Did you ever want to ask a dog that habitually chased cars what she would do if she caught the bumper?
Did she just want to tear it off, or additionally chew up the tires and jump through a window to attack the people inside? The present situation regarding Confederate symbols is similar.
When endorsing an opinion that the Confederate flag flying on South Carolina’s capitol grounds should be removed, one former New York senator said it should not fly anywhere. Presumably that includes the one over the mass Confederate burial trench at Shiloh. Perhaps she is also implying that that battlefield park souvenir shops, such as the one at Gettysburg, should discontinue selling Confederate memento flags and items containing its image due to the symbol’s presumed exclusive racist subtext.
If so, last November South Carolina voters proved that her interpretation fails to be universal. The state elected one of only two presently serving Black US Senators and elected a lady governor who – at the time – supported keeping the flag in Columbia. They chose to simultaneously honor the state’s Confederate heritage and reject race prejudice when selecting political leaders. In contrast, New York has never elected a Black senator or a female governor. Even though the overwhelming majority of Confederate public symbols are in the South, of the forty-four US cities with populations over 50,000 having Black mayors, twenty are in the former Confederacy. Thus, with 32% of the US population the former Confederate states have 45% of the entire nation’s Black mayors. Even when adjusting for a larger share of Blacks in the South there is still no discernible discrimination. The 46% of the country’s Blacks who reside in the former Confederate States is nearly identical to the 45% of the country’s mayors who serve there.
Nonetheless, many otherwise responsible people are yielding to a reflex reaction to eradicate Confederate symbols. One example might be Amazon.com, which has yet to clarify whether book covers will be included in its ban of the Confederate flag image. If so, Amanda Foreman’s A World on Fire must be banned. Yet Foreman’s book won the $50,000 Lincoln Prize and was also named one of the ten best books of the year by the Washington Post, presently owned by Jeff Bezos who is also the largest Amazon shareholder. Booksellers normally appreciate that cover designs should quickly convey a book’s subject matter. A cover with a Rebel flag logically signals the book’s content is likely about the Civil War.
Similarly the New Orleans mayor wants to destroy a Robert E. Lee statue while comparable actions are brewing in Baltimore, Austin and elsewhere. Yet Lee’s leadership examples can help motivate the present and future US military to its best efforts. One example was the general’s reception of his soldiers as they returned from a failed attempt to win the battle of Gettysburg with Pickett’s Charge. According to eyewitness British Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Freemantle:
[I came upon Lee] rallying…the broken troops. “All this will come out right in the end: we’ll talk it over afterwards; but in the mean time, all good men must rally…” I saw General Wilcox…come up to him and explain, almost crying, the state of his brigade. General Lee immediately…said cheerfully, “Never mind, General, all this has been my fault – it is I that have lost this fight, and you must help me out of it in the best way you can.”
Despite failing, Lee promptly took the responsibility in the presence of soldiers of every rank. In contrast, too many defeated Civil War generals – North and South – refused to admit responsibility and tried to pin blame on others. It is perverse to dismiss Lee’s many examples of inspiring leadership because he was “on the wrong side of history” as a currently popular phrase puts it.
Some critics may not realize that two-thirds of antebellum Southern families did not own slaves, or that a small number of Blacks were also slave-owners. Although the venerable historian, William C. Davis, believes slavery is the reason secession came, he concludes it was not the reason one million Southern men fought. “The widespread Northern myth that the Confederates went to the battlefield to perpetuate slavery it just that, a myth. Their letters and diaries, in the tens of thousands, reveal again and again that they fought and died because their Southern homeland was invaded and their natural instinct was to protect home and hearth.”
One example is Major General Patrick Cleburne who was a 35 year-old Irish immigrant when killed late in 1864 at the battle of Franklin. He was not a slaveholder. In a letter to his Cincinnati brother during the secession crisis the Helena, Arkansas resident wrote, “I never owned a Negro (and) care nothing for them…(My neighbors) have been my friends and stood up for me on all occasions.” Cleburne’s loyalty was to his adopted state. In January 1864 he submitted a proposal, endorsed by thirteen other officers, to massively recruit slaves into the Confederate army in exchange for their freedom. Included in the document was a warning about the consequences of losing the war:
It means that the history of this heroic struggle will be written by the enemy; that our youth will be trained by Northern school teachers; will learn from Northern school books their version of the war; will be impressed by all the influences of history and education to regard our gallant dead as traitors, our maimed veterans as fit objects for derision.
The reaction of public-opinion-sensitive politicians to the present wave of revulsion against Confederate symbols is disappointing, but predictable. Only former Democratic senator Jim Webb provided a thoughtful response. Nonetheless, levelheaded Americans may wish to ponder how far the restriction of Confederate symbols can be constructively pursued. For example, if unchecked it may eventually lead to the removal of all Confederate monuments at national park battlefields as well as prohibition on the sale of souvenirs depicting the flag or Confederate personalities, uniforms, and symbols of any kind.
Given the current atmosphere, the adoption of such a prohibitive policy may not be unrealistic. Not a single National Park Service executive or notable academic historian has yet responded to the current situation to suggest otherwise.
When I was a boy, our neighbor had a car-chasing dog. Eventually, however, the dog’s family took responsibility to convince her to give up the habit.
If you enjoyed the above commentary, consider reading one of my books