The Army of Northern Virginia and Slavery: By the Numbers

The Confederacy’s latter-day partisans have no shortage of arguments, making up for the dearth of quality with a surfeit of quantity. One must use the tools one has. I’ve taken a swipe or two before at the idea that ordinary soldiers had no stake in slavery and therefore the Civil War and the Confederacy had nothing to do with it, as well as its slightly more plausible variant that we should not operate under a presumption of proslavery intent in understanding military service with the Confederacy. I think the case against the proposition that the average men and occasional woman in a gray or “gray” uniform doesn’t require much further development and planned to leave it be.

Robert E. Lee, Virginia aristocrat, military officer, and future confederate general

Robert E. Lee

Plans changed this week when I remembered Joseph Glatthaar’s statistical study, Soldiering in the Army of Northern Virginia. It concerns the Confederacy’s principal field army. For most of its existence, Robert E. Lee had command of the force. The ANV fought in all of the battles most laypeople have heard of, against the familiar rotating cast of United States generals that ended with Ulysses S. Grant. I took an interest in Glathaar’s study when it first came out, but flinched at the price tag and its distance from my usual interests. I don’t mind straight military history, but have a much stronger interest in the politics that produce it. Likewise my interests have skewed rather more than I anticipated when I started this blog toward the Antebellum. When it fell off my radar, I hadn’t read an ebook and didn’t own a Kindle. Now I do and the digital version comes with a very reasonable price.

Before I get into the findings themselves, Glatthaar’s method deserves some explanation. Using existing records, he developed a random sample of 600 soldiers. The sample took in infantry, cavalry, and artillery in proportion to their numbers in the army and represents officers and enlisted men similarly. It does not attempt to achieve the same balance with regard to the home states of the soldiers, though it does include men from all eleven Confederate states plus Kentucky and Maryland. The most in the sample hailed from Virginia (239), followed by North Carolina (96) and Georgia (86). Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, and Texas tied for last at four each.

According to Glatthaar,

Just under half (46.7%) of all soldiers in Lee’s army were born in Virginia or North Carolina. With South Carolina and Georgia added, 3 of every 4 (75.1%) troops came from those Southern coastal states. One in every 13 (7.8%) was born in the North (a state that remained in the Union) or in a foreign country. Those numbers included young Private Bishop, the son of a fisherman, who originally hailed from New York and moved with his family to South Carolina.

Glatthaar, Joseph T. (2011-06-15). Soldiering in the Army of Northern Virginia: A Statistical Portrait of the Troops Who Served under Robert E. Lee (Civil War America) (p. 4). The University of North Carolina Press. Kindle Edition.

I cannot claim any special knowledge of statistics, but this sounds like about what one would expect for a fair, random sample from which we can confidently generalize about the ANV. Glatthaar also notes that 55.0% of the men resided in the Upper South, so one can’t claim he cherry picked a sample from the Cotton Kingdom’s black belts and then shockingly found them especially involved with slavery.

Right then, we’ve got a decent enough sample. What did Glatthaar find out about the men of the Confederacy’s preeminent army?

Soldiers were more likely to come from heavier slaveholding counties than the recruiting states as a whole. […] Their home counties on average had 16.6% more slaves to whites than the average of all the counties in those states.

Glatthaar, Joseph T. (2011-06-15). Soldiering in the Army of Northern Virginia: A Statistical Portrait of the Troops Who Served under Robert E. Lee (Civil War America) (pp. 5-6). The University of North Carolina Press. Kindle Edition.

One would expect more enslaved counties to show up more prominently in the rolls of an army defending slavery in a nation created for that purpose. A persistent person might argue that residence in a highly-enslaved county doesn’t necessarily make you more likely to favor slavery. The argument doesn’t make much sense considering the centrality of slavery in the South as a whole, let alone in its more enslaved than average counties where human property would have a more prominent and pervasive role still.

We could stop here and content ourselves with a data point in favor of an already well-supported position, but Glatthaar had more data still. Here we get into the real meat of things. It turns out that not only did men from unusually enslaved counties, by the standards of their own states, appear more frequently in Lee’s army. Men from slaveholding households did as well:

According to the 1860 census, 1 in every 20 (4.9%) adults owned slaves and 1 in every 4 (24.9%) households had slaves. In Lee’s army, more than 1 in every 8 (13.0%) soldiers owned slaves, and for those who lived with family members, approximately 3 in every 8 (37.2%) had slaves. Four of every 9 (44.4%) troops resided in a slaveholding household, some 78.0% greater than the South as a whole.

