Is the Confederacy Obsolete?

The past—what we believe happened and what we think it means—can be a very slippery customer. Even the recent past can be elusive. In the early 1950s, when I was a student at Johns Hopkins, C. Vann Woodward gave an amusing but provocative talk called “Can We Believe Our History?” He pointed out that what we think we know was true can very suddenly seem to have been not true after all. For example, he reminded us that during the Second World War, then just a few years in the past, Americans knew that the Japanese were Oriental monsters of unspeakable brutality, whereas the Chinese were our little brown brothers. Yet very quickly all that changed. In the wake of the Communists’ victory in China and Chinese intervention in the Korean War, the Chinese became Oriental monsters of unspeakable brutality and the Japanese were now our little brown brothers.

The same thing happened in Europe. During the war against Hitler, the United States Office of War Information described the Soviet Union as our gallant ally and one of the “freedom loving democracies,” whereas Germany was a loathsome tyranny and deadly enemy. Then came the Cold War right on the heels of the hot war, and suddenly the Soviets were a loathesome tyranny and deadly enemy, whereas West Germany, our recent enemy, became our first line of defense against our recent ally, the Soviet Union.

All this is confusing enough, this chameleon-like quality of other nations, but adding to our confusion as the years passed was a growing uncertainty about what kind of nation we were. The Cold War had allowed us to reaffirm our long-standing belief that, as Jefferson and Lincoln had said, we were the last best hope of earth, now become the righteous defenders of the free world against aggressive monolithic Communism. But then came the Vietnam War, riots in our cities, surging violence and crime, the drug epidemic, Watergate, and so forth, until it was a little harder to see ourselves as a unique repository of human virtue. Briefly, of course, Ronald Reagan led us back into dreamland, standing on the bridge of resurrected Second World War battleships and telling us we were still the righteous guardians of mankind the senator’s reasoning to its logical conclusion and extirpate all reminders that slavery and the Confederacy ever existed, then there will have to be radical alterations in the currency, which is quite infested with portraits of slaveholders. The monumental architecture of Washington, D.C., will undergo massive alteration. The jackhammers will have to purify Mt. Rushmore. And what of of those Civil War battlefields where Confederates fought and frequently triumphed? The list goes on and on. Nevertheless, blind to these implications, the Senate supported Ms. Moseley-Braun by a vote of 75 to 25. Has it really been less than two decades since Congress restored citizenship to Lee and Davis, to the accompaniment of remarks about correcting a “glaring injustice?” Another illustration, one might observe, of the quicksilver fluidity of our past.

Even if the historical landscape were cleansed according to the current standards of political correctness, nothing can wipe out the fact that slavery once existed, any more than one can hide the fact of black Africans selling their fellow blacks into the white man’s slavery. Nor can the senator’s reductionist view of the nature and purpose of the Confederacy transform it into the engine of an evil and aggressive slavocracy.

The attack on the U.D.C. logo is only one example of a multitude of demands for the suppression of symbols of the Confederacy—flags, statues, monuments, museum exhibits—demands that are almost always successful. In this acrimonious atmosphere, this banning of the flag, this rewriting of history in accordance with a model of political correctness to which we are told we must conform, this shrill moralizing about our past, this revival of the devil theory—confronted with all this, what can be said about the Confederacy? Has it outlived its role as part of a usable past, other than as an example of the horrid side of American history as seen by the Moseley-Brauns of the world?

And what, in these times, can be the purpose of the Museum of the Confederacy? Of course, in the 1890s when the Museum was born there was no uncertainty about purpose. According to the founders, the Museum was to be a “reliquary.” My dictionary defines “reliquary” as a “coffer or shrine, for keeping or displaying sacred relics,” and a “relic” as “an object of religious veneration.” Those of you who remember the old White House of the Confederacy, when Miss India Thomas was at the door and when the relics were laid out in glass-topped tables for the veneration of the faithful, may agree that “reliquary” hit the nail on the head.

Visiting the old museum is an experience I treasure, one that can never be duplicated, this savoring of the inimitable redolence of the Lost Cause as it was held in the hearts of those ladies who organized the Confederate Memorial Literary Society only 25 years after the surrender at Appomattox. It gave one what the legions of political correctness so signally lack, an understanding of what the Confederacy meant to another generation, a generation that included many who had seen the South go down to bloody defeat, who had lost fathers and brothers and husbands in that War for Southern independence.

