The Confederate flag belongs to a sad chapter, but we can't rewrite our history

by Bernard McCormick Thursday, August 20, 2015 No Comment(s)

Round two of the Confederate flag war is underway. Now we see the pushback from those who like to flaunt the stars and bars. Unfortunately, they are the same motorcycle and pickup truck set that branded the flag as socially unacceptable in the first place.

What is disturbing is not so much the depiction of the Confederate flag as a symbol of slavery, which has evolved into racism, but the tendency of the flag-haters to distort the reality of the whole Civil War. We saw a black congressman on television attacking the flag and saying that if the South had won the Civil War, he would be a slave today.

Such nonsense. Can anyone seriously believe that slavery would have continued for long in this country had there been no Civil War? Moral reasons aside, the industrial revolution alone was rapidly replacing human work with machines. But moral reasons alone had already turned much of the world against slavery. Even some prominent Confederate leaders, beginning with Robert E. Lee, gave service to their native states even as they were personally turning against slavery. It was doomed.

As we noted in round one, the flag debate has had the unfortunate side effect of hardening the belief that the Civil War was only about slavery. It is true that slavery was the economic cause of the war. Southern state legislatures were dominated, much as most states are today, by commercial interests, and they were the slave owners. As today, the middle class had little voice in the decision to secede. And yet the middle class (if we can use that term for 19th century life) did the fighting and dying.

The common soldier owned no slaves, but in that era his first loyalty was to his state. Overwhelmingly, one’s neighborhood roots trumped ideology. There are countless examples of this. Wesley Culp died at Gettysburg fighting on Culp’s Hill—land owned by his uncle, and where he played until his late teens when he moved with his employer to Virginia. Much to his family’s chagrin, he returned to die as a Confederate soldier.

John Pemberton, the Confederate commander in defense of Vicksburg, was from Philadelphia (where he died after the war), but had married a Southern girl. He fought for his new home. Confederate General Richard Ewell was pro-union at heart, but, as was the case with Lee, could not go against his native Virginia. Ewell, like Arkansas General Patrick Cleburne, favored freeing the slaves and making them Southern soldiers.

The exceptions to the neighborhood rule are so rare they are conspicuous in history. Union General George Thomas was a Virginian. His family considered him a traitor when he stayed with the North. Confederate General James Longstreet was a friend of Union General Ulysses Grant before the war and remained a friend after it—a different kind of loyalty that clouded his reputation in the South for generations.

This was the reality of the 18th century. It is our history. The Confederate flag was part of a sad chapter.  It need not be honored at state capitols. Nor should it be degraded by historical revisionists.


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