Glatthaar, Joseph T. (2011-06-15). Soldiering in the Army of Northern Virginia: A Statistical Portrait of the Troops Who Served under Robert E. Lee (Civil War America) (p. 9). The University of North Carolina Press. Kindle Edition.

Near to half of all men in Lee’s army lived in a slaveholding household. They grew up intimately acquainted with and materially benefiting from the stolen labor of black Americans. Furthermore, that number far exceeds the typical proportion of slaveholding families in the South.

Glatthaar doesn’t provide breakdowns by state for context, but I have them from my past work with the 1860 census. If recast as a state, Lee’s army would have had a greater percentage of enslaver households than any state of the Border or Upper South by a large margin. North Carolina, the most slaveholding among those states, topped out with 27.71% of households owning at least one person. It would even beat the Lower South’s average (37.01%), coming in between South Carolina’s 45.53% and Georgia’s 37.38%. This would make the State of Lee the South’s fourth most enslaving.

The Deep South in the 1860 census. (Click to enlarge.)

The Deep South in the 1860 census. (Click to enlarge.)

I’ve seen the complaint that Glatthaar went through a tremendous geneology project, pinning the slaveholding of fifth cousins, twice removed and essentially a strangers on some poor solider out of pure malice. Those who want to believe such things can, but Glatthaar used the United States census. It lacks any such remote information. The census takers organized their data by household. The parlance of the time called everyone who lived under the same roof or on the same property a family, even inmates at insane asylums and boarding houses where everyone understood no blood relation need exist.

Nor did Glatthaar cherry pick the wealthiest soldiers about, counting on the fact that wealth meant slaves in the antebellum South to make his point. Slaveholders, including the wealthy ones, do appear somewhat more prominently, but in measures of personal and family wealth the plurality of soldiers still could claim no more than $400 (35.8%). Another 5.9% came in below $800. By period terms, this made them poor. The middle class, between there and $4,000 accounted for another 22.8% of the ANV. The wealthy made up the remaining 35.4%. This creates a substantial gap in the middle, but the very wealthy would include large slaveholders who one would expect to have a stronger enthusiasm for the cause:

Approximately 92% of all soldiers’ households with a minimum total wealth of $ 4,000 possessed slaves. More than 1 in every 15 soldiers or his family (6.9%) achieved planter status— owning 20 or more slaves— and 1 in 11 soldiers (9.3%) resided in planter households. By contrast, 1 in 32 (3.2%) households in the South qualified as a planter. This was not, therefore, a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight. Slaveholders, who also happened to be rich, served in disproportionately high numbers in Lee’s army. It was a rich, moderate, and poor man’s fight.

Glatthaar, Joseph T. (2011-06-15). Soldiering in the Army of Northern Virginia: A Statistical Portrait of the Troops Who Served under Robert E. Lee (Civil War America) (pp. 9-10). The University of North Carolina Press. Kindle Edition.

I know none of this can persuade those who have convinced themselves that the ordinary soldier had no interest in slavery. If the documentary record and bare census figures can’t do the job, then one more study never would. But for the rest of us, the numbers clearly show not just an increased interest in slavery for Lee’s army, in every way one would think to look, but one radically higher than coincidence or mere statistical noise could ever account for. They also, I must add, exceeded my own already generous expectations. I imagined thirty to forty percent more slaveholding households than the Southern norm, not nigh eighty.



Thoughts on the Photograph of Andrew and Silas Chandler

Andrew Chandler signed up for the Confederate Army in 1861. His mother sent along one of her thirty-six slaves, Silas, with him. Sometime thereafter, Andrew and Silas sat down for a photograph. A century and a half later, it became famous among those who would have us believe that veritable legions of black Americans signed up and willingly fought alongside their white neighbors for the cause of Southern independence. These same people believe this evidence that the South fought for something, anything at all, except slavery. The conclusion came before the evidence, but looking at the photograph in isolation and not knowing about Silas status as legal property, you could come away with the idea that two buddies sat down with their guns and we need not inquire further.

As property, Silas didn’t really choose to go along. While he and other enslaved people might have shaved off some small portion of self-determination at the margins of their condition, that same status precluded their making major life decisions for themselves. A slave who just decided to leave the camp could expect challenge by patrols and might face violent seizure by any white man who noticed. Resistance would mean risking assault. Whatever the personal relationship between Andrew and Silas, their condition separated them.

