Conservative pundit Bill Kristol tweets: “The Left’s 21st century agenda: expunging every trace of respect, recognition or acknowledgement of Americans who fought for the Confederacy.” Well, no. The ‘stars and bars’ controversy has nothing to do with heritage. Today, that flag is simply a symbol of segregation and racism. For a long time, it did also represent an understanding of lost causes. But it is nothing more, not now. Trying to make it so is simply a continuation of half a century of duplicity.
I’ll explain, as any Southerner would, through my family:
We knew, back in the early sixties, that we were nearing “home” when we started to see an old car or truck or two with a front plate showing a white-bearded Confederate soldier, the flag of the Army of Northern Virginia (Robert E. Lee’s flag, what we now call the “Confederate battle flag”) over his shoulder. The “Fergit, Hell” next to him typified a mountaineer attitude that, I would later learn, had traveled from the Scottish lowlands through Ulster Plantation and down the Great Wagon Road over the decades before the Revolution. It was an attitude born of defeat and exploitation at every step of the way and signified a desire to simply be left alone. It was not then (not outside of the Dixiecrats, that is) a symbol of hate or segregation. It had little to do with the causes of the Civil War but with resignation and a fading frustration.
We would be on our way from Georgia or Indiana to the mountains of Western North Carolina where my mother had grown up. The centennial of the Civil War was approaching or upon us and I was as fascinated as anyone. I pointed out the plates and asked about them. My parents explained that the sentiment had little to do with the war but with resentment toward a world that was leaving the South, and particularly the Appalachian mountains, behind.
I don’t recall plates like that in Atlanta, though I do remember segregated drinking fountains—though I think that particular segregation had stopped being enforced. Atlanta, my parents and their friends would say, might be in the South but it was no longer of it, having joined the world of modern America and cosmopolitan attitudes. After all, Martin Luther King, Jr. had grown up there and the city even had a new and robust symphony orchestra; Atlanta was leading the way to a New South that would forget or, at least, move on to new attitudes toward the past and even toward race.
My parents and many others believed this, of course, at a time before the Southern Strategy of Richard Nixon and the fanning of the embers of Southern resentment toward the new Civil Rights Movement. The political realignment that resulted eventually created, by the 1990s, a “reclamation” of a “heritage” that was, if truth be told, the actual heritage of few of the people now claiming the Confederate battle flag as their own. The “Old South” had become a new myth, a nostalgic patina over angry resentments spawned by the perception of loss through the Civil Rights Movement.
Real Southern heritage is something quite different.
On the phone with an aunt in Atlanta the other day, I heard her muse, “I wonder why there’s so little of this racism in our family.” Her mother, after all, came from a Piedmont family that had owned slaves. Grandmother’s was a confused vision of race, but it was not a hateful one and she was never going to blame race or war for anything. Her own father, she told me, had been an alcoholic in part because the family, which had once had so much, had “descended” so far after the Civil War–he was born just as the war was ending. But that, she made clear, was her father’s personal weakness. She married a man from the hardscrabble hills of Wilkes County who had all of the drive her father lacked. Together, they became well-to-do. Heritage was important to both of them, but not hate: My grandfather’s success came, in part, because he treated the poor and the African-American fairly as an insurance agent, making sure claims were paid regardless of status or race. He had attitudes that would certainly be called racist today, but he did not hate anyone.
I remember him grumbling in 1968, “No one in this family is going to vote for George Wallace.”
Both of my grandparents had grandparents who fought for the Confederacy. One of my great-great grandfathers was captured during the breakout at Petersburg on April 2, 1865. Another, from what little I’ve been able to discover, suffered a disabling injury at Gettysburg. My grandfather, a World War I veteran, wasn’t much interested in war of any type. He had been gassed and the shrill voices of grandchildren made him wince, reminding him of the whine of artillery shells. He never talked to me of his grandfather though he named his son after him and a daughter after his grandmother. I always wanted to know more; his reticence frustrated me.
The Civil War, clearly, really is my heritage and I do not deny it. But it is not a heritage of racism or hate. The questions that sparked the war had long been settled by the time I was born. During the centennial, the question was no longer of re-establishing a lost milieu but of how to newly affirm the rejoining of the Union, of how to move the country to a new racial and regional paradigm. The Civil Rights Movement, even to many whites in the South, was the national means to that end.
It looked, for a time, like we would succeed, but the resentments of certain portions of the population, instead of being addressed, were enflamed by callous politicians.
The mistake of the liberals in the South was to believe that having the moral high ground gave them the right to ignore the sentiments of those they had defeated politically—even to belittle them while preaching at them. This gave the politicians of the right an opening, one they took full advantage of. Since 1968, they have created a heritage for white Southerners that didn’t exist before, one of hate and resentment. That plate with “Fergit, Hell” was initially something of a joke and the battle flag simply a convenient symbol of defiance in the face of loss. It wasn’t a symbol of anger until it was turned to one after the Civil Rights successes of the sixties.
The attempt to make the discussion of the flying of the ‘stars and bars’ into a question of heritage is nothing more than an attempt to hide a despicable and divisive political movement that has co-opted real Southern heritages, even making families like mine wonder, as my aunt did and as I have, sometimes, why we don’t share the same hate.
The answer is simple: The hate that the Confederate battle flag has come to symbolize never was our heritage.
Update: The question, brought up again and again, of whether the Confederate soldiers were traitors was supposedly settled at Appomattox. They were traitors but, for the sake of the nation’s survival, that was to be overlooked in something that, today, reminds us a little of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation process. It didn’t really work, obviously; many Southerners never really were integrated into the re-formed nation and the embers of their resentments smoldered for generations, inflamed (at times) by the KKK, the Dixiecrats, the Southern Strategy and the election of a black president. For many other Southerners, descendants of Confederate soldiers, however, there really was an attempt to move forward to a new national unity, one that–certainly after the 1950s–includes African-Americans. We recognize the past and know that what our ancestors did was wrong–but we do not dishonor them.