For a long time the “reliquary,” the Museum, was a sort of eddy in time, unaffected by events in the mainstream. Then, in comparatively recent years, the Museum in its modern incarnation has looked outward so as to reflect contemporary issues and concerns. A good example of this was its “Before Freedom Came” exhibit, focusing on slavery, which, with all its implications for modern race relations, is the most controversial subject of all. Unlike Senator Moseley-Braun, the program recognized that slavery is part of our history, especially Southern history. It will not go away, anymore for the senator than for Southerners. The question is how one deals with it. Professor Henry Steele Commager of Amherst College, certainly no apologist for the South, observed in his essay, “Should the Historian Sit in Judgment?,” that when slavery comes up, too often “we invoke, almost instinctively,” the vocabulary of morality. “Yet,” he goes on to say, “when we come to pronounce judgment on slavery, we are met at the very threshold with the most intransigent consideration: generation after generation of good, humane, Christian men and women not only accepted it but considered it a blessing. . .Clearly we cannot fall back on the simple explanation that all of these men and women. . .were bad. . .It is absurd for us to pass moral judgment on slaveholders, absurd to indict a whole people or to banish a whole people to some historical purgatory where they can expiate their sins. . .[As Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural], ‘But let us judge not that we be not judged.’ . . .The historian’s task is not to judge but to understand.”

A fearless look at the past, however distasteful some of it may be, is essential to the understanding that Commager held up as the historian’s first responsibility and is equally essential to the Museum’s modern policy of moving with the times. But in what direction should it move? When the Museum looks outward and sees what might be called the Moseley-Braun syndrome becoming ever more prominent in education, politics and moral attitudes, what possible accommodation can it make to this new view of the past? Should it attempt to pacify these new definers of the American soul, who, while damning the Confederate flag as a hate symbol, have themselves hoisted anew the Bloody Shirt of Civil War hate propaganda?

This is, after all, the Museum of the Confederacy. To satisfy the denouncers of the nation which it memorializes it would probably have to become a sort of Southern equivalent of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., a museum to keep alive memories of Southern iniquity, with perhaps a subtitle added to the inscription over the door: “The Museum of the Confederacy: We’re sorry.” Better to bring in the bulldozers than agree to such an Orwellian rewriting of the past.

In my not very humble opinion, there is no concession that can be made to those who pervert history by making it a tool of propaganda that would not ultimately destroy the Museum, as indeed history itself will be destroyed if the propagandists prevail. I believe that this is so because, as I understand it, the purpose of the Museum is to educate. It is an educational institution specializing in the history of the Confederacy, broadly defined, and its purpose can be pursued only by striving conscientiously to see things as they were, irrespective of what conflict this might cause with its contemporaries. To see the Confederacy as it was, as far as human fallibility will permit, and then to impart a dispassionate, non-judgmental understanding of this period of our history: this is the purpose, the mission of the Museum.

Each of us has an agenda for the present and the future. Although history, objectively set forth and dispassionately studied, may affect that agenda, the agenda must never be allowed to affect the history. In the long run, no one’s agenda can be helped by the creation of fictitious history. Possibly black school children may feel better about being black when they are told that their African ancestors founded Western civilization. But what will they feel like when they discover that this is just not true?

I have an agenda which the Museum should help to accomplish. It is my hope that this dispassionate study of Confederate history will promote reconciliation, will help to bring an end to the name-calling, an end to the destructive cycle of hostility, of charge and counter-charge, that has gone on far too long. If the animosities associated with the War of Secession can be softened and even laid to rest, then there may be hope of doing likewise with the animosities arising from what seems to be an endlessly multiplying number of contending factions that are threatening to Balkanize American society.

Given the mounting on all things Confederate, my hope for reconciliation may seem visionary. There are nevertheless some promising signs. For example, a few years ago I attended the annual commemoration at the Virginia Military Institute of the Battle of New Market, honoring the cadets who died on the field of honor. Marching in that ceremony were black cadets—young American black men paying tribute to those young white men who gave their lives for the Confederacy. And a few years after that, I was struck by a photograph in the Richmond Times-Dispatch showing the 54th Massachusetts, a black reenacter unit, participating in a Memorial Day Grand Reunion parade of Union and Confederate regiments, with the Lee monument in the background. The next year, 1991, a member of the 54th Massachusetts, Tim Moore, visited the Museum of the Confederacy to take part in a living history program about United States Colored Troops and their contribution to the Union cause. Mr. Moore said in a letter to the newspaper, “The thrill was that. . .I had the opportunity to represent [the blacks who fought for the Union] to the visitors at the Museum of the Confederacy and that your efforts meant that their sacrifices were appreciated.” And he expressed his thanks for what he called “real Southern hospitality.”

