The Confederates in Our Attic: Memory and the Confederate Battle Flag

Digital scan of 4x5 transparency.

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.

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4 comments

  1. The view of the war and the flag from today’s generation is creating a watered down understanding of the war and is furthering the ignorance that we see, especially on social media. It seems the general consensus is that after 1776 America was one cohesive nation, but it really wasn’t. You had two conflicting styles of economy, lifestyle and desire of what government should be which blossomed into a wedge that slowly started to divide the country. The Civil War seemed to be inevitable because of the freedom’s this country stood for and allows. The northern economy was more progressive to capitalism because of ecological factors like poor soil and a short growing season that forced them to be that way. If the entire east coast had a similar soil and growing seasons, this all may be a different scenario. It also seems to be forgotten that there was racism in the north and it wasn’t just secluded to the south. The confederacy was declaring it’s independence from what it viewed as tyrannical which is constitutionally allowed. Who was the north to tell the south their economy was backward and wrong, especially when it was socially acceptable and successful for so long? The issue of slavery always seemed to be tabled for a future discussion when it arose so it was allowed to continue. With the understanding of the war fading among today’s generation, the confederate flag is merely viewed as a racist symbol as opposed to a symbol of passion for a lifestyle, community and freedom that is trying to be taken away from them. This incomplete understanding creates the ignorance and mockery we see on social media. It varies from the people that just view the confederate flag as a racist symbol which is short sighted, to girls in confederate flag bikinis with it saying, “this flag offends me, please remove it.” I became frustrated with seeing the ignorance of people because they were looking at a singular facet and not seeing the larger picture. It shows that people will see what they want to see and not seek more information to create a more well rounded view point.

  2. I very rarely comment on critiques of works I’ve authored (there lies madness and never writing another sentence for publication), but I feel moved to do so because your post on my book, Confederates In The Attic, was unusually accurate, balanced, and thought-provoking. You’re right in every regard, including my failure to answer the question regarding the appropriate way to remember the Confederacy. Let’s hope we’re beginning as a nation to sort that out now.
    Best regards, Tony Horwitz

    1. Hi Tony, as I am reading your book, I have a couple questions for you. First off, how did white southern men commemorate the Confederacy compared to white southern women? Thanks in advance!

  3. We will forever be plagued by conflict regarding the American Civil war simply because Americans refuse to take an honest and objective look at the direct evidence that supports the wars cause and it’s after effect.

    The poster above refers to the slave states Agrarian economy vs the Industrial economy in the free states yet doesn’t realize that both are a form of capitalism and he mis-states the fact that the free states out produced the slave states in every agricultural crop but one: Cotton.

    Many supporters of the Confederate battle flag flat out refuse to read documents such as the Confederate Constitution or the articles of secession as these documents, written by the Confederates themselves demonstrates their desire to rebel and fight a war so that they can continue to enslave nearly 50% of their population.
    Instead, they repeat myths, legends and fictional tales that they know to be untrue.
    The irony is that they want this flag to be remembered, but they want the descendants of those who were enslaved to “get over it”.
    These descendants of slaves aren’t even that upset over slavery. They are upset over how they have been treated SINCE slavery ended.
    Trying to force them to honor this flag simply adds insult to injury.

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