Note: This is off topic, but because of recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia and elsewhere I thought it might be of interest.
I was born in Macon, Georgia in 1952, the fourth generation of the Parsons family to be born in Georgia. My great-great grandfather Parsons was born in London, England, and in 1844 he settled in Georgia on land only recently stolen from the Creek Indians. On the other side of the family, my roots in Georgia go back at least five generations. Several of my ancestors owned slaves. Several fought in the Civil War; no need to guess which side. Am I sorry that my ancestors owned human beings? Yes, of course I am. Am I ashamed that my ancestors fought for the Confederacy? Not really. I wish that they had not fought for a cause that is so odious to me, but I do not feel shame over it. But, surely, slavery, and the genocide of Native Americans, are the two greatest obscenities ever perpetrated in the western hemisphere. So how can I be unashamed of my ancestors who fought for a cause that upheld slavery?
Let’s consider just one of my ancestors, the Rev. Enoch Hooten. The smashing Confederate victory at Fredericksburg was good news for the South, but a bad day for my great-great grandfather. Seriously wounded, he was evacuated to a hospital well behind the lines. To pass the time during the long tedium of recovery, some of the convalescents engaged in lively theological debates. An articulate, well-educated, and deeply religious man, Rev. Hooten joined these debates with great enthusiasm. He became convinced that the doctrine of total-immersion baptism was true, and so converted to the Baptist faith. They took their theology seriously in those days. What about slavery? How seriously did my progenitor take that? Was he fighting for slavery?
I don’t think so. Now, I’m sure he was no abolitionist, and if asked he would have endorsed slavery. But was he motivated to fight by a pro-slavery mania? Was it a die-hard commitment to the “peculiar institution” that inspired him to face shot and shell? I don’t think so. Consider a parallel case: Did the average Russian of the Great Patriotic War fight for Stalin? Did he fight for Communism and for the ultimate victory of Marxism/Leninism? No, he fought because the Germans had invaded his country. He fought because he hated the invading enemy, whatever he thought of Marxist theory, if he thought about it at all. Likewise, when the Rebel prisoner was interrogated by his Union captor, he was asked why he was fighting. His reply: “Because y’all are down heah.” Except for Gettysburg, practically all of the major Civil War battles were fought in the southern or border states. For the southern soldier, it truly was The War of Yankee Aggression.
So, my bet is that my ancestors fought because they felt a threat to their homeland. It is hard for us today to imagine the intensity of the Southerner’s love for home, a mystical connection to soil and hearth much like the Russian peasant’s devotion to Mother Russia. The despised Yankees had marched onto sacred southern soil and had to be sent home yelping with their tails between their legs. To be blunt, I think most southerners hated Yankees a lot more than they loved slavery. Southerners perceived the North as another country, and northerners as a foreign people who had no right to rule them.* That is what “States Rights” boiled down to: “No damn Yankee can tell us what to do!” At an even deeper level, southerners thought they were fighting for Christian values over the godless, soulless mercantilism of the north. They sang, “Down with the eagle and up with the cross!”
My point is a psychological one: My best guess is that my ancestors were chiefly motivated to fight by resentment of perceived northern aggression, not a fanatical commitment to slavery. Do I mean that I still see the South as fighting for a Glorious Cause? Not at all. I agree with the what Ulysses S. Grant said after the surrender at Appomattox. He praised southern courage and the honor of individual southerners, like Robert E. Lee, but said that no people had ever fought for a worse cause. One can see a cause as very bad while respecting the motivations of the individuals who fought and died for it. Just because you oppose, say, gun control, or abortion, or the death penalty, you don’t have to question the integrity of those who disagree with you on those issues.
As for public property, the Confederate flag should not be flown there, nor should any statues or memorials to the Confederacy be displayed. The reason is the same as why a cross or crucifix should not be displayed on public property. Public property does not belong just to Christians, or just to descendants of the Confederacy. It belongs to all of us. Symbols that serve to alienate and divide, or to exclude members of the community should not be allowed on public property. On the other hand, I might be willing to countenance a statue of Robert E. Lee if a statue of Frederick Douglass or Harriet Tubman, just as big and just as prominent, were erected next to it.
The Civil War ended over 150 years ago. It is remarkable how that conflict still divides us. Descendants of Confederates insist that their heritage be respected. But while we honor our ancestors for many reasons we do not celebrate many of the things they did. I honor the culture, religion, and indomitable spirit of my Viking ancestors, but I do not admire their piracy, murder, and mayhem. Similarly, I am sure that my Confederate ancestors were admirable in many ways, but secession and slavery were despicable. I think that we descendants of Confederates must also respect–deeply respect–the feelings of those whose ancestors suffered so grievously under the system of slavery. In the end, the ones most deserving of honor are those who were the victims of slavery and of the hundred years of Jim Crow repression that followed slavery.
*Southerners still stereotype northerners as rude, pushy smartasses. Of course, northerners stereotype southerners too. When was the last time a southern white male was portrayed in the media as anything other than a bigot, a toothless hillbilly rapist, a vicious, potbellied sheriff, or, at best, a grinning, ignorant good ol’ boy who likes hot cars and hot biscuits?