Oh, I’m a good old rebel,
Now that’s just what I am;
And for this yankee nation,
I do not give a damn.
-Lyrics from I’m a Good Old Rebel, by Hoyt Axton.
The mayhem and violence in Charlottesville, Virginia over the weekend was presumed by some to have something to do with anger over the incremental but accelerating loss of Confederate heritage in the United States.
Make no mistake, that heritage is being systematically destroyed by left-wing cultural zealots who cannot tolerate any historical narrative except their own.
But it is equally true to say that white supremacists are hijacking this legitimate grievance and, in the process, are not only introducing a discordant and divisive chorus to the debate but are rendering no assistance in the fight to save the Confederate flag from being rendered into a symbol of racism and hatred more appropariate for the Nazi swastika.
The yahoos waving the Confederate banner as a statement of contempt for non-whites have no understanding of what this symbol represents. They don’t even know what it looked like. In Civil War reenacting, when participants use anachronistic or inaccurate uniforms or regalia, we call it farby. Running around with a rectangular Confederate flag is as farby as it gets; the Confederate Battle Flag, which depicts the. St. Andrew’s cross, was square and was proudly carried by the Confederate States Army from about the time of the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862. The government of the Confederacy never used a rectangular St. Andrew’s cross either; it went through three flags in its brief lifetime and two of these featured the battle flag only as an ensign in the upper left-hand corner of the flag.
It has become a truism to say so, but it needs to be said again: the vast majority of Confederate soldiers did not own slaves and were not fighting for the permanence of this “peculiar institution,” as it was known, both North and South. When asked why they were battling Yankees, a Southerner usually responded by saying, “Because y’all are down here.” The North invaded the South because it did not recognize the Confederacy’s right to self-determination.
The war squeezed blood, resources and wealth from the South. They had nothing left but their honor and the knowledge that they had demonstrated incredible military skill and human bravery on the battlefield. They erected monuments to the great generals — and decent men — who led them into battle. They remembered the sacrifice of over 300,000 men at consecrated graveyards. They clung to their memories.
And the politically correct present has no right to take those monuments and those memories away.
Honoring the Confederate dead and remembering their struggles was a part of how America transformed a bitter and bloody struggle into a story of reconciliation. Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson became not just Confederate icons but American heroes, whose military bravura and exemplary personal lives could be celebrated by all Americans.
Nowhere is this reconciliation and the embrace of North and South more evident than at Gettysburg, the site of the largest battle of the Civil War. To this day, souvenir shops continue to sell t-shirts, hoodies, mugs and even bikinis emblazoned with the Confederate flag. Reenactors contiue to wear the Rebel uniform and fly the flag at living history displays throughout the park.
And if we somehow think that the Confederacy embodied all of the evils of slavery, how can we ignore the fact slavery was a part of the American identity — North and South — when the 13 colonies became a nation? So many American icons of the Revolution and presidents that came after it were slave-owners. Even Lincoln only gradually came around to the abolition of slavery and he certainly wasn’t thinking that way when the war began because he famously and explicitly defined the conflict as being an exercise to “save the Union.”
To those who want to sanitize the past — even more than the present can be cleansed — it is time to say cease and desist. It is not only ignorant to censor history, it is expressly dangerous. Who we are today is a consequence of where we have been; the history vandals who go about airbrushing people and events from our past are as criminal as street thugs who smash a storefront window.
In fact, it should be condemned — just like the tawdry attempt by white supremacists to hijack that history for their own ends.