Early Tuesday morning marked the sesquicentennial of the bombardment of Fort Sumter by Confederate forces under the command of P.G.T. Beauregard. The artillery action, which resulted in no loss of life on either side, proved to be the catalyst of what would become and remains the bloodiest military conflict in American history.
Though tens of millions of Americans are descendants of people who immigrated here after hostilities ended and thus have no familial connection to the conflict, the war remains controversial from its name (Civil War vs. War between the States, the latter being the sobriquet of choice for many southerners) to its symbols, most notably the Confederate battle flag.
With the continued rise of political correctness and the growth of societal hypersensitivity, a reasonable interpretation of the conflict along with recognition of the men and women who performed acts of valor on the losing side of history and public officials who defend their commemoration will meet their own Appomattox before too long.
Were those who fought and advocated for the Confederacy traitors?
In a bit of irony those who actually fought for the Confederacy were held in higher esteem by the very people they exchanged fire with than the latter’s ancestors, as if the once-existing animosity was passed down to later generations though not their perspective.
President James Garfield, a Union brigadier general during the battle of Chickamauga, appointed William H. Hunt, a one-time Confederate lieutenant colonel, as Secretary of the Navy in 1881. Charles Crisp, a Confederate lieutenant who spent time as a POW, was elected by his colleagues as Speaker of the US House of Representatives in 1891.
President William Taft appointed Edward Douglass White, a lieutenant in the Confederate army, chief justice of the United States Supreme Court in 1910.
It’s plain that the northern contemporaries of these one-time rebels didn’t consider them on par with the like of Benedict Arnold.
So why did the flower of the south don the uniform and accoutrements of a different country and bear arms against the United States of America?
Were they motivated by racism or a desire to see slavery, a system that many whites in the south had no connection with, continued if not expanded?
Or was it something else altogether, such as an objection to attacking a fellow southern state, as was the case of Virginia, which didn’t leave the Union until after refusing President Abraham Lincoln’s request that states furnish the federal government soldiers to put down the insurrection in the deep south.
Though the issue of slavery was at the heart of the war, it in itself was not the cause.
In Lincoln’s mind, maintaining the union was paramount and he was willing to both compromise and fight to keep it intact.
There were slave states that opted to stay in the Union on their own volition, including Delaware, as Joe Biden giddily pointed out on the campaign trail while quixotically trying to win southern votes.
Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation did not end slavery in the US, as the proclamation covered only Confederate territory not occupied by federal forces. In fact individual parishes in Louisiana, including my home community of Saint Bernard, are cited by name as excepted from this executive act of mass abolition, since slave labor that can work fields can also dig military trenches for Federal troops.
That said, Lincoln’s 8/11th measure on the matter gave him and the Union army greater moral authority in pursuing the war effort and undermined the Confederacy’s desperate attempts to gain recognition from anti-slavery governments in London and Paris.
Furthermore some of Lincoln’s rhetoric on race might sound like something one would expect to hear from the Kleagle of a Klavern than the Great Emancipator.
I don’t say these things to tarnish the 16th president, who I revere as a visionary and consider only second to George Washington in the pantheon of our nation’s leaders, but to underscore the importance of judging people of the past from the perspective of their times.
Support for promoting and preserving Confederate memorials has found no allies with prominent cultural conservative leaders.
Plaques related to the Confederacy on the Texas Supreme Court Building, which was built with money from the Confederate Pension Fund, were removed from the structure while then-Governor George W. Bush was campaigning for president.
Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal has not signed a proclamation recognizing Confederate history month, a perfunctory act that his predecessors, both Democrats and Republicans, regularly sent to the autopen machine without hesitation.
In South Carolina, Governor Nikki Haley was a conspicuous no-show at a concert held in Charleston to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, though the city’s 9-term Democratic mayor was not only present but also an active participant in the festivities.
And arch-conservative governor Bob McDonnell of Virginia, the state that hosted the most Civil War battles and home to the largest collection of artifacts related to the CSA, engaged in a bit of political correctness himself swapping out “Confederate History Month” as the title in a proclamation to the much watered down “Civil War in Virginia Month”.
The 21st century GOP has been no kinder to the men in gray than its 19th century version.
Such nuances often go unappreciated and won’t curry any more support from the electoral segment most delighted by these snubs and semantics.
Perhaps the greatest threat to preserving Confederate heritage is the irresponsible rhetoric of liberal political activists and commentators, who make outrageous and erroneous comparisons between the CSA and Nazi Germany.
Those who flippantly refer to the Confederate battle flag as a “southern swastika” know little about the Civil War and even less about World War II and the Holocaust.
Considering the role Fort Sumter and Charleston played in the Civil War, participation in events surrounding the sesquicentennial didn’t seem that impressive.
The centennial celebration Charleston hosted in 1961 was criticized for being too festive; in 2011, those handling events related to the anniversary went through great pains to emphasize that they were hosting a “commemoration” and not a “celebration”. At times it felt more like a funeral, perhaps appropriately so for a few reasons.
The first cruise to the shelled federal military installation on the 150th anniversary of the bombardment wasn’t sold out and less than 200 people were on hand near Charleston’s Battery green area for the 4:30 AM prayer service and concert that were held at the moment the first mortar shot of the Civil War was fired.
And those holding vigil along the seawall that runs across the battery to watch a reenactment of the cannonading later that morning had plenty of room. I remember thinking that I’d seen thicker crowds at third-rate Mardi Gras parades.
In 1975, President Gerald Ford of Michigan signed a Senate resolution restoring Robert E. Lee’s citizenship. Lee had applied for a pardon after the war ended though his paperwork was shanghaied by a bureaucrat and was never processed.
Ford heaped considerable praise on the man who is considered by military historians as one of the nation’s finest soldiers. “General Lee’s character has been an example to succeeding generations, making the restoration of his citizenship an event in which every American can take pride,” said Ford at the restoration ceremony held on the grounds of Lee’s seized home in Arlington.
I can’t imagine a future president showering such praise on any Confederate general or official today.
While witnessing the non-event in Charleston earlier this week, I wondered how the bicentennial of the War between the States will be handled in 2061, though I’m not optimistic about how things will be presented.
I suspect political correctness, reckless rhetoric and cultural cowardice by those who know better but do and say nothing will contribute to increased vilification of anything and anyone connected with the Confederacy. They will do to history what Sherman did to Georgia.
Those who fought for the Confederacy will be derided as at best misguided ignorant poor souls duped into fighting for the preservation of a racist oligarchy or at worst, forerunners of the SS.
Statuary Hall will be cleared of all offending memorials, which will then be exiled to the far corners of unvisited museums if not warehoused indefinitely.
The remaining visible shreds of the Confederacy escaping bowdlerization will consist of the mostly unrecognizable “Stars and Bars” and street and building names dedicated to obscure figures of the Lost Cause known only to history buffs and wikipedia.
While attending a conference in northern Romania in 2006 I remember seeing a large granite obelisk parked next to the outdoor seating of a restaurant. The monument was placed there by Austria to commemorate a major military victory by that country over Romania during the First World War. When Romania picked up the territory (through tough post-war Allied negotiations and not Romanian fighting skill), the victorious vanquished decided to leave the monument stand.
While the memorial stood as a reminder of an unpleasant part of Romania’s history, it was still a part of Romanian history.
While the Confederacy will find few fans and apologists in the nation at-large, it is still part of American history, even if not a popular part.