How the Confederacy Won the Civil War
Wednesday, November 29, 2017
“I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.” — Thomas Jefferson
The conflicts in the streets of Charlottesville in August 2017 amplified resistance to universities and municipalities that have elected to relocate memorial statues from highly visible public squares and streets to less prominent places. Likewise, renaming buildings formerly named for leaders of the Confederacy arouses ire.
Delivering the most visceral resistance to what some Southerners see as erasing history are white supremacists, white nationalists, neo-Nazis, alt-rights, Sons of the Confederacy, and the Ku Klux Klan. Does the involvement of these groups make Southerners who are not themselves radicals, uneasy, perhaps, even queasy, though they share the same desire to see these symbols remain in place? One would hope so.
Here in Edenton, we, too, are wrestling with questions about our Confederate soldier, an imposing figure at the foot of South Broad Street near the waterfront. Our mayor and town manager are collecting opinions from townspeople as to what, if anything, should be done about this memorial to Confederate soldiers of Chowan County, and this has stirred strong feelings. At the time of the statue’s completion in 1909, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, its primary endowers, wanted to honor those who had served and to assert the South’s dignity, even in defeat. As memories of the Civil War faded, patriotic Southerners held on to their beliefs of the nobility of “the Lost Cause.”
Many Southerners were convinced that the South’s reasons for seceding from the United States to form a confederation of states as a new nation — The Confederacy — were justifiable. Politicians, wealthy plantation owners, and others with vested interests claimed that each state had the right to choose its destiny-- just as the colonies had chosen to break away from England--and if slavery, “a necessary evil,” was required to maintain the agricultural economy and their Southern way of life, the federal government had no right to interfere. In addition, Southern states wanted non-slave owning states to return fugitives, and they wanted the right to expand slavery into new territories acquired by the federal government.
One need only read the Declarations of Causes of Seceding States to affirm the above causes of the war. President Lincoln and Northern states disagreed. Cotton, tobacco, rice, sugar, and other goods on which the South’s economy was based required many laborers. Census records of 1860 report 3,950,528 slaves were held in Southern states. In North Carolina, 34,658 slaveholders held 331,059 slaves. Along with the labor slaves provided, they represented millions of dollars in human “property”— billions in today’s figures. To be fair to our Southern forebears, the prevailing opinion of the human racial hierarchy--whites on top, blacks on the bottom — went back to the theories of Aristotle in Athens who lived between 384-322 BCE. A contemporary of Aristotle, Alkidamas, had a competing theory, “the deity gave liberty to all men, and nature created no one a slave,” he wrote.
Bible readers of early America used the “curse of Ham” story in Genesis to intimidate slaves and justify their own behaviors. The myth condemned dark-skinned people to a life of servitude. One wonders if they were aware of what Saint Augustine (354-430) said centuries later : “Whoever is born anywhere as a human being, that is, as a rational mortal creature, however strange he may appear to our senses in bodily form or colour or motion or utterance, or in any faculty, part or quality of his nature whatsoever, let no true believer have any doubt that such an individual is descended from the one man who was first created.”
The Puritans, among the first to arrive in America, held to Aristotle’s theories, which supported the beliefs of their Enlightenment English ancestors and the Europeans. Puritans enslaved Indians, and later, Africans brought to Massachusetts in 1638 by Captain William Pierce, who had picked them up in Nicaragua on a trading mission. The Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic universities founded by Puritans in the 17th and 18th centuries, where our founding fathers were educated, revered Aristotle. And thus, his theories of human racial hierarchy passed into the thinking of American elites. (1) Several of the Founding Fathers, including Virginians, Washington and Jefferson, were slaveholders. In 1776, when our founders wrote the Declaration of Independence, and penned that “all men are created equal,” they were thinking of free white men like themselves.
Slaves, learning what was in the Declaration, asked their masters for freedom and were refused. The ambiguity over the meaning intended by “created equal” in the Declaration was resolved in Article One, Section Two, of the United States Constitution, written in 1787, which addressed tax levies for persons and values for determining the number of state representatives to Congress. It placed slaves in the category of persons valued at three-fifths of a person — a little higher than animals, but property, nonetheless. (2)
Amendment Thirteen to the Constitution, ratified December 6, 1865, following the Civil War, outlawed slavery and involuntary servitude, and set the country on a zigzag path towards the acceptance of people of color as equals. While there were anti-slavery supporters and abolitionists in the mid-1800s in Chowan County and elsewhere, the Quakers in particular, most citizens and institutions of faith had come to believe that the souls of slaves could be saved, but their bodies must remain in captivity. (3)
In addition to financing many Confederate memorials, chapters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy across the South made it their mission to see that school textbooks reflected a glowing version of the South’s involvement in the Civil War, and they were quite successful. The undisputed valor of military leaders and common soldiers and the tenacity of the Southern woman during the war were highlighted in Southern textbooks. Devastation to property and social upheaval left by the war were blamed on Northern aggressors and freed blacks. The UDC’s inspirational version of war efforts worked to the South’s advantage to gain sympathy as Southern business interests sought investment from the more industrial North and from Europe. (4)
Most older readers likely learned versions of the Civil War focused on states’ rights to make their own choices, perhaps not remembering those choices revolved around slavery. Politically, the tug of war between states’ rights and federal law continues, as it should and will. History is a fluid affair. Up too close--in the midst of or soon after horrific events--understanding is muddled by patriotism, real sacrifices, personal ties to participants, and the manipulations of people in power.
