December, 2014

Attention all neo-Confederates and Lost Causers:

Read it. Learn it. Live it. Love it.

From yesterday’s edition of the New Orleans Times-Picayune:

y James Varney, | The Times-Picayune
Email the author | Follow on Twitter
on December 22, 2014 at 12:18 PM, updated December 22, 2014 at 12:36 PM

It’s amazing how many Americans still don’t know what the Civil War was all about. Here’s a hint: it starts with an ‘s’ and it has the same syllables but fewer letters than “secession.”

This ignorance has cluttered my e-mail box since last week. While noting a legal battle over the image of the Confederate flag on Texas license plates, I had the temerity to state the only place I want to see the Stars & Bars is in a Civil War museum.

KevinLaserWriter, for example, wrote that his descendants fought as Confederates and that he is not a racist. I’ll grant him both points.

When he says the Confederate battle flag is “not a symbol of hate,” however, and when he refers to it as “my flag” I’m puzzled. Should I speak of the topic again, he admonishes, “please be educated first on what it represents.”

He’s right. People should know what it represents. Here is how Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederate States of America, compared his nation with the United States:

“Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas,” he said in 1861. “Its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”

Another e-mailer, a Starbuck apparently not connected with the Nantucket whaling Starbucks, said my writing “shows serious laps in your education.” Her ancestors, she wrote, “fought to keep his states right to succeed from the union of states.”

Fortunately, her ancestors were unsuccessful, but it is true they fought as enemies of the United States.

“That flag serves to educate yourself and others of the hidden truths, the ones that the northern parts wanted to hide,” Starbuck added. I should not address a topic I “know nothing about” until “you get an education.”

It’s true my Civil War teachers underplay the role, say, federal authority over intercoastal waterways played in causing Bleeding Kansas, or how John Brown’s Harpers Ferry raid was prompted by a tax dispute.

Still, the idea those irked by the Confederate flag and its symbolism need an education cropped up repeatedly. It’s amazing how wrong I learned it.

One man, for instance, urged me to “try reading history and no the PC bull*&t they indoctrinate people with in liberal colleges.” If I did, he said, I’d realize the Confederate “soldiers who fought included blacks, Indians and Hispanics” because “the south was a more diverse place than the north.”

Others bolstered that point. “The battle flag represented the soldiers whom the majority were of middle or lower class and came from all walks of life,” rwwiv wrote. “They were Mexicans, native americans, blacks, Irish, French and Jews. Yes, the majority were Caucasian Americans but the confederate army was actually foreward thinking in civil rights and equality.”

This is all very different from what I was taught in the North. It may not be atypical, however. For a story in The Times-Picayune I once interviewed the historian James McPherson and he told me the notion slavery was not at the core of the Civil War is one he sometimes encountered in Princeton students from the South. Some of them saw slavery as an ancillary cause, McPherson said, and thus failed to see how Lincoln’s election and his perceived opposition to the Peculiar Institution triggered secession.

From Metairie, a woman wrote that she sees the Confederate flag as a “symbol of valor and bravery and Southern heritage.” It may be those things, but it will remain something I pointedly disparage when talking about “Southern Heritage” with my kids, two of whom were born in New Orleans.

“I see a symbol that represents people who were willing to fight for what they believed in – states’ rights and a very limited federal government,” she added. “Jefferson Davis said shortly after the war that ‘the Cause for which we fought is bound to reassert itself in the future, in some form or another.’ And, of course, it has…because the ’cause’ for which they fought wasn’t slavery and everyone at the time knew it.”

That’s incorrect. ‘The Cause’ on which the Confederacy and the war rested, chiefly, was slavery. Consequently, many contemporaries saw it as a racist abomination. Speaking of the surrender at Appomattox, Ulysses S. Grant wrote:

“I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.”

I don’t think all the people e-mailing me are racists or bad people. I don’t know them. But the historical record is clear – it does not support the ideas peddled by Confederate apologists. The Confederate flag, therefore, isn’t something anyone should fly with pride.

Slavery was NOT some benign institution. Slaves did not eagerly fight for the Confederacy. And the Confederate battle flag REALLY is offensive to a large portion of American citizens. It’s not some attack on your “heritage”. It’s about understanding why others would be offended by it and trying to have some empathy for them. Stop trying to put a happy face on the abomination of slavery. You might actually have some credibility if you did.

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pabooks500On December 3, I traveled to Pittsburgh to film an episode (my second) of Pennsylvania Cable Network’s “PA Books” programs on The Devil’s to Pay: John Buford at Gettysburg. I’ve been advised as to the air dates for my interview, which are: The program will air on Sunday, January 4th at 7PM. Additionally, it will air as part of PCN’s “Best of 2014” block on Monday, December 29th (2014) at 1PM. I hope some of my Pennsylvania friends will check it out on your local cable networks! It will also be available for download as a podcast on PCN’s website once the program airs on PCN.

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