Supporting the Confederacy Means Fallacious Thinking and Bad History

With the renewed movement against confederate iconography has come renewed defenses of those symbols. The defenders of those symbols are forced into a whitewashing and fallacious thinking in order to make their case.

Here’s one example. The author makes the patently ridiculous claim that, “The campaign against Confederate heritage is really a campaign against American heritage. The goal is to divide the country into irreconcilable camps for the purpose of waging political warfare. In the end, it’s really about giving up on the idea of America as a place where, despite our many differences, we can be a united and prosperous people.” The confederacy, of course, was an enemy of the United States, and it divided the country into irreconcilable camps for the purpose of waging actual warfare–for the purpose of keeping a society divided into those with white skins who were free and those with black skins who were enslaved.

He next commits the false equivalence fallacy: “Texas House Speaker Joe Straus requested that an old plaque about the Confederacy be removed from the Capitol in Austin. The plaque itself is a piece of mid-twentieth-century Confederate Lost Cause paraphernalia that was erected in 1959, likely in protest of the Civil Rights movement. It claims the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery and the Confederacy wasn’t really a rebellion. Straus, a Republican, wants the thing to come down because it isn’t accurate. And he’s right: the Confederacy was indeed a rebellion, specifically over the issue of slavery. It should probably come down, in part because it probably shouldn’t have been put up in the first place. But in issuing his request, Straus has become the latest well-meaning public figure to blunder into the Confederate monument mêlée under the misperception that it’s all about accurately portraying history. If it were, those calling for the removal of statues and the renaming of schools would have articulated some limiting principle to prevent the defunding of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington DC, or the removal of a Christopher Columbus statue in New York City, or the dynamiting of Mount Rushmore.” Here, the author conflates several separate issues as if they all were about one thing. They aren’t, of course. The confederacy formed and treasonably started a war for the purpose of maintaining slavery and white supremacy. The fringe movements that attack other statues for the slave holding or other bad behavior of their subjects are doing so for separate issues. Neither Jefferson nor the other presidents on Mount Rushmore, to say nothing of Columbus, committed treason against the United States. Nor did they take their actions specifically to maintain slavery and white supremacy. This is one example of the phony patriotism that accompanies defense of traitors to the United States.

In this example of a more genteel defense of a confederate symbol, the author is apparently unaware of the history of the confederate flag. He says, “I want my flag back. I mean the Confederate battle flag. I want it back from the white supremacists and neo-segregationists and neo-fascists who have hijacked it, and from the Yankee liberals who are happy to let them have it.” He has no clue that there hasn’t been any hijacking of that flag. It was always the property of white supremacists, segregationists, and in the case of the confederacy a light form of proto-fascism. In showing he has no idea what the confederacy was about, he writes, “Confederate emblems are offensive and even frightening to most black Southerners, and that’s pretty much the fault of white Southerners, including the good, well-meaning, reasonably humane white folks of the South (a majority, I believe). We (meaning our ancestors) let the segregation regime come to power around the turn of the 20th century. We let the segregationists abuse our history and the symbols of our struggle for independence. We let them use those symbols to enforce a kind of proto-fascism that had nothing to do with the Confederate cause, and everything to do with selling the South to the highest bidder.” Actually, if one reads what the founders of the confederacy had to say, those things had everything to do with the confederate cause. He continues, “When the black people of the South demanded real freedom and equality in the 1950s and ’60s, some white Southerners stood up with them, but all too many of us went on keeping our heads down, while the segregationists wrapped themselves in the Confederate flag. We let our history be taken from us, and maybe we gave up the right to honor what was honorable in it.” He doesn’t know his history. He’s embracing mythology, not history. The actual history is the confederate flag represented an army whose victory meant a continued denial of black freedom for eternity if possible. The segregationists may have wrapped themselves in the confederate flag, but at least their doing so was historically accurate.

