A Response to Attacks on Confederate Symbols and History

 A Response to Attacks on Confederate Symbols and History

Michael T. Griffith


@All Rights Reserved

Fourth Edition

I am saddened by the drive to portray any symbol, word, or historical figure associated with the Confederacy as evil and hateful.  I say this as a retired U.S. Army veteran, and as someone who maintains a web page to educate the public about the abuse that African Americans have suffered during much of our nation’s history.  I also say this as someone who has been active in my community to oppose police mistreatment of minorities.  And I say this as an American whose ancestors fought in the Confederate army.

I’m proud of America’s history and heritage, but that doesn’t mean I have to defend everything my country has said or done. For example, I regret the way the federal government, and especially the federal army, treated the American Indians for decades in the nineteenth century. Similarly, I’m proud of my Southern heritage and of my Confederate ancestors, but I don’t have to defend everything every Confederate leader said or did.

When judged fairly, Confederate symbols are no more reminders of hate or racism than is the American flag (also known as the Stars and Stripes).  Slavery existed for much longer under the Stars and Stripes than under the Confederate flag.  Our original U.S. Constitution permitted slavery, mandated the return of fugitive slaves, protected the slave trade for 20 years, and only recognized African Americans as counting for three-fifths of white men for the purpose of determining congressional representation.  It was precisely because of these facts that some early anti-slavery leaders denounced the Constitution, spurned the American flag, and even burned the Constitution in public. One leading abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, urged the state of Massachusetts to secede from the Union. Garrison called the Constitution "an agreement with hell." Garrison wanted no part of America, her constitution, or her flag.  Another leading abolitionist, Thaddeus Stevens, called the Constitution “a worthless bit of old parchment.”  Additionally, as will be discussed below, by late 1864 the Confederacy was moving toward ending slavery.

What do we say to militant American Indians who don’t like the American flag because to them it’s a symbol of racism, broken promises and outright genocide? Certainly one can understand their feelings, but one would also hope they would be able to see the good our flag represents. Or how about the atrocious wage slavery and child labor that existed in the Northern states, before, during and long after the Civil War?  Even some Northern observers noted that many Northern factory workers were treated so badly that they were materially worse off than most plantation slaves in the South. The North had its fair share of social injustices. Yet, who in our day would seriously suggest that the Stars and Stripes is a symbol of wage slavery and child labor, even though those things existed for decades under that flag?

Using the reasoning that is employed by opponents of Confederate symbols and history, one would have to call for the removal of the U.S. flag from all official buildings and property. One would also have to call for a ban on naming buildings and roads after such famous Union figures as William Tecumseh Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant, both of whom were racists and one of whom (Grant) used slave labor.   (Indeed, Sherman was a virulent racist who opposed integration at West Point and who refused to prosecute cadets who had brutalized an African-American cadet.)

For that matter, Abraham Lincoln himself held decidedly racist views about African Americans. He even supported efforts to colonize them in foreign lands. Furthermore, during the war Lincoln repeatedly resisted the demand of the “Radical Republicans” (as they were commonly called) that he turn the war into a war against slavery.  Lincoln doggedly opposed giving black Union soldiers the same pay as white soldiers (whereas when the Confederate army officially began to use black soldiers, those soldiers received the same pay that white soldiers received).  Lincoln only issued the Emancipation Proclamation under intense pressure from the Radical Republicans and only as a war measure that was designed to weaken the Confederacy.  Lincoln didn’t seriously consider issuing the proclamation until federal forces were struggling on the battlefield.  Lincoln told a former Congressman that one reason he issued the proclamation was that he feared that if he didn’t issue some kind of emancipation statement, abolitionists in Congress were going to cut funding for military supplies. In addition, when Lincoln wrote the proclamation, he excluded all slaves who lived in areas that were under federal control; the proclamation only applied to slaves who were in Confederate territory. Northern abolitionists hoped the proclamation would lead to a slave revolt that would cripple the Confederacy.  Shortly before the war began, Lincoln supported a proposed constitutional amendment that would have made it impossible for the federal government to abolish slavery.  Because of these and other facts, even a few African-American scholars are critical of Lincoln.  For example, African-American author Lerone Bennett, an editor for Ebony magazine, says, "There has been a systematic attempt to keep the American public from knowing the real Lincoln and the depth of his commitment to white supremacy." Bennett strongly criticizes Lincoln’s record on race and slavery in his book Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream (Chicago: Johnson Publishing Company, 2000).

Many people aren’t aware that four of the states that fought for the Union were slave states. In addition, four of the states that joined the Confederacy did not take part in the first wave of secession–they didn’t leave the Union because of slavery but because they strongly objected to Lincoln’s decision to use force against the seceded states. Those states–Tennessee, Virginia, Arkansas and North Carolina–initially rejected secession.  They only seceded after Lincoln made it clear he was going to use force to compel the Deep South states to rejoin the Union.

What about the first seven Southern states to secede, i.e., the Deep South states? Did they secede only to preserve slavery? Did they put up such a fierce fight simply because they wanted to keep their slaves?  The vast majority of the soldiers in the Confederate army were not slaveowners.  At least 69 percent of Southern whites did not own slaves (and the figure was quite possibly closer to 85 or 90 percent). So why did Confederate soldiers fight so heroically against larger, better-fed, and better-equipped forces? Why did most Southern civilians support the Confederate cause? And why, in the first elections after the war, with the slaves freed and much of the South in ruins, did Southern voters elect former Confederates in truly overwhelming numbers? The answer is clear: Because the Deep South didn’t secede, and didn’t fight, merely to preserve slavery.  Although slavery was the chief factor that led the Deep South to secede, it was by no means the only factor.  The Deep South feared that the Republicans, especially the Radical Republicans, would seek to abolish slavery through illegal means and without compensation.  There were several other important reasons that the Deep South decided to separate from the Union. Secession and the war were two different events anyway—the causes of the one were not the causes of the other.  Most Southerners expected that Northern leaders would allow the South to leave in peace.  The vast majority of Southerners, both in the Deep South and in the Upper South, believed they were fighting to resist aggression and to preserve their independence. 

It’s important to note, furthermore, that the main dispute over slavery before the war involved the extension of slavery into the western territories, not the continuation of slavery where it already existed.  Most Republicans were not opposed to the continuation of slavery in those states where it was already established.  Indeed, a majority of the men in Lincoln’s cabinet did not support disturbing slavery where it already existed.  Lincoln himself not only shared this view but, as mentioned, he publicly supported a proposed constitutional amendment that would have made it expressly impossible for the federal government to abolish slavery. 

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