The facts of complicated conflicts are best understood from the distance that time permits. We know that human worth is not determined by skin color or culture and that slavery — human trafficking — continues to exist. No American should endorse the bondage of another living person, and honoring ancestors who did, no matter how misguided we know they were, is the dilemma we find ourselves in today. Every time I pass our Confederate soldier monument, I will remember this legacy and pray we Southerners pause and think. I want to remember the poor white farmers and townsmen who sacrificed their lives to maintain the status quo of the South. I want to remember the enslaved blacks who labored under fear of severe beatings or worse, and those desperate and brave enough to rebel or escape.
General Robert E. Lee was well known to have opposed memorials to the Confederacy. “I think it wiser not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the example of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife and commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered.” (5)
If and when a Confederate statue is relocated from a public space to one less prominent, this act may be viewed as a visible and concrete statement of repentance, the repentance our Southern ancestors refused to undertake. History will not have been erased but edited for more appropriate emphasis. The void can be filled later with a symbol all could embrace or left as a reminder of ancestors who did not heed what their consciences surely must have told them. The South’s lack of repentance and unyielding white supremacy were incorporated with vengeance into the sabotage of Reconstruction and establishment of Jim Crow laws.
The rise of hate groups and racial strife in the 20th and 21st centuries continues despite Civil Rights‘ legislation and progress. When South Africa ended apartheid, “Truth and Reconciliation” forums were held between white Afrikaners and black township executioners, who had committed atrocities against each other. These were confessionals that led to a justice wrapped in forgiveness rather than punishment, an unprecedented conclusion to generations of segregation and bloodshed. Attending the forums, “Academics, venturing off of their chambered perches, spoke of the little-known aspects of South African history, white and black tribalism, and explained how the National Party (the Afrikaner party) had hijacked public memory.” (6)
Has our “public memory” also been “hijacked?” After World War II, Germany eventually removed its Nazi symbols. We may actually have more swastikas waving their ugly faces in the hands of young white supremacists here in the United States than one sees in Germany, though Germany is experiencing a new wave of bigotry towards Muslim immigrants. My purpose in recounting this history and sharing my thoughts is to offer another way of thinking about the situation to create greater understanding. I would hope that readers might find an appreciation for those who feel no positive attachment to this symbol of an ugly period in our history.
Do we really want our youth to stare up at the statue of a Confederate soldier or general and believe he was a hero fighting for a righteous cause? They will, you know. Without guidance, our youth will idolize these handsome, larger than life symbols. (7) Do these monuments represent our history or the revisionists’ version of a story so awful it must be denied and whitewashed as a tale of glory?
Jo Baker is coordinator of the Racial Reconciliation Group of Edenton United Methodist Church. Group members hold a variety of opinions on this issue and have not come to a consensus. They continue to study and discuss the meaning the statue has for the community.
Notes 1. Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped From The Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, Chapter 1, “Human Hierarchy,” Nation Books, A Member of the Perseus Books Group, New York, 2016, 16 -19. 2. Ibid., Chapter 9, “Created Equal,” 104, 115 -117. 3. Ibid., Chapter 4, “Saving Souls, Not Bodies,” 48 - 51. 4. Tracy Thompson, The New Mind of the South, Chapter 2, “The Big Lie,” Free Press, A Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York, 2013. 45 - 54. 5. Letter to David McConaughty of the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association in 1869 in which Lee declined an invitation to speak. Found at https://www.snopes.com/robert-e-lee-confederate-monuments. 6. Richard D. Mahoney, Director of the School of Public and International Affairs, N. C. State University, The News and Observer, “Opinion,” October 22, 2017. 7. Brian McNeill, “VCU history education professor: How Confederate monuments and the ‘Lost Cause’ narrative distort our understanding of the Civil War,” Virginia Commonwealth University, University Public Affairs. Article updated on October 3, 2017, and it can be found online at http:// news.vcu.edu/article/VCU-history-education-professor-How-Confederate- monuments-and-the-‘Lost Cause’-narrative-distort-our-understanding-of-the- Civil-War 10/5/2017.