Confronting Confederate Heritage

[This post on Confederate legacies has two parts. You can read the second, more comparative one, here.]

The current proposal to rename U.S. military installations that currently bear the names of Confederate soldiers is long overdue. It comes as a time when many of us are thinking very deeply about how we, as Americans, confront this part of American history. I have no answers.

Yet I cannot stop thinking about how I, as a white man who grew up in the north, learned about the Confederacy. I will note up front, because it will matter later, that roughly half of my ancestors come from Confederate states (it does not matter which ones). But I have never lived anywhere in the south.

As a child, I never, ever saw the Confederate flag flown. I never saw it displayed either. I was familiar with it from history books, from visits to Gettysburg, and from my favorite TV show, The Dukes of Hazzard. The General Lee was their cool car, but it never occurred to me to notice the flag or the name, I was more interested in the fact that Bo and Luke entered through the windows. And I know now that that show was basically one big joke, mocking a certain type of southern white.

There is privilege here, obviously, to be oblivious to what dark historical facts lay behind such cultural touchstones as the General Lee and Boss Hogg. Or to have not really understood what Ole Miss means until I was well into college.*

There is also privilege to not even think about the names of our U.S. military installations. I did know until yesterday who John Bell Hood was (“I was yesterday years old when…”). I did not know until recently—like, this week—that Fort Bragg or Fort Hood or any of the others were named after Confederate generals. It doesn’t surprise me in the slightest, but I never knew. Why would I think about the names of military bases? I’m not in the military, and I’m not curious about base histories or about American Civil War generals.** So I blithely move through my life just not knowing.

It is good that I think about these things now.

But still, growing up, I never heard any defense of the Confederacy or “the Southern Cause.” Once a cousin got frustrated with me and called me a Yankee. (Fact check: True.) My extended family has a sort of pride of origin from our “family town” (again, it doesn’t matter where this is). And I identified early on—by junior high—a sort of causal racism both in the south and the north, examples of which I need not provide. I also saw incidents of blatant and overt racism many times, in several northern states. I remember learning in high school about Stone Mountain and being shocked by it. But the Confederacy? No. Never.

I also have access to family letters from an ancestor who fought for the Confederacy. Those letters mostly detail, in abstract terms, that war is horrible and that it will all be better when the war is over. But they also briefly note the death of an enslaved man owned by that ancestor. I can only assume that that man was forced to support my ancestor in a fight to preserve slavery. When we are talking about chattel slavery, no one “chooses” anything.

In those letters, my ancestor expresses a kind of remorse or sadness for the death of that enslaved man. One might read this as a recognition of their mutual humanity, but today I read this as even more horrible. My ancestor knew that this was a person, recognized his humanity, and kept him as property anyway. And then he was killed in a war to preserve his enslavement.

Now I live in a very progressive small college town in the north. And I have seen the Confederate flag more times in the past year than I did in the first thirty years of my life.

The last time I saw one was about a month ago, when I visited the local Walmart to buy a new battery for a riding mower. The man who helped me pick out the replacement wore a Confederate flag hat. Seeing that hat filled me with disgust. But because I am who I am, because I was wearing an old baseball cap, my lawn-mowing jeans, and my lawn-mowing shirt,*** we transacted our business without comment.

I wrote above that my emotion was disgust at seeing that Confederate flag hat. But there were other emotions. Sadness, disdain. But also anger. Even rage. Knowing what the Confederacy stood for, the people it killed and the cause it sought to preserve, I cannot even imagine a defense of it. I cannot fathom wanting to display its symbols, although I know what they mean.

Growing up, I never saw the Confederate flag flown, and I never had cause to think of it. Today, my children do. So they learn something different than I learned. They learn that the Confederate flag is a symbol of treason, flown by a group of people who killed many Americans to support an evil and indefensible cause.

But of course, as we all know, today it’s more than just that.

[Read the previous post here.]


* In my defense, for family history reasons, I identify with Mississippi State and Auburn anyway.

** Ask me about the Soviet-era names of Russian cities, though…

*** This is my lawn-mowing shirt.