Kevin Levin, working on a book about actual black camp followers and personal slaves in the Confederate military, posted the photograph with some context. He notes that few pictures of Confederate soldiers with their slaves exist and most have the slave standing and somewhat behind. Does the Chandler picture indicate a more equitable arrangement between Andrew and Silas? One must note that he and Silas pose similarly, both armed and brandishing knives. The barrel of Silas’ rifle rests on Andrew’s knees. That makes for a superficially plausible reading and fits with American folk ideas about how armed people hardly make good slaves.

However, Kevin points out that Andrew and Silas display a comical amount of weaponry. Andrew has a pistol in his belt and another in hand. His other hand has a big knife. Siolas has a rifle, a knife, and a pepperbox pistol stuffed in his jacket. When you add it all up they sound like they belong in the pages of a deplorably stereotypical early Nineties comic book. They have guns and guns for their guns. Kevin suggests that they bear mostly studio props:

We would do well to remember that Andrew was only 17 years of age in 1861. Silas was about 24 years of age. Andrew must have been anxious to capture those feelings of youthful exuberance and the anticipation of martial valor for his family. One can imagine a wide-eyed Andrew as he spotted the props and quickly found a way to include as many as possible. Perhaps that is why Silas is seated. Observing the image from this perspective, it’s hard not to chuckle.

He asks what Silas must have thought of all this. We can’t know, but what do we see? Any answer must speak as much about us as for the image, but I’ve considered it. Given Silas’ age, he might have shared some of the excitement that Andrew had. If he sat there idly thinking about using the knife on Andrew, it doesn’t show. I doubt he did not because he felt content with his lot in life, but because few people idly consider doing bloody murder. Either way, a slave would probably know by his age not to betray any too-visible sign of irritation in these circumstances.

I see the same slouch as Kevin does. Silas faces the camera, but with more casual pose. I read him as seasoned enough from a lifetime of slavery to know when he has to play a part. The slouch could serve that purpose, emphasizing as he must for his own safety that he did not fancy himself Andrew’s equal. More than that, he looks resigned to the business. Andrew’s going to have his photograph and Silas just has to sit there and do it, just like he might have to do Andrew’s laundry.

I don’t see deference. The fact that Silas has a slouching, resigned attitude strikes me as a kind of subtle resistance. He could have put on a more conspicuously dutiful face, or arranged himself somewhat more subserviently. That might make for an odd tableau with all the arms, but he could have. Maybe he did, but Andrew or the photographer “corrected” him to get better show the weapons. I see two young men next to each other, touching or close to it, but with a vast gulf between them. Andrew might not see it, taking this all as perfectly natural, but Silas could not afford to miss the distance. The two might share memories, laugh at the same jokes, eat together, and otherwise do all the things friends might, but Andrew had the power to change it all at any moment. Silas could not. Nor could he forget all the other tasks which Andrew surely assigned him every day. Ultimately, the two did what Andrew dictated, when he dictated it.

Taking the image as a whole, I see a boy and his toys. In another century, Andrew would pose with his bike or his car. He might still have the guns, but might instead wield a guitar or beer bottle. Silas, while a person every bit as much as Andrew, serves as a prop twice over: with his body he displays more arms and so signals further manly virtue. But whatever else Andrew might feel toward Silas, he owns the enslaved man’s body. Displaying it shows his family’s wealth and his own ability to master another. Giving Silas the weapons and sitting next to him without fear shows that Andrew does not fear his human property. Brave Andrew can control him, even armed to the teeth. He could cloak Silas in the garb of a man and then unman him at a whim.

Every slave knew that. For a moment, Silas and Andrew might look like equals. They might seem as together as the photograph suggests, close as their two bodies. But Silas had to know that holding the prop guns and knives did not make it so. With that in mind, I see a young man thinking that he has one more damned thing to do, then one more, with no end in sight. He will do what he must to get by, taking the rare moments of satisfaction and relief when they come but knowing that they too will end when Andrew’s whims turn.

All of this requires reading a general narrative of slavery into Silas’ relationship with Andrew. Every generalization will have its exceptions. They might, in whatever way and slave and owner could, have gotten on well. People who share company for a long time find ways to get along. An enslaved person had, if anything, far stronger reason to manage than most. But ultimately he faced the same realities as the rest of the nation’s four million slaves. Whatever else Andrew and Silas felt toward one another, the law of the land and the dictates of Andrew’s culture made Silas also an object which existed for his betterment.

