In 1913, speaking at the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, President Woodrow Wilson told the aged veterans of both the Blue and the Gray that the Civil War had become “a quarrel forgotten.”
After last week’s racially motivated mass murder of nine black people in a Charleston, South Carolina, church and the national uproar over the Confederate battle flag the suspected killer embraced, author William Faulkner was more accurate when he wrote in “Requiem for a Nun”: “The past is never dead. In fact, it’s not even past.”
Faulkner’s words, written in 1951, remain an accurate description of some white Southerners when it comes to the Civil War — or as someone once corrected me, the War of Northern Aggression. The conflict is hardly forgotten, and all the issues it raised are still contested territory — 150 years after Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses Grant.
Even though more books have been written about the Civil War than any other event in U.S. history, there are still conflicting perspectives and interpretations of its causes. According to members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the heritage group behind the huge flag that flies near the intersection of interstates 4 and 75, the war was about tariffs, states’ rights and federal usurpation; slavery was but a peripheral issue.
That nonsense is part of what Stan Deaton of the Georgia Historical Society calls “the lost-cause narrative.” As he told The Associated Press: “The monuments are never about slavery. They’re never about treason. They’re always about noble virtues like honor and valor. They didn’t have a problem acknowledging the reasons for the war in 1861. Their descendants have a problem with it today.”
And while it’s true that most Confederate soldiers didn’t own slaves, they were fighting to preserve what was essentially a slavocracy.
Don’t take my word for it; just read what Southerners had to say at the time about what the Confederate States of America stood for.
In the “cornerstone speech” delivered by Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy, in 1861, he stated that the new nation’s “foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro (sic) is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.” Stephens said slavery was “the immediate cause of the rupture and our present revolution.”
Also, if you read the secession declarations of states like Texas and Mississippi, the institution of slavery is promoted as their primary reason for leaving the Union.
That’s why so many blacks see the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of oppression. It’s also why so many white supremacist groups wave it, since many of their members don’t have a Southern heritage to celebrate.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn has called for the removal of the battle flag at I-4 and I-275, even though it sits on private property. I’ve passed it many times since it went up in 2008, but I’ve never let it bother me. I simply look away, look away, and will continue to do so.
It’s likely to stay there for some time, however. The folks who fought under that flag were called rebels, remember? Many of their descendants are just as defiant and will defend it forever. If they wish to honor their ancestors who fought and died for a cause they believed in, fine, even if I disagree with it.
What is bothering me about this national movement to ban public displays of the Confederate flag is that in our desire to do something constructive in the aftermath of the Charleston massacre, we have suddenly turned it into a weapon of mass intimidation. Also, we’re focusing more on that banner than the racist killer who wrapped himself in it.
No matter what happens on the flag issue, we need to remember who won the war. And keep in mind that they don’t call the old Confederacy the lost cause for nothing.