Is Celebrating the Confederacy Offensive?

I came across this article by Robert E. May, a professor of history at Purdue University.  He says it is offensive to celebrate the confederacy.  Is he right?

He asks, “Is the purpose to intimidate African-Americans with a symbol of white racial supremacy?”  His answer is, “Undoubtedly so, for many displayers.”  Many, not all.  Of those who don’t have that purpose, he writes, “Clearly, for many others, Confederate symbolism represents a way to venerate ancestors who fought in the Civil War or admiration for the skills and bravery of the Confederate officers and soldiers they have read or heard about The historian James C. Cobb, in his book ‘Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity,’ takes note of the many European ‘bad-boy bikers,’ street gangs and others of the ‘boogie-till-you-puke crowd’ who use Confederate symbolism as a ‘countercultural message’ to their societies.”

His thesis in the article is, “It was the rallying symbol of a nation dedicated to the preservation of slavery in North America. If we cast a clear eye on the events that created the Confederate States of America in the first place, we can see just why celebrating the Confederacy is offensive.”

His first point in support of that position is, “First, we need to recall that although sectional bitterness between the North and the South began decades before the Civil War, the Southern states never would have left the Union and formed the Confederacy in the winter of 1860-1861 had not a high percentage of Southerners decided that the newly elected U.S. president Abraham Lincoln and his antislavery Republican Party posed either an immediate or long-term threat to slavery (or what they euphemistically often called their ‘institutions’).”

His second point is, “Second, we need to recall just how the Confederacy was created: Southern state legislatures called for elections of delegates to special state conventions, which were given authority to pull their states out of the Union by majority vote of the attendees. … These legislatures and state conventions were disproportionately in the hands of slaveholders, even though only a minority of white Southern families owned slaves.”

His final supporting point is, “Finally, we need, simply, to listen — listen to what Confederate leaders said while they were in the process of creating their new nation. Mississippi’s secession convention felt a need to explain to the state’s citizens (and the world) why it was taking the drastic step of leaving the Union.  Its ‘Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union’ said, unabashedly: ‘Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world.’ ”

Additionally, he quotes Alexander Stephens in his famous “Cornerstone Speech:”  “In a speech in Savannah about a month after the Confederacy was formed, the new nation’s vice president, Alexander Stephens, told his audience that the Confederacy was an attempt to reverse Thomas Jefferson’s ideals of equality. Rather, ‘Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its … cornerstone rests upon the great truth … that slavery — subordination to the superior race’ was the appropriate role for African-Americans.”

He allows that “Most of Dixie’s soldiers probably did not go marching off to war as crusaders for slavery. Many were driven by hopes of defending their state, homes and families, and others had romantic thoughts of adventure or achieving fame in battle. Some did not even want to fight at all — they were drafted.”

However, that doesn’t let the confederacy off the hook.  “Regardless, they were fighting for a nation designed to perpetuate slavery forever in the United States and possibly extend it southward into Latin America. The Confederacy’s leaders were fortunate to escape being hung or jailed for treason when they lost. They hardly deserve celebratory remembrances today. Displaying their flag is an insult not only to African-Americans but also to all Americans who believe in human equality.”

I would differentiate between the confederacy and individual confederate soldiers.  I think descendants of confederate soldiers are more than justified in honoring their ancestors.  I think Professor May’s article doesn’t make that distinction, whether he intended to or not.  I think many individual confederates had admirable qualities, and I see nothing wrong with giving them due recognition.  I submit that’s not the same as celebrating the confederacy.

What do you think?

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14 comments

  1. I agree entirely with your last paragraph. IIRC, Shelby Foote put it well when he said that he felt soldiers on both sides fought bravely for what they believed to be right. But I see the problem is how CSA soldiers’ descendants go about it. This becomes a whole new animal when they trot out the symbols and sometimes even the rhetoric connected with racism and the postwar reign of terror against the freedmen. Even something as subtle as “The South was right!” understandably evokes negative emotions in those who were the targets of the slave system.

    A compromise I’ve mentioned before would allow them to honor their ancestors without all that negative baggage and historical distortion. Just acknowledge that the southern states originally seceded to preserve slavery, but that independence alone quickly evolved as a main war aim. Jeff Davis implied something to that effect in 1864. And that’s even somewhat believable. After all, Federal war aims changed during the war from entirely preservation of the Union to also embrace ending slavery. This way, they’d be honoring those who fought for the evolved war aim of independence. But no, the Lost Cause mythos is so much more attractive. Oh well.