Update: Andy Hall points out in the comments that the misuse of the Chandler photograph fits in snugly with similar uses of reunion photographs:

Late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century images of African American men at Confederate reunions are tossed out all the time, cited as photographic proof of their former positions as soldiers. The actual written accounts of these events tell a more complex story, in which the old black men are welcomed and encouraged to adhere to antebellum stereotypes — living, breathing affirmation of the “faithful Negro,” cheerful, obsequious, and loyal. They performed exactly the role H. K. Edgerton does now.

What did ordinary Confederate soldiers fight for?

A Reunion of Cherokee Confederates

A Reunion of Cherokee Confederates

When speaking of the Confederacy, laypeople and those with a cripplingly narrow focus on matters military often make two related claims. First they will say that the Confederacy cared only incidentally about slavery, but really got worked up over states rights. This mangling of history remains far too common, but I think that most increasingly see it more as a declaration of the speaker’s sympathy with the Confederacy’s actual aims than a judgment earned under the sometimes cruel tutelage of facts. Furthermore, I doubt one would have to go far in any part of the country to find plenty of laypeople and military history enthusiasts who would contest it fiercely.

The second claim has more life in it, coming in at least two variations. The first insists that the Confederacy used slavery as a kind of manufactured issue, a hot button to marshal popular support for more esoteric policies that nobody would have gone to war over. Usually the speaker claims the tariff. I’ve even seen renditions that specify it down to a few cents on the tariff. While cents counted for a great deal more in the nineteenth century, this still seems to cut very close to the bone. The second variant holds that the Confederate political leadership absolutely fought for slavery, the common soldier never. He had no stake in the institution but the smooth operators in the state capitals convinced him that he did. In either case, the speaker usually trots out Robert E. Lee as proof positive that antislavery Confederates existed.

Whatever version of the argument one makes, it holds that essentially the common Confederate soldier lacked the intelligence, education, or sophistication to make sound political judgments in his own interest. In doing so on the part of the vast majority of Confederate soldiery and a large portion of the slave states’ male population of military age, the speaker condemns a large part of the South’s white population. If this takes a form slightly more polite than calling the lot of them a bunch of lack-wit fools, than it does not differ meaningfully in substance. As one would expect, many of the same people take great offense to the very unfair stereotypes which depict the South as a land of backwards, lack-wit fools.

The foolish and unsophisticated exist in every time and place, of course. One could make an argument that Southern indifference to Yankee innovations like public education played a part in giving the South more than its share, but this rarely comes up. Instead we must take it as given, even obvious, that a poor white farmer could not possibly have any interest in saving slavery and would not have allowed racism to irrationally dictate his actions. This requires that his racism, from his perspective, actually entail irrationality. Usually that works the other way around. From the perspective of the racist, racism seems entirely rational and sensible.

Leaving the question of rationality aside we do have some facts to consider. On first blush, these may seem to support the proposition that ordinary Confederate soldiers, and other pro-confederacy whites, had little personal interest in preserving slavery. Further consideration will reveal otherwise.

One must grant that a vast majority of Confederate soldiers did not themselves own slaves. Slaves cost a great deal and the average soldier hardly counted as a man of wealth and property. However, a vast majority of American soldiers who enlisted after 9/11 neither owned property threatened in New York, Virginia, or Pennsylvania, nor had loved ones injured or imperiled in the attacks that day. Did the American government manufacture a grievance for them, which they in their innocence could not see through? Must we believe that they forgot that none of their loved ones died that day? I suspect that any questioned on the point would find the argument risible. Just as they could have an interest in and commitment to the United States and its nebulously defined “way of life” independent of the immediate details of their personal lives, so could white Southerners have a commitment to the South and its own distinctive way of life. This way of life, to the degree it differed from that of other sections, largely revolved around the prosecution and maintenance of slavery.

