson and Williams v. Mississippi — the U.S. Supreme Court chose to interpret the 14th Amendment guaranteeing equal protection under the law very narrowly. White Southern lawmakers, many of them ex-Confederates, were thus effectively given the green light to disenfranchise Black voters and relegate Black Southerners to second-class citizenship through job and economic discrimination.
They did this with ruthless efficiency.
And where the new laws didn’t reach, white vigilante violence stepped in.
This was an era that witnessed a horrifying rise in the number of Black Southerners murdered by lynching, with an average of around one per week for nearly 30 years from the 1890s to the 1920s. Thus the Jim Crow South was born.
The Confederate statues being removed today were a celebration of that achievement, of that recent history, as much as they were a tribute to the actual Confederacy.
Indeed, the entire point of the statues was to fuse a Confederate past with a Jim Crow present.
Just to cite one example, on the campus of the University of North Carolina, a bronze statue of a Confederate soldier, “Silent Sam,” went up in 1913.
The keynote speaker for the unveiling was Julian Carr, who grew up in a local slaveowning family and who had been a young Confederate soldier during the war.
He later went on to become a successful industrialist, philanthropist and newspaper owner. Carr’s newspaper, the Raleigh News and Observer, wrote glowingly of the Wilmington Massacre of 1898, when that city’s white population went on a violent rampage against local African-Americans, killing somewhere around 60. Historians of North Carolina point to the Wilmington Massacre as a key moment in the return of whites-only political rule in the state and the disenfranchisement of Black voters.
At the Silent Sam statue ceremony, Carr regaled his audience with a story of how he horse-whipped a local African-American woman just months after coming home from the war. He referred to this as having performed his “pleasing duty” to help restore white supremacy.
Carr in 1913 still pined for Confederate victory; had the other Southern states been as true to the cause as North Carolina, he proclaimed, “there never would have been an Appomattox” (where Robert E. Lee finally surrendered in 1865).
But now with the Yankees long gone and Black North Carolinians stripped of their rights, the unveiling of this new Confederate statue proved to Carr that “the cause for which they fought” was “not lost” after all.
Part of the attraction to Confederate symbols in our time is the result of popular culture’s power to smooth off the rough edges. What do I mean? Think “Dukes of Hazzard,” the hit television show from the Reagan era of the early 1980s.
Older readers will remember Bo and Luke Duke racing around in their car, the not-so-subtly-named “General Lee.” They will also remember the giant Confederate battle flag painted on the General Lee. But Bo and Luke seemed harmless — “just the good ol’ boys, never meanin’ no harm,” sang Waylon Jennings in the theme song.
What was so bad about that?
Meanwhile, Confederate symbols can often be found on T-shirts, ball caps, belt buckles and even bikinis for the ladies. They announce: I’ve got a bit of rebel in me or I’m a badass or I’m not politically correct. In other words, mass marketing to sell individualism. Let that sink in for a second.
Still, that world of Confederate kitsch can seem pretty harmless, right?
In my own work as an historian, I know that beginning in the 1990s, Confederate symbols began to be used for more openly political purposes. This was the decade when the white nationalist movement began to move in from the fringes.
David Duke, for example, a former Ku Klux Klan leader from Louisiana, did surprisingly well in his races for the U.S. Senate and then governor in 1990 and 1991. Duke the candidate claimed that he had renounced the racism from his Klan days. But his followers knew exactly what he stood for and his campaign events often featured supporters waving the Confederate battle flag.
Duke resurfaced in Charlottesville in 2017 when neo-Nazis and neo-Confederates attacked those protesting the Robert E. Lee statue there, so his renunciation of racism appears to have been, let’s say, short-lived.
Meanwhile groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) and the League of the South began to promote innocent-sounding “heritage” campaigns featuring a carefully constructed version of Confederate history. Their message was that the Civil War was not about slavery; rather, it was about protecting one’s “way of life” and defending states’ rights. (One might ask: the state’s right to do what in 1861? Promote gardening?)
I was living in North Carolina at the time, and it was not unusual to see bumper stickers with the Confederate battle flag, proclaiming, “Heritage Not Hate.”
These “heritage” campaigns have proved remarkably successful because they downplay — or deny — the central importance of slavery to secession and the outbreak of war. In their own way, the heritage campaigns have smoothed off the rough edges as well.
I used to interact with local SCV members in North Carolina. These Confederate descendants were, on the whole, nice enough fellows who would tell me solemnly and reassuringly that they were not “for slavery.” Well, that was a relief! But, sadly in my view, they nonetheless went to great lengths to block out the plain facts and disastrous legacy of the Confederacy. Was there nothing else in the entire family history to take pride in?
This leads us back to the charge of “erasing” history levelled against those now wishing to see the Confederate statues removed.