    1. The problem with that, Bert, is that it’s very clear throughout that the reason they wanted their independence was slavery. While Davis did claim in one instance to not be fighting for slavery, that goal never changed. Even when they offered emancipation for slaves who fought for them, they did so in order to keep the rest in slavery. That’s clear from the legislation they produced.

      1. IMHO far more of the political elites-wealthy slave owners-who controlled the CSA viewed the CSA nation both in its creation and its continuance as a means to an end-the protection of slave labor- rather than an end unto itself, an independent Southern nation based on some State centric view of constitutional government. It is said that they were willing to sacrifice their sons, but not their slaves.

        Personally I think merely teaching the factual history and government neutrality will resolve the issue. Interest in the CSA is declining with fewer and fewer folks participating in ‘offensive’ activities over time. There is the question of how does one determine ‘offense’ without mucking up freedom of speech and association ,what elite is given that power and by whom. Is offense going to be determined by race, polls, elections, some scientific metric or ???.

        1. I think we can agree that the First Amendment protects offensive speech from government interference, if we as a society determine celebrating the confederacy to be offensive. I think a consensus of what is offensive eventually gets determined. For example, there’s a consensus now that the “n-word” is offensive and you don’t generally hear it in polite company or in professional settings unless someone is quoting a historical figure. There’s no poll or metric or election. Of course I agree completely that factual history needs to be taught, but I’m not sure what you mean by government neutrality–neutrality in what?

          1. government neutrality–Not flying CSA related flags on govt buildings as expression of public policy, teaching Lost Cause as history or building CSA monuments, not bulldozing said monuments or interfering with private recognition of the CSA. .

          2. I think we can agree that the First Amendment protects private recognition and being accurate would preclude teaching the lost cause. As to monuments, it seems to me that depends on the power structure in the locality. If the people in that locality want such monument erected or destroyed, they have the political power to do so, and it seems to me that is appropriate. As to flying CSA flags on government buildings, and understanding it has been done in the past and that CSA motifs are still incorporated in some state flags, most overtly in Mississippi [and it seems to me that it fits in with “CSA related flags in your post], it seems to me that no government in the US has any business flying a specifically CSA flag [not just a flag that is related by having a CSA flag motif] on a government building in a sovereignty context. I think the sovereignty context is the key.

  2. Oh, of course I agree. But what IMO makes this a legit compromise is that the average non-slaveholding fighting man might not have considered it that far (as you say, making a distinction between the confederacy and individual confederate soldiers). And those confederate soldiers are ones who we think descendants may be justified in honoring.

    1. It seems to me the average confederate soldier was smart enough to know what the confederacy was all about and accepted that one of the things he was fighting for was the continuation of slavery. Note the use of “accepted.” It may or may not have been his primary motivator, but he accepted that it was part of his effort. I don’t think it makes these guys evil, because their whole system was based on slavery, and they perceived that protecting slavery was also protecting their families.

  3. My knowledge and expertise on the Civil War is minimal compared to yours.
    However you have asked a question I find interesting.

    I think in reviewing their leaders own words on why the South seceded from Jefferson Davis, Mosby (The Gray Ghost) and Alexander Stephens to the documents of various states slavery is spelled out clearly as the reason for secession. The mindset and positions of John Calhoun permeates all their writings. “Abolition and Union cannot exist.”

    When we observe in history the blatant “white supremacy” held as “normal” among many of that day. When we look at the insidious efforts during Lincoln’s two elections to Africanize him and spread this miscegenation illusion from politics to the pulpit it seems clear to me this should repulse any objective person from the North or the South.

    These memes are never mentioned or are played down in their celebration of the “Lost Cause.”
    Landing on the wrong side of history isn’t easy to swallow.
    These historical realities are sanitized from their honoring their break with the Union.

    Also sanitized is the death and terror of life in the South after Reconstruction ended and the constitutional rights of citizens were trampled on along with their physical being.

    We may be able to try and separate the German solider of WWII from the insane policies of Hitler and the Nazi regime but Germany itself is full of the reminders of all the atrocities of that Nazi regime no matter what the individual soldier of the German military stood for.