In this light, a soldier could hope to own slaves in the future as his share of the Dixie-flavored American Dream. He might have slaveholding relatives. He probably, except in the most rugged and remote sections of the South, at least knew one slaveholder by sight. He might have, either personally or through close family, more substantial connections still. Eugene Genovese sketches out a web of such connections, a “conjecture of […] economic, political and cultural forces, incuding intense racism” between poor whites and planters which “made secession and sustained warfare possible” in his 1975 article Yeoman Farmers in a Slaveholder’s Democracy (JSTOR paywall, article accessible through a free account)taking Joshua Venable “dirt farmer of of Hinds County, Mississippi” as a case study:

Josh owned no slaves, worked forty acres of so-so land more or less competently, and struggled to keep his head above water. Fortunately for him, he was kin to Jefferson Venable, owner of the district’s finest Big House, Ole Massa to a hundred slaves, and patron to the local judge as well as the sheriff. Moreover, Josh Venable’s wife was kin to John Mercer, himself “massa” to only ten or twelve slaves but decidedly a man on the make.  […]

Now, poor Josh Venable himself rarely got invited to Cousin Jeff’s home and virtually never to the dining room table. Rather, he was usually invited to an outdoor affair-a barbecue to which many of the nonslaveholders of the neighborhood were also invited to celebrate lay-by or the Fourth of July. Josh also had to notice that he was only invited when many neighboring slaveholders were urged not only to come but to bring all their “niggers.” Still, kin was kin, and Josh got an ostentatious welcome as a member of the family. Ole Massa Jefferson, his own self, once took him by the arm to the barbecue pit to meet the new state senator, whom Ole Jeff had just bought and who might come in handy.

Here we have personal ties to planters. Joshua and Jefferson hardly seem like the best of friends, but Jefferson still had him over and treated him well on the occasion. This sort of behavior naturally creates a kind of sentimental alignment, even among the unrelated.

Josh resented his cousin-so much that he continued to hope that he would someday own even more slaves himself and maybe even reach the pinnacle of success-some day he might be able to make Cousin Jeff a low-interest loan to cover his famous gambling debts, not to mention those debts for somewhat unclear expenditures in New Orleans.

New Orleans served as the antebellum South’s Las Vegas, for those who want to read between the lines.

Josh’s resentment shades into aspiration. He doesn’t loathe Jeff for his success. He wants to become like Jeff, but better, and valuable to him. Ambition can account for plenty of that desire, but more went into it. Josh wanted to help Jeff out with money, just as Jeff helped out others:

Everyone, including Josh, knew that his cousin may have been a little stuffy, may have put on airs, but that he always had a helping hand for anyone in the neighborhood, lack or white. Josh raised some extra corn and a few hogs. What was he supposed to do, hand-carry them to Cincinatti? Wait to sell them to unreliable drovers, who specialized in hard bargains? Cousin Jeff was already ready to pay a fair price even though he could just as easily have increased the orders through his factors and not bothered with such local trivia.

Josh also knew any number of local farmers who raised two or three bales of cotton. If they had to spend $125 each for a cotton gin and then pay the costs of individual marketing, they could not have covered costs. Yet, there was good Ole Jefferson Venable, and the two or three other such worthies, ready to gin the cotton for a fair service charge of 9 or 10 per cent and market it with his own large crop to insure a fair price for his poorer neighors. No one ever accused Ole Jeff of trying to make a dollar off his neighbors. On the contrary, he was quick to send food and supplies to help someone down-and-out. And everyone saw how he sent a few of his hands to help a sick neighbor get in his small crop when everything hung in the balance. If it were not for Ole Jeff and a few others like him, how many of the poorer farmers could make it?

Jefferson and others like him would even hire on the sons of neighbors, giving them odd jobs that might lead to more. One could become an overseer, often a stepping stone to one’s own plantation. If a yeoman had a good year or two and found a deal, he might buy a slave. Should that slave not have immediate work, then the planter would “rent him for a year.” If a farmer ended up with a bumper crop and needed extra labor at a cash-poor time, one of the Jefferson Venables of the area would send a slave over to rent.

And everyone remembered how the local planters sent their slaves to throw up houses for new settlers and did everything possible to get them started.

Put yourself in the shoes of a Joshua Venable. The area’s Jeffersons might not make you feel like quite an equal, but they’ve gone out of their way to help you out and support you. Why would you see them as enemies? Furthermore, since so much of what they did involved using slave labor directly, or indirectly, on your behalf wouldn’t you associate their patronage closely with their slavery?