To give one more example of why there may be hope for my agenda, a few weeks ago there was a story in the press about Rudolph Young, a black Vietnam veteran and amateur historian who has been investigating the subject of blacks who supported the Confederacy. He has spoken about his research to the congregations of black churches and to meetings of Sons of Confederate Veterans camps. “…This is part of our shared history,” he said. “I am part of that history. I am a Southerner.” As to the flag he remarked, “The Confederate flag per se does not offend me. It stands for what the person holding it wants it to. If I see it at a KKK rally, I know it’s a hate flag. If I see it at a Confederate veterans organization, it’s a patriotic flag. It it’s on the back of a pickup truck, it’s being trivialized.”

The attitude toward the past displayed by Henry Commager and Tim Moore and Rudolph Young surely leads down the road to reconciliation. The process works in both directions: an openness to reconciliation will just as surely promote a constructive attitude toward our history. If men who fought and suffered in the war could bury the passions it engendered, can we do less? There are many striking instances that could be cited. One I have always found very moving is the conduct of Joshua L. Chamberlain at Appomattox. This distinguished Union commander and his division were picked by Grant to receive the capitulation of the Army of Northern Virginia. When Chamberlain saw the pathetic and half-starved remnants of that army approaching in a formal surrender parade to give up their arms and colors, when he saw, as he wrote, “that great army which ours had been created to confront for all that death can do for life. . .the embodiment of manhood: men whom neither toils and sufferings, nor the fact of death, nor disaster, nor hopelessness could bend from their resolve; standing before us now, thin, worn, famished, but erect, and with eyes looking level into ours. . .”—when he saw that, he had his bugler sound the call for “carry arms,” the marching salute, honoring the defeated enemy. “On our part,” he wrote, “not a sound of trumpet more, nor roll of drum; not a cheer, nor word nor whisper of vain-glorying, . . .but an awed stillness. . .as if it were the passing of the dead.”

The skeleton divisions come up one after another, face into line, stack arms, then, as Chamberlain said, “lastly, reluctantly, with agony of expression, they fold their flags, battle-worn, bloodstained, heart-holding colors, and lay them down; some…rushing from the ranks, kneeling over them, clinging to them, pressing them to their lips. . .How could we help falling on our knees, all of us together, and praying God to pity and forgive us all.”

On its side, the Confederacy can offer as its champion of reconciliation Robert E. Lee. The war was a great personal tragedy for Lee. He had opposed secession and believed that slavery was, as he said, “a great moral and political evil.” Yet his sense of duty left him no choice but to go with his state. After leading his men through years of suffering and sacrifice, Lee at the end was utterly defeated. When the last attempt to break through Union lines at Appomattox had failed, Lee said from the depths of his despair, “Then there is nothing for me to do but to go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths.” And a little later, as if speaking to himself, “How easily I could be rid of all this, and be at rest! I have only to ride along the line and all will be over.” But, he added, “it is our duty to live.”

After the war, still haunted by the misery it had brought, Lee did what he could to help the South recover by dedicating his few remaining years to the education of its youth. He refused to do anything or to say anything whatever that would rekindle the embers of sectional hostility. He shocked many Southerners when, to set an example of reconciliation, he applied for a presidential pardon. He told a widow who had lost her husband in the war that “we are all one country now. Dismiss from your mind all sectional feeling and bring [your children] up as Americans.” This was the kind of advice he gave over and over again, whenever opportunity offered.

One last example: In 1913 surviving veterans of Gettysburg gathered to commemorate the battle’s 50th anniversary. The culminating event came when the old men in gray, now with painful steps and aching bones, once more advanced across the fields toward Cemetery Ridge. But before they could reach the crest, they were met by the old men in blue, who came hobbling down the slope to embrace them.

Let me reassure you on one point. The dispassionate examination of our history does not require the abandonment of bred-in-the-bone loyalties. It does not mean that Tim Moore cannot hold closest to his heart the memory of that gallant assault by the 54th Massachusetts on the ramparts of Battery Wagner, July 18, 1863. It does not mean that I will not often remember with a soul-wrenching pity those Southern soldiers and their great leader at Appomattox, with a profound admiration for their indomitable courage and devotion to duty. And I hope that neither Tim Moore nor I would ever begrudge one another these borrowed memories that echo and reecho down the years, but will instead understand and sympathize with the deep emotions they arouse.

The Confederacy is not obsolete. This storm-cradled nation has much to teach us—as does the terrible war by which it lived and died—this war that grips the imagination of Americans as no other part of their history, perhaps because it is such a riveting panorama of human nature, with all its weakness and nobility; with its betrayals and greed, but much more loyalty and selflessness; with its cowardice, but much more valor; with its cruelty, but much more compassion; and above all with its overwhelming tale of agony, death, and bereavement.

No wonder it appeals so compellingly to our common humanity, North and South, black and white, transcending race and section, appeals so compellingly that we might well ask, as Joshua Chamberlain asked at Appomattox, “How can we help falling on our knees, all of us together, and praying God to pity and forgive us all!”

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