As Professor Adam Domby of the College of Charleston tells us in this article, the defenders of confederate iconography are the ones who in actuality are trying to erase history by pushing a fake version of history. He tells us about Virginia State Senator Dick Black. “He has asserted that to remove them is an attempt to erase history, but recently, Black tried his own hand at erasing history. In an email obtained by the Loudoun Times-Mirror, Senator Black stated to fellow lawmakers that ‘None of those soldiers fought to defend slavery,’ and that ‘Soldiers don’t serve for things like that ― trust me, I know. Imagine the men of Picket’s Charge thinking, ‘I’m virtually certain to die in this attack, but I take solace in defending slavery.’ Give me a break.’ There is an irony in Senator Black’s fears that removing monuments would constitute ‘erasing our history,’ while he simultaneously asserts that ‘None of those soldiers fought to defend slavery.’ ” Anyone who’s read Chandra Manning’s book, What This Cruel War Was Over, has read statements from confederate soldiers saying specifically they were fighting to defend slavery. Professor Domby writes, “As a historian who literally wrote his dissertation on Loudoun County, I can say unequivocally some Loudoun Confederates did fight for slavery. You need look no further than the most famous Confederate in the history of the Senator’s home county of Loudoun, Col. John Singleton Mosby, the ‘Grey Ghost’ himself. One of the most notorious Confederate guerrillas, Mosby based many of his operations harassing Union supply lines out of Loudoun County. Writing to a friend in 1907, Mosby complained that former Confederates were retroactively rewriting the cause of the war to make their fight seem more noble 40 years after the fact. In the letter Mosby argued southerners should stop trying to hide what they fought for, writing ‘People must be judged by the standard of their own age. If it was right to own slaves as property it was right to fight for it. The South went to war on account of Slavery. South Carolina went to war ― as she said in her Secession proclamation ― because slavery [would] not be secure under Lincoln. South Carolina ought to know what was the cause for her seceding. […]I am not ashamed of having fought on the side of slavery.’ I think Mosby knew better than the senator what he and his men fought for.” He tells us, “Efforts to erase history from America’s collective memory are not new. The men and women who put up Confederate monuments were doing just that when they tried to make Americans forget what the war was quintessentially over: slavery. They erased the cause they fought for in their monument inscriptions, speeches, and memoirs. As historian Aaron Astor recently pointed out, the ‘first ‘PC’ movement was led by the United Daughters of the Confederacy’ in the early twentieth century as they worked to purge textbooks (and get teachers fired) that treated the Confederacy as anything less than valiant and noble. Mosby detested this ahistorical revisionism that his fellow veterans were engaging in, which is what his 1907 letter was about. In many ways, recent efforts to remove Confederate monuments or contextualize them with additional plaques can be seen as an effort to write a more accurate history upon the landscape.” In addressing Mr. Black’s imagining what the men of the Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble Charge thought, Professor Domby writes, “In general, historians do not consider the imagination a reliable source to cite. While the Senator might not be able to imagine soldiers at Pickett’s Charge fighting for slavery, sources show that the Confederate soldiers of Loudoun County did just that in 1863.”

In this article we see the phony patriotism of confederate iconography worshipers being called out. “Consider Beth Mizell, the Republican state senator from Franklinton who failed in her attempts to protect four Confederate monuments in New Orleans from being removed.  In June, she released a 4-minute video explaining her opposition to the monument-removal trend.  It includes this doozy: ‘No real citizen was screaming for those monuments to be torn down, but now they’re gone.’ ” “No real citizen?” That’s rich. As we see, “You’re a citizen of the United States at birth if you were born in the United States or one of its territories; or if you were born abroad to parents who were citizens. You can also be foreign-born and apply for naturalization.  Everybody I know personally who was opposed to the monuments to Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, P.G.T. Beauregard and the White League is a citizen, a real citizen. Mizell is doing that thing that so many conservative politicians do: dismissing people who disagree with their opinions as phony or fraudulent Americans, as inauthentic. She doesn’t even concede that the anger at the monuments might be real, vowing to keep fighting to protect disputed monuments ‘regardless of who wants to pretend to be offended.’ In her mixed-up worldview, being an American means honoring those people who took up arms against America to perpetuate the enslavement of black people.” The op-ed writer says, “It certainly is confusing to hear people declare allegiance to the United States flag at the same time that they’re weeping at the removal of Confederate flags and monuments. Some people might believe that some black people are sending mixed messages when they criticize they, say,  properly criticize the Confederate battle flag as treasonous and racist and at the same time support professional athletes who kneel during the national anthem.  But it should be fairly easy to understand:  Most sensible black people hate the Confederacy and its images and find it foolish that anybody would expect them to harbor anything other than hatred for the army that fought for their ancestors’ enslavement. Protests that intersect with displays of the United States flag aren’t coming from a place of hatred but disappointment:  How come America isn’t as good as she claims to be? Why won’t Americans collectively demand that everybody be treated fairly and justly?  In a country that has a Constitution and says it follows the rule of law, how is that police officers, government agents, get to kill black people with near impunity?”