    I would find it rather odd that German-Americans somehow would try and sanitize history and the atrocities of Hitler in a celebration of German culture and history in justifying their support of the German cause in WWII.

    In my opinion how do you separate a modern Confederate Ball from the savagery of the institution of slavery, the injustice and human rights violations and the murder and terror used to enforce those cultural standards? It almost seems embarrassing to me they would try.
    No wonder the “Lost Cause” was born out of a need to numb the pain of landing so far on the wrong side of history and the promise of our democracy and constitution for all citizens.

    How different things look when you are on the receiving end of why the South seceded.
    How different things look when you are not part of the Confederate Ball not because you were not born in the South but because your skin was brown when you were born.
    To me it would be offensive if South Africa held celebrations of their “apartheid system” celebrating this as something positive about their heritage and the history of apartheid.
    To me it would be offensive if Germany held celebrations of their “Nazi heritage” as something positive and cultural as they sanitized Hitler’s influence.
    To me as an American it would be offensive if we celebrated the atrocities of how Native Americans were treated and killed as part of the “good old days.”
    To me as an American it would be offensive to celebrate the Mississippi mindset born out of the Civil War era in the killing of three young men registering people to vote.

    It is one thing to remember a relative who fought for the Confederacy it is another thing to honor a system of “white supremacy” that used slavery as its economic backbone and not recognize these elements of injustice and the atrocities this system imposed on others.

    I express this as a Caucasian American and cannot even begin to feel what those who to this day are still affected by the dogma that permeated the South during the Civil War era.

    Thanks for letting me express my opinion to your question.

    1. Thanks for your comments.

  4. Jimmy Dick · · Reply

    As far as I am concerned, there is no good reason to celebrate the confederacy. It was an attempt to destroy what the Founders of the US had fought for in the name of preserving slavery. It failed and ended. What we should be remembering the confederacy for is why it came about. Unfortunately, there are those today who choose to deliberately create a false version of history mainly because they do not want to admit their ancestors fought for the right to own human beings. In the process they dishonor their ancestors.

    The people of the past did what they did for their reasons, not ours. They acted within the constraints of their era, not ours. They had their interests and beliefs to support, not ours. The past is literally a foreign country because it is not about us, but about the people who lived in it. They do things differently there! (shamelessly ripping L.P. Hartley off)

    This is the biggest problem when dealing with those who want to celebrate the Confederacy. They do not want to acknowledge the past for what it was. They want a version that supports their modern interests and beliefs. Well, too bad because history does not work that way. It exists on its own terms.

    If people want to recognize their ancestors, they have every right to do so. However, they have to confront the past in all of its glory and ugliness including what their ancestors did. None of us have squeaky clean ancestors. That is human reality. They did what they did for their reasons. They were humans.

    The history of humanity is a tale of human progression with many periods of regression. Societies and cultures that ceased to progress forward cease to exist. Rome was great on its terms, but we would never think about installing everything Roman into our society today. We would take what we deem good and reject what we deemed bad just as the Founders did with Greco-Roman law and democratic ideas. They rejected the parts they deemed wrong. If anyone wants to study the confederacy they need to do the same. The only way to do that is to acknowledge the truth, otherwise they would be repeating the same mistakes their ancestors did. I believe George Santayana said something about that.

  5. jfepperson · · Reply

    I’m going to be a mathematician and insist that “celebrate” needs to be well-defined before we can answer the question. Do we mean celebrate in the way the LoS, Flaggers, modern SCV, et al. appear to mean it? Yes, I find that offensive. Do we mean it in the sense of, say, DS Freeman’s study of the AoNV and its commander? No, that is not offensive, even though Freeman was very sympathetic to the Confederacy.

    1. According to Merriam-Webster, “to praise (someone or something): to say that (someone or something) is great.” As the confederacy was a thing, then applying this definition to the confederacy would be, “to praise the confederacy: to say that the confederacy was great.” I don’t see Freeman as praising the confederacy, or even all that sympathetic to the confederacy itself. I see him praising Lee and some of the leadership of the confederacy, but not the confederacy itself.

      1. Using that definition, I would say that “celebrating the Confederacy” is indeed offensive.

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