The Assault on Dixie, and History

by Bernard McCormick Wednesday, March 04, 2020 No Comment(s)

The latest controversial assault on history does not involve renaming Hollywood streets named after Confederate generals. It’s worse. Now Dixie Highway, the oldest road connecting the world to South Florida, is under attack in several cities, where some people find the word Dixie offensive because it recalls the Civil War, specifically the southern side and the days of slavery.

Those who object to such name changes usually cite the inconvenience and confusion of changing their addresses, and sometimes even driver’s licenses. On the Hollywood street matter, we suggested that instead of changing the name of the streets, we should just change the people they were named after. Lee Street after Spike Lee, Forrest Street after Forrest Gump, etc.

Our objection against eliminating Dixie Highway is fundamental– it propagates a misunderstanding of that war and the events before and after it.

It relates to a distinction being lost to history between the cause of that terrible war and the reason men fought it. The cause of the war was slavery. Even the distinguished leaders of the south, such as Generals Robert E. Lee and James Longstreet, recognized that obvious fact. Longstreet, a Georgian, was unpopular after the war because He supported his friend, Union General Ulysses Grant, and argued for the freedom of slaves, many of whom were only nominally free in the decades following the conflict.

However, the reason most men fought and so many died was not about slavery. That was the motive of southern political leaders, who then as now were heavily influenced by financial interests. The historian Shelby Foote, who spent 20 years writing a three-volume history of the war, noted that the average soldier on either side “didn’t give a damn about slavery.” The northern men fought to preserve the union; the southerners thought they were fighting the second war of independence.

That’s where states' rights come in. Southern political leadership used that as an excuse, and in a sense they were right. For the almost 90 years between the Declaration of Independence and the siege of Fort Sumpter, there was tension between the idea of a union and the rights of each state to be its own boss. In many cases, men considered their highest loyalty to their state. Robert E. Lee, whose Virginia was among the last states to secede, was conflicted. But he said he could not fight against his own state. Many in Virginia refused to secede. West Virginia was born when its citizens insisted on remaining in the Union. They seceded from Virginia.

Those opposed today to southern memorial symbols portray the southerners as traitors. It was just the opposite at the time. The few prominent generals, such as the Union’s George Thomas (a Virginian) or Confederate John Pemberton, a Philadelphian who married and served much of his time in the south, were considered traitors on their home turf.

That sense of state sovereignty was manifested during the war by the rebel states. Governors of some Confederate states were reluctant to cooperate with their co-rebels. They were jealous when officers from their state were bypassed for high ranking positions. And some actually hurt the Confederate cause. Example: Although exact numbers are in dispute, the governor of North Carolina has been accused of hoarding for his own state’s troops, enough uniforms (the number has been reported as high as 90,000) to outfit the entire Confederate army late in the war.

Few appreciated the dilemma facing southern leaders and ordinary soldiers more than Abraham Lincoln. In his two greatest speeches, the short one at Gettysburg, and his second inaugural shortly before his assassination, his words were inclusive. When he praised “the brave men, living and dead, who struggled here” at Gettysburg, he was careful not to emphasize men of either army. And his “malice toward none, charity for all” words were an obvious olive branch to southerners. When he closed that speech with  “let us care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his orphan and his widow” he did not choose to identify victims on either side.

So where does this nonsense end. Is the word “Dixie” to be expunged from our language? Will we rename Dixieland music? And Dixie cups?  Are Winn Dixie stores in danger? And should we reconsider the name Southern Boulevard in Palm Beach County? What would Abraham Lincoln say today? Well, we have a strong hint. Even though he knew the tune had become the anthem of the south, he said “Dixie” was one of his favorite tunes, and he even had it played at state occasions.

And that ain’t just whistling “Dixie.”

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