Slate published this piece on a group that’s one of the biggest defenders of the confederacy, the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV). The writer tells us of her interview with Frank Earnest of the Virginia Division of the SCV and their walk through Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery. “We linger at the mausoleum of Jefferson Davis, whom my escort refers to as ‘the president.’ ‘You probably don’t like President Trump, and to be honest I’m not too thrilled with President Obama,’ he tells me. ‘But like it or not, they were president, and President Davis was our president.’ I must look skeptical. ‘Aren’t you the folks who want to go around giving everyone a participation trophy?’ he snaps. The bronze effigy of Davis winks in the sunshine, a participation trophy if I’ve ever seen one. Earnest, meanwhile, has withdrawn once more into the 19th century. Not among these dead, he intones, is Davis’ son Jim Limber, a black boy freed and then adopted by Davis’ wife. ‘Union troops took Jim Limber away’ when the first couple of the Confederacy retreated to Danville, Virginia, he says mournfully. ‘They didn’t think it was right to have an African child in a white family. But I tell people that we Southerners were way ahead of President Obama: We put a black in the Confederate White House.’ ” Of course, just like with everything else the SCV does about history, what Mr. Earnest is offering is a bunch of fake history and fairy tales dressed up to sound like history. In reality it’s a bunch of lies, as the writer finds out. “I’ll learn later that the horse thief who placed the stone atop Hollywood Cemetery’s pyramid was not pardoned but ‘transferred,’ that the fairy-tale image of Pickett’s soldiers pulling his coach to the railroad has no basis in reality, and that Mrs. Davis plucked Jim Limber from his home without much thought while the circumstances surrounding the child’s disappearance during the Civil War remain murky. In telling a series of made-up stories about the South and its standard bearers, Earnest was just doing his job. He serves as heritage defense coordinator and spokesman for the Virginia division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a group that has avowed to teach ‘the true history of the War Between the States, especially in these times when our heritage is under constant attack.’ ”

What she refers to as “the Myth of Dixie” “has long served as a kind of racism laundry service. Most of the country’s Confederate statuary wasn’t built until the first third of the 20th century, as part of an advertising campaign for white supremacy. The monuments, many of them commissioned by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, sold ‘separate but equal’ by shrouding racism in sepia romance, glorifying a status quo in which Southern whites didn’t have to sit next to black people on the bus or compete with them for jobs. Mass-produced cheaply in Northern factories and shipped down South by railroad, likenesses of John Pelham, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Raphael Semmes, and Patrick Cleburne incarnated a tenuous moral argument, one that went something like: We don’t disrespect black people. We’re just reveling in the courage of those who took up arms against Lincoln’s aggression. We stand not for hate but for heritage. But the statues stood for both, united in an inextricable skein. Why else connect Jim Crow to Jefferson Davis?”

In writing about the SCV, she says, “In the last few decades, Earnest’s society has retooled itself into the propagandist arm of a vanished regime. Once a haven for history buffs and genealogical researchers, the SCV now champions Dixie ‘heritage,’ often in the courts. The group has pursued lawsuits against local governments for planning to remove Confederate monuments, against the state of Texas for declining to offer Confederacy-themed vanity plates, and against a Virginia school for chastising a ‘young lady wishing to express her pride in her Southern heritage by wearing Confederate themed clothing.’ Like the government it exalts, the SCV is loosely organized: Regional branches do the legwork of raising money for new sculptures, lobbying private landowners to instate them, swarming city council meetings, and organizing festivals and unveilings. They also maintain several livelyFacebook pages, on which you can browse through photos of historical re-enactments, order an official SCV blazer, sign up to clean Confederate headstones, and read slanted press coverage of the culture wars.”

She lists some of the historical lies she was told by various SCV members: “For the past few weeks, I’ve spent hours on the phone and in person listening to the Sons of Confederate Veterans tell me that everything I think I know about their forebears is wrong. If the Civil War was not about slavery, then what was it about? Taxes, naturally. Freedom and self-determination. It was about Lincoln sailing hostile ships into the sovereign waters of South Carolina, provoking Confederate forces into firing the first shot. The president said it himself in his first inaugural: I have no purpose to interfere with slavery, no lawful right, no inclination. Lincoln invaded for the sole purpose of maintaining properties belonging to the U.S. government. He invaded because the South was too beautiful and proud and powerful. Did you know that the Emancipation Proclamation of 1862 was conditional upon the South not rejoining the Union? Did you know that slavery was legal in the North? Only 6 percent of Southerners ran large plantations with multiple slaves. The Civil War was about brotherhood. Jefferson Davis understood that secession would mean the end of slavery, and he was fine with that. Southerners opposed slavery—even the slave owners!—but they wanted it to end on natural terms. It was about God and family. Have you heard of the Missouri Compromise? The Civil War was about honor. In this poetic narrative, the South seceded from the Union to enshrine states’ rights in law, with race forming a distant second or third consideration. The SCV isn’t fighting to protect a set of historical facts about the Civil War so much as it’s fighting to control who interprets those facts and assembles them into a bildungsroman for the nation. The fantasy of the Lost Cause is a dream of white American innocence, one in which slavery is elided or explained away.”

