Judging from articles such as this, this and this, there is now almost a mania sweeping the land to remove every vestige of the Confederacy (Even TV Land got swept up in this by cancelling airing of old “Dukes of Hazzard” episodes) . Don’t get me wrong, I understand why so many people are incensed by Confederate flags and monuments on public lands. And although my ancestors on both the European (paternal) and American Indian (maternal) sides of my family tree lived in the CSA and in some instances served in its armed forces, I have never displayed a Confederate flag in any form anywhere at any time. Nor was the N-word ever uttered by my parents or any expression of religious, ethnic or racial bigotry or elitism. And as for my Civil War era forbearers, most were simple farmers and none owned slaves. As a boy I was told by various relatives that those who donned the grey in our family did so to repel Northern aggression and preserve the rights of individual states to chart their own destiny.
With this said many of my fellow Southerners — and some African-Americans as well — do have the Southern Cross (aka “Stars and Bars”) on display in various guises. And although various incarnations of the neo-Nazis and KKK and other white supremacist groups have waved the Confederate battle flag about for decades, I dare say most Southerners, especially those who had ancestors who served in the Confederate army or navy, are angered by this (At least those I grew up around in Texas, Tennessee and Louisiana felt this way).
But ask Southerners with Confederate ancestors whether slavery was one of the main reasons for Southern secession and many will say “no”. I’ve studied the writings they cite to support this point-of-view but do not find them convincing. History clearly shows that preserving slavery was part and parcel of the Confederate cause, although state’s rights and other issues also figured prominently as well. This is reflected in the lyrics of one of the CSA’s earliest marching songs, “The Bonnie Blue Flag” (1861), which opens with these lines:
Fighting for the property we gained by honest toil
And when our rights were threatened, the cry rose near and far
Hurrah for the Bonnie Blue Flag that bears a single star!
For Southern rights, hurrah!
Hurrah for the Bonnie Blue Flag that bears a single star.
And just to drive home the fact slavery and “white privilege” figured in the new Confederate government, consider this except from a speech by CSA Vice President Alexander H. Stephens that was reported in the Savannah Republican on March 21, 1861:
But not to be tedious in enumerating the numerous changes for the better, allow me to allude to one other — though last, not least. The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution — African slavery as it exists amongst us — the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone 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. [Applause.] This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. It has been so even amongst us. Many who hear me, perhaps, can recollect well, that this truth was not generally admitted, even within their day. The errors of the past generation still clung to many as late as twenty years ago. Those at the North, who still cling to these errors, with a zeal above knowledge, we justly denominate fanatics. All fanaticism springs from an aberration of the mind — from a defect in reasoning. It is a species of insanity. One of the most striking characteristics of insanity, in many instances, is forming correct conclusions from fancied or erroneous premises; so with the anti-slavery fanatics; their conclusions are right if their premises were. They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man. If their premises were correct, their conclusions would be logical and just — but their premise being wrong, their whole argument fails. I recollect once of having heard a gentleman from one of the northern States, of great power and ability, announce in the House of Representatives, with imposing effect, that we of the South would be compelled, ultimately, to yield upon this subject of slavery, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics, as it was in physics or mechanics. That the principle would ultimately prevail. That we, in maintaining slavery as it exists with us, were warring against a principle, a principle founded in nature, the principle of the equality of men. The reply I made to him was, that upon his own grounds, we should, ultimately, succeed, and that he and his associates, in this crusade against our institutions, would ultimately fail. The truth announced, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics as it was in physics and mechanics, I admitted; but told him that it was he, and those acting with him, who were warring against a principle. They were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal.
In the conflict thus far, success has been on our side, complete throughout the length and breadth of the Confederate States. It is upon this, as I have stated, our social fabric is firmly planted; and I cannot permit myself to doubt the ultimate success of a full recognition of this principle throughout the civilized and enlightened world.
I realize, of course, that some Southerners and others will continue to downplay or even deny that slavery was an integral part of the government of the Confederacy and its policies and vision. I have read more than a few lengthy articles and books by writers and authors who managed to weave incredibly elaborate arguments that pretty much shove slavery to the backmost burner on the proverbial historical stove. How is this possible? Are these men and women evil, delusional, bigoted, ignorant or just plain stupid? Most are none of these in my opinion. Consider how murder case plays out in court: Both the prosecutor and defense attorney or attorneys posses the same facts and information, but basically filter, weave and pitch them differently (One to leave no doubt of guilt in the minds of jurors, and the other to create doubts about this). When this all too human approach to analyzing and presenting historic chapters and events plays out in books, articles, movies, plays and such, the end result is invariably skewed one way or the other (Some come closer to capturing what transpired while others deviate to varying degrees from this).