Even without the planters to serve as patrons, protectors, and role models, it made perfect sense to tie one’s aspirations to future slaveholding. White hands might decide to try somewhere else in a year. They could hare off to Texas or Arkansas. They would demand treatment that slaves could not. Should one find white labor that would not go off to greener pastures and would work as hard as a slave, then even after winning the labor lottery you still needed more hands than the local white population could supply. One would inevitably look to slavery, a fixed fact of life for as long as anyone could remember, as the way to get ahead. Thus one would stand ready, if perhaps not always eager

to ride patrol, to help discipline the slaves, and to take part in the political and police aspects of the slave regime-in short, to think and act life slaveholders even before becoming one. That many were motivated by racism, sadism, or a penchant for putting-on-dog is undeniable. But even without those pleasantries, the path of social duty emerged as the path of self-interest.

It doesn’t take false consciousness or foolishness to arrive at that conclusion and consequently stand ready to fight to save slavery. It would even, necessarily, require ubiquitous racism. The advantages of the system in itself would make converts and produce the racism to order. A poor farmer did not have precisely the same stake in the system as a great enslaver did, but their social, cultural, political, and economic interests all closely aligned.

Genovese’s example concerned poor farmers in the plantation belt. They could hold in the upcountry with fewer slaves. Raw racism may play a larger role, as the undeveloped upcountry with its mostly white populations often understood that the presence of planters meant also the presence of slaves. They’d rather have neither than both, a position not that far from that of some Kansas free state men. If the upcountry men disliked having planters, a species of outsider, dictate to them then they disliked Yankee dictation all the more and might understand further integration with the nation by internal improvements and the resulting commercial intercourse. That could bring the slaves in, and had helped bring them to former upcountry tracts in the past.

But the upcountry white belts did, ultimately, have weaker ties to the Confederate cause because of their smaller investment in and immersion with slavery. The more upcountry-style Border States did not secede. West Virginia bolted Virginia to come back. Sometimes fierce resistance erupted in Eastern Tennessee, western North Carolina, and elsewhere beyond slavery’s easy reach. If the South had men with little investment in the slave system, then they lived in those places. If such men fought routinely for the Confederacy, we would expect them to exhibit a high degree of loyalty to it. Yet instead we observe districts ranging from divided to actively rebellious just where we would expect the slavery-indifferent, easily fooled Confederate soldiers to appear most often.

A South Carolina artilleryman at Petersburg.

A South Carolina artilleryman at Petersburg.

I understand the desire to see one’s ancestors, personal or figurative, in only the best light, but it doesn’t make for good history. In the absence of clear evidence to the contrary, it seems far more reasonable to operate under the assumption that people of a time and place act within the general norms rather than against them. This holds true even before we consider the clear fact that the Confederacy made no secret of its purpose, but rather trumpeted it loudly. That alone ought to make it clear that men who signed on knew they fought for slavery and accepted the fact, but even if the Confederate leadership managed a remarkable conspiracy of silence and dissembling, as apologists imagine, the social, economic, and political patterns one sees in Genovese and elsewhere would make a powerful, if somewhat less quotable, case that most Confederates both knew they would and chose to fight and die for slavery.

Confederate Flags and the Monuments They Adorn

Confederate Battle Flag

It seems that the Confederate Battle Flag on the grounds of the South Carolina capitol will likely come down. If we see the back of the flag as it descends into the proper netherworld of memory, then we should remember how it got there. The flag rose back in 1961 to protest integration and declare the state’s firm commitment to segregation forever. It moved from above the capitol building itself back in 200o. Now it may leave entirely, just as it shall leave the shelves of the nation’s larger retailers. Good riddance.

By these tiny steps, bought most recently at the cost of nine lives, we measure progress. If and when the flag departs, we will congratulate ourselves again on the death of racism. Most white Americans will probably not consider that it took an outbreak of Reconstruction-level violence to move a piece of cloth. This says many things about us, none of them good.

The flag presently adorns a Confederate veteran’s memorial. That might seem like a good excuse to keep it. The legislators who voted it over to that spot and then required a supermajority to move it again, certainly thought so. By placing it there, they dared future critics to disrespect the memory of the dead by challenging it again, or fall silent and so accept the flag. That sounds like an easy choice to me. When probably every other flag in South Carolina flew at half-mast, the Confederate Battle Flag flew high. Given the cause for which the veterans in question risked their lives, one could imagine it flying a bit higher. Did it grow a metaphorical inch taller for each death?