The SCV, of course, has its own brand of “political correctness.” “For clarity on the tolerance question, Jones encouraged me to speak to the SCV’s “multiple” black members. When I asked for names, he could only come up with Nelson Winbush, an 88-year-old retired assistant principal from Kissimmee, Florida. Winbush, who as perhaps the lone black affiliate of the SCV boasts his own Wikipedia page, did not reply to my request for comment. But the Tampa Bay Times reports that his enslaved grandfather was pressed into fighting for the Confederacy; the younger Winbush has been known to sing at public events that ‘black is only a darker shade of rebel gray.’ ” The SCV, of course, is at least consistent in maintaining the lies. “Earnest isn’t interested in relaxing his chokehold on those narratives. He prefers to excuse the South swiftly so we can all go back to venerating it. ‘I’m not saying slavery wasn’t an issue,’ he says. ‘It was an evil that should have been ended, and thank God it was.’ But he explains that the peculiar institution amounted to ‘a national sin, not a Southern sin,’ one for which the Confederacy was unfairly scapegoated. He reminds me that slaves first arrived on this country’s shores in ships flying the American flag. ‘If slavery was a drug and Southerners were users,’ he insists, ‘the Northerners were the dealers.’ And setting aside that false equivalence, was human bondage really so terrible? ‘I agree with the South’s cause,’ Block told me on the phone, repeating himself when I noted that the South’s cause included the propagation of slavery. ‘It can’t be all bad or the black folks wouldn’t have put up with it.’ Earnest’s friend Edwin Ray glowingly detailed the ‘close ties of affection’ binding owners and chattel. ‘It’s a myth that slavery was always violent and evil,’ he said.”

Continuing the pursuit of “political correctness” among confederate heritage instead of history advocates, a couple of legislators in South Carolina are trying to push the black confederate myth by trying to get a statue erected to the phantom black confederates. Not surprisingly, the SCV is involved in this as well. Kevin Levin has an op-ed article addressing this attempt. “As calls for removal increased in the days after the murders the South Carolina Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) issued the following public statement: ‘Historical fact shows there were Black Confederate soldiers. These brave men fought in the trenches beside their White brothers, all under the Confederate Battle Flag. This same Flag stands as a memorial to these soldiers on the grounds of the SC Statehouse today. The Sons of Confederate Veterans, a historical honor society, does not delineate which Confederate soldier we will remember or honor. We cherish and revere the memory of all Confederate veterans. None of them, Black or White, shall be forgotten.’ The SCV offered this argument not only to stem the tide of calls to lower the Confederate flag in Columbia, but to suggest that the flag has nothing at all to do with racial divisions in South Carolina. Since black men fought willingly for the Confederacy, the argument runs, the preservation of slavery and white supremacy could not have been its goal. The Confederate flag—properly understood—ought to unite black and white South Carolinians. According to the SCV, Roof’s violent act and close identification with the Confederate flag was the product of the ‘deranged mind of a horrendous individual.’ ”

In talking about how this myth came about, Kevin writes, “What few people understand, including Reps. Burns and Chumley, is that the black Confederate narrative is a fairly recent phenomenon. The proliferation of these stories and the zeal for the black Confederate soldier expressed by many would be alien to their Confederate ancestors, who lived under a constitution strongly devoted to protecting slavery and white supremacy. It was not until March 1865—after a contentious debate that took place throughout the Confederacy—that the Confederate Congress passed legislation authorizing the enlistment of slaves who were first freed by their masters. Even those who finally came to support the legislation as the only alternative to defeat would have agreed with Howell Cobb: ‘If slaves will make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong.’ Other than a small number that briefly trained in Richmond, Virginia, no black men served openly and there is no evidence that the Richmond recruits saw the battlefield in the final weeks of the war. Throughout the postwar period and much of the 20th century, stories of loyal black Confederate soldiers were decidedly absent. This changed in 1977 following the release and success of the popular television series ‘Roots.’ At the time, the leadership within the SCV expressed concern over how the institution of slavery and race relations were portrayed as well as the Confederacy itself. SCV Commander-in-Chief Dean Boggs called on members to research the contributions of African Americans to the Confederate war effort to counter the show’s ‘propaganda.’ Boggs claimed that, ‘Politics often ignores the truth, and the truth is that the majority of Southern Negroes, slave and free, sided [with] the Confederate effort tremendously. Some were under arms and in combat.’ Broader interpretive shifts in the decades since ‘Roots’ and a willingness to explore slavery, race, emancipation, and the service of United States Colored Troops at museums, historic sites, in history textbooks, at National Parks, and in popular movies such as ‘Glory,’ ’12 Years a Slave,’ and ‘Lincoln,’ has magnified the importance of the black Confederate narrative for the SCV and others committed to a mythical past.” Kevin correctly, in my view, identifies this move as a move to try to gain support for confederate monuments.

