As you may recall, on June 17, Dylann Roof, a young, white racist, shot and killed nine African Americans at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Before the murders, Roof had taken photos of himself (posted on Facebook and a personal web site) holding a Confederate flag. In other images, he wore a jacket that had patches of the South African and Rhodesian flags from the apartheid era. The apparent close connection between Roof’s racism, the murders, and the flags led to renewed calls that the Confederate battle flag be removed from the grounds of the South Carolina state house where it had been flying since 2000 (before that point, it had flown atop the capitol dome for the previous forty years). After both houses of the state legislature voted to remove the flag and the governor, Nikki Haley, signed the legislation, the banner was lowered for the final time on July 10. The debates in the legislature and discussions in the press revolved around the meaning and significance of the Confederate flag. In other words, this controversy involved history and memory.
For a blog that drones on and on about history and memory (witness our last post), One Thing after Another has been conspicuously silent about this matter until now. This blog usually uses an online essay as a point of departure for its own meditations, but in this particular case, One Thing after Another has not found anything to its liking. This blog suspects that the lack of suitable material has something to do with the shortcomings of modern journalism. For one thing, journalists do not have proper backgrounds and article-length pieces do not provide sufficient space to treat a complex topic of this sort. For another, much journalism has become a matter of point-scoring rather than an attempt to tease out the complexity of various issues.
Fortunately, through a strange conjunction of circumstances, One Thing after Another has found a very useful work that helps make sense of the question: Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War (1998). Horwitz, a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal, spent a great deal of time overseas covering a series of wars before returning to the United States. Confederates in the Attic starts and concludes with a meditation on Horwitz’s own fascination with the Civil War (as a child, he painted a mural of the conflict in the attic of his boyhood home—hence the title of the book). Most of the work, however, is a travelogue that describes Horwitz’s attempts to understand how Southerners remember the conflict and what it means to them. Horowitz visited most of the former Confederate states and spoke to a wide variety of people. These included reenactors, museum curators, white supremacists, municipal officials, members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy/Sons of Confederate Veterans, National Park Service rangers, community activists, teachers, and even strangers in bars, to name just a few. For the most part, Horwitz’s interviewees were everyday people, but he did have an eye for the unusual and fantastic. Among others, he spoke to Robert Lee Hodge, a “hardcore” reenactor who, in his quest for authenticity, never washed his Confederate uniform and oiled his beard with bacon grease; Alberta Martin, who was then considered the last surviving Confederate widow; Melly Meadows, a well-known Scarlett O’Hara impersonator who was a favorite among Japanese tourists; and Shelby Foote, a native of Mississippi who wrote a best-selling history of the Civil War and appeared in Ken Burns’ famous documentary on the conflict.
By turns, the book is funny, informative, depressing, and reflective. The beauty of this travelogue is that Horwitz does not tell his readers what to think. For sure, his sympathies are clear (Northern victory was a good thing, and racism has no place in the modern world), and he subtly pushes certain themes to the fore. Nonetheless, he displays a fair amount of empathy with his interlocutors as he allows them to tell their stories. What emerges from this book is a complex picture of Southerners’ relationship to the Civil War. The South is perhaps the most distinctive yet misunderstood region in the United States. It is often referred to as the “Solid South” to describe its political unity, but as Horwitz reveals, the area contains an enormous diversity of opinion; Southerners think of the war and the Confederacy in wildly different ways. As Horwitz encounters everything from members of the Ku Klux Klan to those who would prefer to ignore the war altogether (or who have even forgotten it), it becomes clear that the memory of the conflict frequently has little to do with the conflict itself—indeed, it has everything to do with what is happening now. For white supremacists, the flag is about halting integration and preserving the white race. For businessmen and municipal leaders, the Confederate past represents an economic opportunity. For those left behind by the economy, Confederate heritage is a way of holding onto a distinct identity associated with traditional, community-oriented values in the face of a rapacious capitalism often identified with the Yankee. For reenactors (especially the “hardcore”), the war, crazy as it might sound, is a portal that allows them an opportunity to travel in time. For those interested in genealogy, the knowledge that a great-great-grandfather fought in the conflict provides a thrilling connection to the greatest event in American history—one in which they feel pride as they contemplate the prowess of Confederate arms. For conservative politicians, the Confederacy is about states’ rights and the necessity of halting Federal encroachments on individual liberties. For Southerners fatigued by the way in which the rest of the country caricatures them, the Confederacy has become a kind of ideal that they can use to counter those stereotypes. For those in Fitzgerald, Georgia (you’ll have to read Horwitz’s book), the war’s main meaning is associated with reconciliation. For progressives, the Confederacy is an embarrassment. The list could go on and on. For sure, all of these categories overlap to some degree, but the war’s meaning varies from person to person, and it would seem that the significance of the Confederate battle flag, like any other symbol, is mutable and multifarious.
Of course, when it comes to memory of the Confederacy in the South, the most profound division exists between whites and African Americans. Although, unsurprisingly, African Americans tend to see the Confederacy in a dim light, Horwitz finds a surprising diversity of opinion among this community. One of the things that Horwitz finds most disheartening about this division between whites and blacks, though, is that de facto racial segregation is reflected in mutually irreconcilable interpretations of the war. Up to a point, he argues, there is a “live-and-let-live” stance toward the Confederacy in which each side remembers the past in its own ways but has ceased dialogue with the other. This attitude is reflected in the expression “You Wear Your X, I’ll Wear Mine.” For blacks, “X” stands for Malcolm X and an increasing intolerance of white privilege. For whites, “X” is the St. Andrew’s cross or saltire of the Confederate battle flag.
Paradoxically, in light of this profound division, Horwitz also finds that memory of the war is fading among a younger generation of both Southern whites and blacks. This development is both positive and negative. On the plus side, the baggage associated with the war seems to have diminished, presenting the possibility that one source of division in Southern society might dissipate. On the minus side, this forgetting is part of an increasing ignorance of history that leaves younger people less equipped to deal with contemporary social issues and more vulnerable to the fabrications of various crack-pots. For Horwitz, this forgetting is symbolized by the degree to which malls, box stores, fast food restaurants, and residential developments have encroached upon Civil War battle sites and, in some cases, completely overrun them.
At the end of the day, the big, difficult question that requires resolution is whether the Confederacy or some part of it really can be celebrated. Is it possible that the Confederate experience can provide the South with a usable past? Horwitz himself asks this question without providing an answer. Ulysses S. Grant, who was a sensitive and perspicacious observer, got to the heart of the matter in his Memoirs (1885) when he described the preliminaries to Robert E. Lee’s surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox:
What General Lee’s feelings were I do not know. As he was a man of much dignity, with an impassible face, it was impossible to say whether he felt inwardly glad that the end had finally come, or felt sad over the result, and was too manly to show it. Whatever his feelings, they were entirely concealed from my observation; but my own feelings, which had been quite jubilant on the receipt of his letter, were sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse. I do not question, however, the sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us.
As we contemplate the Confederacy, then, we must ask ourselves if it is possible to separate a heroic struggle from a bad cause. And that is one of the most important questions we can mull over as we think about the Confederate battle flag.