One can argue that the flag sits in an appropriate context. The veterans fought and died under it, or one like it, so why not fly it over their memorial? If the flag can’t fly there, then where could it fly? I don’t know why “nowhere” would prove unacceptable. Private individuals can do what they like with their flags on their property, but the grounds of governments buildings belong to, and inherently speak for, all of us. The foes of white supremacy should not deny to themselves this particular power that the cause’s friends exercised in decades past. They erected the flag, and the monuments and all the rest, to celebrate their crusade and venerate its martyrs. Those who preached the subjugation of black Americans had their way and spoke on behalf of us all by putting up their flags. We can choose other crusades with other martyrs and try the same by taking them down.

US Navy sailors visiting the Yasakuni Shrine in 1933

US Navy sailors visiting the Yasukuni Shrine in 1933

We could probably do with some national soul-searching about the Confederate monuments too. In saying that I don’t mean to insult or offend the descendants of Confederate soldiers. But I don’t know how to separate a soldier from the cause he or she fought for, without reducing the soldier to a meaningless object of blind veneration. This strikes me as doing far greater violence to their memory than simply ignoring them, if not quite so much as outright lying about them. To make the point, I’d like to consider it in the context of a different situation:

In Japan, one can visit the Yasukuni Shrine. The shrine honors the sacrifices of all those, Japanese and otherwise, who died in the service of the Empire of Japan. While Japan still has an Emperor, he lacks even the limited reserve powers that the usual constitutional monarch enjoys. Thus the Empire of Japan generally runs from the Meiji Restoration of the late 1860s until 1947. In that time, Japan waged, brutal imperialist wars. While Americans remember Pearl Harbor and the rest, Imperial Japan did far worse to China. The Japanese military employed chemical and biological weapons against the Chinese, something they dared not attempt against European or American enemies. Those enshrined within include not just ordinary soliders, but more than a thousand convicted war criminals, fourteen of whom postwar tribunals found guilty of Class A war crimes. One goes to the shrine to venerate their spirits.

Japan’s wartime victims and their descendants don’t look fondly upon the shrine. The history of close government cooperation with it and repeated visits by Japanese prime ministers do little to help. Nor does the shrine’s embrace of Japan’s native version of the Lost Cause in the attached museum.

I suspect most Americans would read this as a sign that Japan hasn’t really moved that far beyond its wartime self. Something has gone wrong, or never gone right, with Japan for such a state of affairs to persist. When it makes the news here, the stories generally run in that vein. The fact that relatively few Japanese people actually frequent the shrine or endorse its history doesn’t enter into things. Nor does it matter that the shrine operates as a private establishment and thus the Japanese state can’t just order changes. But even allowing these nuances, the shrine should give us cause for some concern.

If we can have that concern about Japan, why can’t we have it at home? I don’t mean that we should just take crowbars and bulldozers to Confederate monuments with glee, or that we should root around national parks removing the markers for this regiment and that, but they could do with a harder look. Many of them have inscriptions rife with Lost Cause tropes. The Confederate Soldier’s Monument on the grounds of the Texas Capitol declares that those it honors “died for state rights guaranteed under the Constitution” without saying the only right of any state actually in question. Many other monuments, in Texas and elsewhere, do much the same.

These displays tell a story and we should consider if we want to keep telling it or not. How does it differ from the story taught at the Yasukuni Shrine and museum? If we look askance at one, then how can we not do the same of the other? We will have shrines one way or another. The ones we choose speak volumes. If we have chosen poorly before, we can choose differently now. No law of nature demands we go on as we have. Only we can demand that.

Where to fly that flag?

Where and when?

Where and when?

I’ve written about the Confederate Battle Flag before but I don’t think I’ve written about when and where one ought to fly it. Brooks Simpson asked that, at least implicitly, in the post I wrote in response to yesterday. That comes to mind especially as I’ve followed the comic saga of the Virginia Flaggers, a group devoted to the strange position that Virginia wants to suppress and deny its Confederate history. One would think people who lived in Virginia knew better. After various defeats, they leased some private land by a freeway south of Richmond where they now fly their flag. Many of the bloggers I’ve read on the subject could not contain their awe at the flagger’s triumph. You can read all about it here. Andy Hall even gave them an apology. He, like probably everybody commenting, assumed they might be effective. I know that I did. Shows us, right?