If, as the “heritage” folks contend, the war was not about slavery, but was, rather, a story of bravery and chivalry and defending one’s home, what’s the big deal about having a Confederate statue in the town square?
To understand why those Confederate statues in public spaces are a big deal — a very big deal — it is helpful to look at the words of actual proslavery leaders and Confederates.
Proslavery Southern political leaders for years had been threatening to break up the United States if they lost too much control of the federal government to Northern political leaders. After John Brown’s ill-fated 1859 attempt to free slaves in Harpers Ferry, Va., for example, Southern newspapers complained loudly that the North seemed sympathetic to this brazen attempt to strike a blow for African-American freedom.
Confederate heritage therefore includes the Atlanta newspaper that declared in the aftermath of John Brown’s raid, “We regard every man who does not boldly declare ... African slavery to be a social, moral and political blessing” as “an enemy to ... the South.”
Confederate heritage includes those Southerners who for weeks after his election in 1860 wrote Abraham Lincoln explaining all the ways they would like to kill him. Mary Lincoln, Kentucky-born with family serving in the Confederate Army, acknowledged bitterly to a friend that her Southern kin would “kill my husband if they could and destroy our government.”
She was absolutely correct. And, of course, one Confederate sympathizer, John Wilkes Booth, finally did. Booth became infuriated after hearing Lincoln’s final speech in which the president recommended that some Black Union soldiers be allowed to vote.
Confederate heritage includes the Southern state declarations of secession that proclaimed, as Mississippi’s did, that, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery.” Alabama’s secession ordinance explained the terms by which Alabamians would now coexist with other “such States” in this new “Southern Slaveholding Confederacy.”
Confederate heritage includes Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia invading the United States in 1863 with thousands of enslaved African-Americans working in the Confederate camps and driving supply wagons. On their way to the battle of Gettysburg that summer, Lee’s soldiers captured Black Pennsylvanians and sent them South into slavery.
And Confederate heritage includes Georgian Alexander Stephens, who celebrated the birth of the new Southern nation and its foundation “upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery ... is his natural and normal condition.” The United States of America, Stephens complained, was now run by a Lincoln administration at odds with Confederate values: “They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man.”
Unrepentant white Southerners carried the cause into the postwar era. The original Ku Klux Klan was started by ex-Confederate soldiers just months after Lee’s surrender in 1865.
And one white Alabama woman in 1866, living once again as a citizen of the United States, spoke for many white Southerners then and in years to come when she announced, “I will teach my children and they shall teach their children to hate the government.” She meant, of course, government that they didn’t control. What a great neighbor and member of the community she must have been!
Here’s the thing: as we can see from the quotes above, what the Confederacy stood for was not that complicated at the time.
President Lincoln in 1865 recalled how Southern slaveowners on the eve of his election had constituted a “powerful interest” and that, “All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war.” Lincoln was also brilliantly clear-eyed in his view that secession was not simply the product of an unfortunate constitutional squabble. It was illegal.
Lincoln had little patience for the Southern argument that the Constitution did not say specifically that a state could not secede, when the whole point of writing it in 1787 was to create a more stable, permanent Union. He knew exactly what word to use to describe those who were now breaking the nation apart. Lincoln warned that he would never “concede to traitors.” That they then formed an army that went on to kill somewhere around 360,000 soldiers fighting under the flag of the United States supports Lincoln’s case beyond dispute.
I’m sure that some people will continue to display Confederate symbols on their vehicles, ball caps and front lawns. Thanks to the Union Army’s victory, they have the right to do that. And as any historian will tell you, the Lincoln administration and the Union Army were not always on the side of the angels.
But when it comes to the Confederacy, that failed nation remains utterly worthy of history’s scrap heap.
The same goes for the statues that connect the Confederacy to the Jim Crow South of the 1900s and now to Charlottesville in 2017 when a defender of the Robert E. Lee statue killed one protestor, Heather Heyer, by running her over with his car.
Other Confederate-themed displays can no longer simply be about showing off one’s rugged individualism or hell-no attitude. They’re not cute and they’re not just kitsch.
While these displays and commemorations of the Confederacy may not all be ill-intentioned, they are not harmless either. And as we saw in Charlottesville, they can, in some horrific cases, function like a gateway drug to a darker, violent state of mind.
And if you’re still not convinced, Google Dylann Roof.
Chuck Holden is a 1980 graduate of Scranton High School, and a professor of history at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.
He’s the author of three books: “In the Great Maelstrom: Conservatives in Post-Civil War South Carolina,” “The New Southern University: Academic Freedom and Liberalism at UNC,” and the new “Republican Populist: Spiro Agnew and the Origins of Donald Trump’s America.”