Fables of the destruction

>> Thursday, May 05, 2011

Over at Slate's sister online pub, The Root, Lynette Holloway has a nice little piece up about the mythology surrounding black soldiers who supposedly fought for the Confederacy during the American Civil War.1

Ms. Holloway does a nice job citing debunkers of the mythology, but it seems to me that she spends just a little bit too much time wringing her hands over the puzzle of why organizations like the Sons Of Confederate Veterans push the myth or why it persists, especially throughout the South. And there's one answer that she apparently misses, a very basic and simple explanation that also covers the efforts of Southerners to redefine the causes of the war in terms of states' rights and tariffs instead of over slavery.

And that answer would be: we Southerners were the bad guys.

Which is a damn hard thing to face up to. Maybe it's a little easier for me because my parents are transplanted Yankees and I evidently had ancestors shooting at each other from both sides of the damn conflict.2 But in any case, it's pretty damn difficult to hold your head up with the nobility of your heritage and bask in the glory of your lost cause when the whole thing was really about your great-great-granddaddy owning people and beating the hell out of them when they didn't work the fields to his satisfaction.

Holloway writes:

[Author Bruce] Levine makes the bold assertion that the myth of black Confederates is perpetuated by the Sons of Confederate Veterans to bolster its argument that the Confederacy was a great place to live--otherwise, why would blacks fight so vigorously to preserve it?

I don't think it's that bold an assertion, though: the assertion I'd make is that the Sons Of Confederate Veterans perpetuate the myth of black Confederate soldiers because it keeps them from having to face the fact they ought to be ashamed of their forefathers who chose an ignoble tradition and immoral labor economics over human decency and an expanding social conscience within Western Civilization that has, over the centuries, widened the definition of what it means to be human (and to therefore possess human rights). Here's the bottom line: whether or not slavery was the casus belli of the Civil War3, by fighting to perpetuate it, Confederate soldiers and their leaders were on the wrong side of history and civilization. They were fighting partly or wholly to preserve a quasi-feudal way of life that was well on its way to being rendered obsolete by a combination of moral growth and new technology.

Good riddance to bad rubbish, right? But it's got to be hard when the rubbish is in your blood. For one thing, if one of your ancestors was a great and wonderful person, it's swell to think that some of that greatness was passed down to you, whether via DNA or by inspiration or by environment. And the flip side of that coin is the fear that if you're the descendant of choads, that you're carrying some vestigial choadishness in you. For another thing, the sins of the fathers do get visited in some sense upon the sons.4 If the Civil War wasn't about slavery and if there were free blacks (or even slaves) fighting alongside white soldiers, well maybe all the racial turmoil of the past one-hundred-fifty years isn't The South's fault, maybe there was some other reason for it--agitators, for instance, abolitionists and Freedom Riders and communists, outsiders meddling in things they don't understand, sure, imposing some foreign way of looking things on this gentle land or some such horseshit along those lines, yeah.

Thing is, it's only one short step from letting yourself off the hook to pretending the hook wasn't there at all, and that's at least one reason all these myths of a racially harmonious South, the claims slavery wasn't so bad as that and there were blacks fighting for the Lost Cause and so on, are insidious and evil. Our forefathers were innocent and we're innocent, too, and if there's discrimination (if, because we know all those claims are exaggerated or even falsified, right, people making excuses and playing the victim), if there's discrimination, it isn't systematic, it isn't endemic, it isn't something that seeped inexorably from a terrible, septic history into our midst, if it happens, it's a few bad apples, it's individual and specific and rare. Unless. Unless our forefathers were wicked men, wicked men who remain a terrible weight we're still chained to by time and blood.

Those mythical black Confederate soldiers wouldn't have been fighting to preserve the enslavement of blacks by white men long ago, they're fighting against the enslavement of whites by the ugly facts of their own heritage now. But fables don't break chains, they only hide them.

1The short version: any blacks who fought on the Southern side before 1865 almost certainly did so as their masters' chattel and had as much say in the matter as their masters' horses, as blacks were legally barred from service in the Confederate States Of America (CSA) until that year; after the prohibitions on arming Southern blacks were lifted by the CSA, there may have been up to around five dozen black soldiers serving in various places. Which seems like a no-brainer, doesn't it? The one thing that frightened 19th Century Southerners more than the thought of a slave revolt was the thought of an armed slave revolt--see also.

2On an earlier occasion when I wrote about the Civil War, my Dad called to inform me I wasn't a Southerner and claimed I couldn't be because my parents weren't born down here and as far as real Southerners are concerned, your grandparents had to have been born down here. I'm not sure what I said at the time, but with classic l'esprit d'escalier I remembered soon after hanging up the phone that those "real Southerners" were and are the reason we needed the Fourteenth Amendment. Winning.

3And it was.

4What's that great old Springsteen line? "You inherit the sins, you inherit the flames"?


Janiece Thursday, May 5, 2011 at 6:06:00 PM EDT  

Just so.

I think a "truth and reconciliation" commission for the South as it relates to the Civil War is long overdue.

Phiala Thursday, May 12, 2011 at 11:17:00 AM EDT  

Do you read Ta-Nehisi Coates's articles on the topic at The Atlantic? Interesting stuff, from a perspective I at least don't otherwise see.

Here, and then much more.

Eric Thursday, May 12, 2011 at 12:33:00 PM EDT  

Thanks, Phiala! I like Coates' stuff, but hadn't read any of those pieces.

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