There is also the all too human propensity to spin tales and myths that cast darker chapters in history and current events as well in a favorable light. So long as this sort of thing does not marginalize, ostracize, condemn or otherwise inflict harm on people or incite others to do such reprehensible things to others, it can and often does serve as a sort of collective coping mechanism and a means of preserving a shared conviction and some sense of the honor or dignity attached to it and its proponents or champions.
Think we Americans do not have our own sacred myths or make objects of honor (heroes) out of people unworthy of this? If so, you do not know American history.
To my way of thinking there is little doubt but that Confederate ancestors should be honored by their descendants for having the courage of their convictions. This doesn’t mean endorsing all they stood for or believed, only those aspects of them that were honorable and decent. For some this includes hanging a Confederate flag outside their homes or in their cars or trucks, or wearing clothing articles emblazoned with the “stars and bars” or tattoos bearing this or the like.
Now the argument has been raised in some quarters that the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Waffen SS who fought for Hitler had the courage of their convictions and if “sons and daughters of the Confederacy” can honor their ancestor’s for this, so descendants of those who served under the crooked cross should. Before I touch on this, I simply must point out that when it comes to honoring ancestors who fought for a losing and even vile cause, the waters get very muddy indeed. For instance, in Japan, where I lived and worked for more than four years, honoring ones ancestors includes an annual visit to the Yasukuni Shrine by the Prime Minister where the cremains of 1,068 war criminals including 14 Class-A war criminals are interred. The same rising sun flag that flew over Imperial troops sailors and pilots in WWII flies in various guises today over Japanese defense forces.
After WWII the German government, of course, outlawed displays of the swastika as well as use of the straight-armed Nazi salute and for good cause. The sheer magnitude of intentional, calculated evil committed in Hitler’s Third Reich and by its many puppets and willing supporters made permitting public displays of the swastika (outside of museums, documentaries, movies and special exhibits) or the giving of the Nazi salute anathema.
But does this mean that, say, a German today whose grandfather, great grandfather or other relative served honorably in the Wehrmacht (Army), Luftwaffe (Air Force), Kriegsmarine (Navy) or Volkssturm is amiss in honoring their individual courage or valor? Is not the courage and valor shown by those German servicemen who had no part in any atrocities or other evils and were not members of organization that did such as the SS and Waffen SS, any different than that of allied servicemen who fought bravely and brought down their malignant empire?
You may be tempted to say that even honorable souls who served a failed, dishonorable and especially evil cause must be utterly renounced or at least never mentioned. In-a-sense, bury the past except in museum displays and politically correct books, movies, plays and such. “Tear down those flags and statues and erase every trace of these people and their cause”.
If you are inclined to say “amen” to this, I am now going to show you how its application to flags and heroes many, many Americans admire would require their purging from American culture.
Consider this: If we are going to remove all CSA symbols, flags and statues and such from public lands, then why not go one step forward and tear down Custer tributes (such as Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument) and others associated with the genocidal treatment of my American Indian ancestors and their brothers and sisters by the US government, the US military and many of its Presidents, especially Andrew Jackson?
After all, many of these so-called sacred icons and symbols are a painful reminder to we American Indians of the forced marches, reservations, massacres and others forms of calculated murder including attrition by intentional introduction of diseases such as smallpox, that were visited upon American Indian peoples by “fine American patriots” who felt God (“manifest destiny”) and being “racially superior” entitled them to do whatever it took to make America a white dominated empire that stretched from “sea to shining sea”. And just to underscore how profoundly evil all this was, no less than the patron saint of evil, Adolf Hitler, drew inspiration from abominable racist US genocidal policies and the reservation system it spawned in crafting his own version of hell on earth (Click to read more).
Should not the flags, statues, historic markers and such associated with these evils be tossed into the fire?
My question to you then is this: If we should elect to cleanse our land of the reminders of its darker chapters and failed experiments, what will be left? And isn’t forgetting the lessons of history not one of the surer ways to insure we repeat them?
Anthony G. Payne, whose American Indian name is “Summer Cloud”, is a native born Texan and an American Indian (Bureau of Indian Affairs CDIB card holder) and member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. Despite having grown up in the “reddest parts” of North Texas, Tennessee and Louisiana, he is a political liberal who embraced democratic socialism in the 1980s. He is also a religious and moral conservative but no friend of fundamentalism/creationism or those pet beliefs of evangelical Christians that run contrary to what the Rabbi from Nazareth advocated and lived (Click to access Summer Cloud’s spiritual watering hole website).
In addition to having ancestors who fought in the armed forces of the Confederacy, one of Dr. Payne’s maternal line was an army officer (Lieutenant) in the Revolutionary War who fought British forces in South Carolina.
Additional Reading on various subjects touched on in this op-ed piece
Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto by Vine Deloria, Jr.
©2015 by Dr. Anthony G. Payne. All rights reserved.