Professor Domby is back again with this op-ed article addressing the proposal. He says it “seems more like an attempt to rewrite history to make the Confederacy look better to modern sensibilities.” In discussing some of the fake history behind the proposal, Professor Domby says, “The representatives point to 328 pensions given to former slaves and free people of color during the 1920s and 1930s as evidence of black Confederates soldiers who ‘loved their state’ so much that they ‘fought courageously’ against the United States military. This is historically inaccurate. These pensions are not evidence of black Confederates. Instead, it merely shows that ex-slaves who had been forced to labor for the Confederacy through the threat of violence in the 1860s took advantage of an opportunity in the 1920s to receive back pay. Most of these black pensioners labored for the Confederacy because their masters took them to war; slaves, by definition, cannot volunteer as they do not own the rights to their own labor. Those eligible for pensions were explicitly referred to as ‘body Servants or male camp cooks,’ not soldiers. Indeed, the enlistment of African-Americans in the Confederate Army was barred until March 1865; even then, a last-ditch plan to preserve slavery by freeing a select group of slaves in exchange for fighting was never fully implemented. As an attorney general’s opinion explained, the purpose of the 1923 state law creating the pensions was to reward ‘the negros who were faithful when the war was raging,’ provided that ‘since the war has ended their conduct has been such as to meet the approval of the county board of honor.’ That is, an applicant who was not respectful and subservient risked the all-white pension board denying his application from the start. The pensions were literally used as another tool of racial control during the Jim Crow-era. Pensions for African-Americans weren’t authorized until years after the creation of similar pensions for Confederate veterans. Even then, they were capped at $25 annually. In reality, even less was paid. In 1925 a former slave could expect to receive $8 annually, while white veterans might expect as much as $115. After the state received too many applicants under the 1923 law authorizing ‘cooks, servants, or attendants’ to apply, the Legislature amended the law after just one year to make laborers and teamsters ineligible. In 1928, black pensioners did not receive even one half of one percent of the money South Carolina spent on war pensions. Widows of black pensioners were not eligible for the pensions that veterans’ widows received because, as North Carolina’s state auditor noted in 1926 about a similar inequality in eligibility in that state, ‘there were no negro soldiers in the Confederate Army.’ In the minds of Southern legislators, African-Americans deserved and required less than whites. To give an equal pension to former slaves would have contradicted the racial hierarchy of the Jim Crow South.” He tells us, “Pension records have consistently failed to provide evidence of the thousands of black Confederate volunteers that neo-Confederates keep claiming existed. Instead, they show that a few hundred indigent, formerly enslaved people utilized a system designed to oppress them. If anything they deserve a monument for surviving slavery and Jim Crow.”

It’s difficult enough to research and find a full and accurate story about the past. Groups like the SCV and the rest of the heritage instead of history crowd make it tougher by polluting the record with lies, disinformation, and other forms of fake history.

3 comments

  1. The density of good information is this entry is pretty amazing, Al.

    So many fallacies to choose from, but the straw man statement I thought doubly flawed: “It’s a myth that slavery was always violent and evil.” Oh, I’m sure there were a few slave owners who treated their slaves well. I think most folks who’ve studied the Civil War era wouldn’t use “always” in that sentence. Straw man. That being said, thinking about those words for even a few seconds leads us to the inescapable conclusion that the statement means that slavery was ok as long as it was only violent and evil some (or half, or most) of the time. Don’t these guys think about the things they say for even a few seconds?

    Like Forrest and his farewell speech to his troops, Mosby’s statements are a refreshing bit of honorable honesty. In the context he offers, I can even accept that “People must be judged by the standard of their own age.” Or, at least we might consider doing so if they are otherwise honest and honorable.

    As we’ve discussed before, Al, I feel that if Lost Cause apologists could be as honest (even if still wrong about their cause) as Mosby, we could have a mutually respectful dialog. I do hold out hope that some of them may be able to do that someday. I think you’ve said it’ll never happen. 😉

    1. Bert, if those who were knowledgeable were honest, they wouldn’t be lost cause apologists. If those who were honest were knowledgeable, they wouldn’t be lost cause apologists. 🙂

      1. Touche! 🙂

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