The civil rights demonstrations which began with the protests after George Floyd’s horrific murder at the end of May, are still ongoing. Across the country, many symbols of white supremacism are being destroyed. We’re seeing the removal of several unremarkable municipal statues of Jefferson Davis and his ilk. There are jocular demands to replace the statues with statues of Mothman or Dolly Parton. We’re seeing corporations like Nascar banning the use of the Confederate flag.
Some people are upset at this. They claim their “heritage” is being erased.
A lot of Americans look to the Confederate States of America as their heritage, which I find strange.
The Confederacy lasted from February of 1861 until their surrender in April of 1865. And that’s the generous number; that dates the beginning of the Confederate States of America to the founding of their provisional government. Some would mark the beginning a year later in 1862. The CSA lasted just under five years at the most.
I happen to have lived in this rental house since mid-May of 2015. When I moved in, I immediately started a compost heap in my backyard and began gardening. Just recently I got some of the beautiful black loam from the bottom of the heap and spread it near my plants, and now the peppers have little buds all over them. But that’s another story. The point is, my backyard compost heap is now older than the Confederacy ever got to be. Five years and counting. The Confederacy wasn’t that long-lived.
Would I be upset if someone invaded my backyard, stole my compost heap, and replaced it with a statue of Dolly Parton? Yes. Absolutely. I worked at that compost.
But a five-year-old compost heap is not my heritage.
Five years of garbage does not make a heritage.
Ireland is my heritage. Scotland, England, Wales and Westphalia, where my other ancestors came from, are my heritage, though the Irish-American part of me had the most influence, as far as anything did. I was catechized an Irish Catholic and went to the traditionally Irish church in Columbus. I sometimes joke that the Irish have 100% predominant genes. West Virginia is my heritage– the Haringtons from Ireland donated a piece of their farmland in Greenbriar County to build a church, so that the itinerant priest wouldn’t have to say Mass out of his truck anymore, and the sight of a Catholic church in that part of West Virginia was such an oddity that the road running past it is called Catholic Church Road to this day. Darke County, Indiana, is my heritage, the United Methodists on one side of my grandfather’s family and the Church of the Brethren on the other. My heritage is Columbus, Ohio, where my great grandmother was rescued out of a third-story window by a stranger in a row boat in the flood of 1913, when Franklinton went under the swollen Scioto.
Those things are my heritage.
Five years’ vain attempt to preserve the institution of race-based chattel slavery is not anybody’s heritage.
And yes, that’s what the Confederacy was about. South Carolina, the first state to secede, stated:
“A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that “Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,” and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction. This sectional combination for the submersion of the Constitution, has been aided in some of the States by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety.”
And the other states had similar statements. You can find all the statements that I’m quoting in the article I linked above. Mississippi insisted “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery.” Louisiana affirmed: “The people of the slave holding States are bound together by the same necessity and determination to preserve African slavery.” Alabama was quite clear: “Northern people, of hostility to the South, her property and her institutions—nothing less than an open declaration of war—for the triumph of this new theory of Government destroys the property of the South, lays waste her fields, and inaugurates all the horrors of a San Domingo servile insurrection, consigning her citizens to assassinations, and her wives and daughters to pollution and violation, to gratify the lust of half-civilized Africans.” Texas blustered: “The destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding states.”
Jefferson Davis himself was adamant: “You too know, that among us, white men have an equality resulting from a presence of a lower caste, which cannot exist where white men fill the position here occupied by the servile race. The mechanic who comes among us, employing the less intellectual labor of the African, takes the position which only a master-workman occupies where all the mechanics are white, and therefore it is that our mechanics hold their position of absolute equality among us.”
The Confederacy was about white supremacy and being able to make money off of free labor, torture, rape, and the buying and selling of human beings.
It had a run of less than five years. Yes, as fans of the Civil War often point out, it had some talented generals and some exciting battles, but the Union beat them in the end. They lost. And no, Lincoln wasn’t a saint, he was a racist too. And no, that wasn’t the end of white supremacism in the United States, and no, white supremacism is not just a “Southern” phenomenon in the United States. The horrific murder of George Floyd all the way up north in Minnesota just 21 days ago, a day after Amy Cooper attempted to sic the police on a Black man who asked her to leash her dog in New York, ought to make that perfectly clear if it wasn’t before. We’ve always been this way, North and South, from the mountains to the prairies to the oceans white with foam. Dismantling racism in America is going to be a lot harder than just tearing down statues and learning to be disgusted as we ought to be by the Stars and Bars.
Still, the Civil War was a less-than-five-year uprising in which something over three hundred sixty thousand Union soldiers were slaughtered by terrorists who were fighting to defend nothing nobler than the institution of slavery. And they lost. That’s all it is.
And none of those statues being torn down, to my knowledge, actually date to the Confederacy. They’re not relics of the Civil War. They were mostly put up in the Jim Crow era. They weren’t a part of history so much as an attempt to rewrite it, to make something look noble that never was and to remind Black Americans who was in charge. The popularity of the Confederate flag is similarly divorced from anybody’s heritage– as is evident when you look at how many people who proudly display it live in Missouri, rural Ohio, West Virginia, or other states that fought on the side of the Union. They’ve never been anything but propaganda. Propaganda isn’t heritage.
Now the flag is being banned, and the statues are coming down.
I hope they’re put in a museum similar to the Holocaust Memorial, so that people living in them can learn some real history. We need to know our history.
A five-year struggle to defend an unjust and deeply sinful institution isn’t “heritage.” It’s a mistake. It’s something embarrassing you should be shocked to find out when you study your family tree and never mention in polite company.
Sin isn’t “heritage.” Sin is shameful. When you build your whole lifestyle and your notion of your culture on the oppression, dehumanization and genocide of others, that’s shameful.
Somewhere very far back in my family tree, I assume, one of my Irish ancestors was baptized by a bishop named Padraig who was himself once a slave, who escaped, and who came back to preach the Gospel to his captors. Things weren’t all roses from then on, not by a long shot. Historically, the Catholic Church has been complicit in every single sin she rightly expects her catechumens to renounce at the font. Christ is real, and perfect. Christians are also real, and we’re sinners. The Irish in America, as a group, were monstrous to Black Americans and to non-Irish immigrants from the moment the Irish stopped being viewed as immigrants in the United States and found themselves safe behind the perpetually shifting goalpost called “whiteness.” I’m not proud of that part of my history. I’m not proud of sin.
But I’m proud of the farm on Catholic Church Road, and the little white clapboard church named for Mary Immaculate. I’m thankful to the stranger in the row boat who held out his arms to rescue my great grandmother in the flood of 1913, when she was just a tiny baby. I’m glad to think of my Protestant ancestors in the Church of the Brethren who historically opposed slavery when many American Christians, Catholic and Protestant, were fine with it. I am glad to remember the parts of my history where people did things that were good.
Everybody has heritage they can be proud of, somewhere along the line.
The Confederacy isn’t anybody’s heritage. It’s five years of garbage, propaganda and a foolish mistake.
Image via Pixabay
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross.
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