But yahoos aside, where should one display that flag? To my knowledge, Germany does fairly well at answering the same question of its own troubled banner with “nowhere.” I don’t know all the details, but apparently any kind of Nazi emblem or memorabilia can only be displayed in proper historical context per German law. I don’t endorse importing that law and fining or arresting people for waiving Confederate flags, but the idea behind it seems like a good one for any historical symbols. They ought to go up and remain up where they aid in modern understanding of events, where they existed at the time, and so forth. If a battlefield marks Confederate positions with flags, or they fly from memorials to Confederate units, provided those are the correct flags for the era, that sounds fine to me. Flying it over historical buildings preserved as museums of the time also fits.

Flying the flag over current government buildings involves different issues, as the flag largely departed those buildings in 1865 or earlier. It came back to fight against Civil Rights and Jim Crow’s diehard supporters made that very clear. Continued display in that vein does tell a story about the past and the present, but in a very different way. That flag declares for White Supremacy and proclaims it the policy of the government. That it remains gives the impression to a fair observer that the policy commitment also endures. Sometimes, if not as often as it used to, it really does endure. I’d like to see the lot of those taken down. Put the originals under glass and display them in a museum about the Civil Rights Movement or American racism. They belong there. They do not belong flying over buildings in any government committed to serving all its people, regardless of the color of their skin. Nor do they belong flying ominously outside historically black churches.

I did not pull that example from thin air. One of the Virginia Flaggers went to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s church to show his flag. Over at CW Memory, Kevin Levin has the picture. When you bring the slavery and Jim Crow banner to display outside a church at the center of the Civil Rights Movement, it makes a statement about Southern heritage that viewers have little trouble understanding. It doesn’t quite reach the level of brandishing James Earl Ray’s gun, which would be hard to get, or wearing his face inside a heart on a t-shirt, but the content differs little. Would a white hood have been too on the nose?

Outside proper historical contexts, I have trouble seeing why one would even want to fly that flag unless they understand themselves as carrying on the politics that brought Confederate flags out of the attics in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Heritage? I would think that includes more than four years of war 150 years ago even if one’s idea of national heritage only includes the former major slave states…a problematic situation in itself.

Should We Honor Confederate Soldiers?

The Confederate Memorial Monument at the Alabama Capitol. Jefferson Davis laid its cornerstone.

The Confederate Memorial Monument at the Alabama Capitol. Jefferson Davis laid its cornerstone.

Gentle Readers, I need a short break from the Congressional Globe transcripts and have meant to write about this since last week. So here goes.

I take my title from Brooks Simpson’s post asking the same question. I don’t think we should, but the question warrants some unpacking. Not honoring Confederate soldiers does not also entail that we should go around smashing up their headstones, installing sewers that empty into their graves, dig them up and throw their remains in the garbage, bulldoze their battlefield memorials, or anything like that. It does not require that we endlessly castigate them. It certainly doesn’t require that we adopt a hostile attitude toward their descendants, who no more chose their ancestors than the rest of us did.

I say that we should not honor these men because the word implies something more than recognition or understanding. It carries with it a kind of endorsement. Honoring someone entails celebrating them and their deeds, paying tribute. Only the great war of rebellion to defend and preserve slavery brings all of those men, and probably some women, together. Whatever their individual motives, whatever sacrifices they endured, however that war traumatized them, they signed on to armies pledged to the cause of slavery. I don’t know how, short of some very selective attention, one separates them from their ultimate cause.

But even if we can, should we? I know that some people have a very strong emotional commitment to the idea of the military as a noble profession, perhaps the noblest. They would probably argue that these men demonstrated great bravery and endured great sacrifices and that warrants our respect. I don’t agree because you can say that about every soldier who goes off to war, whether the soldier joined on to steal Cuba, to break away from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, or to purge Europe of Jews, Communists, Roma, Homosexuals, and other allegedly inferior people. From that one could pivot to saying that the soldiers fought for what they believed in. Probably they did, but what did they believe in, precisely? I can think of a great many ideals, some of which I just listed, that don’t deserve celebration, let alone fighting and killing for.

All of this talking around the fact, however heartfelt, does something that I would think most people insistent on honoring Confederate soldiers would find very problematic indeed. It sidesteps the question of what they did fight for and ignores what individual motives may have impelled them to take up arms. Does one really honor a person by reducing them to a blank icon for veneration? Perhaps so, but it seems very strange to me. They did not make people out of marble in the past, but of flesh and blood just like they do now. I confess that my personal inclinations run very much the opposite direction, but my intense antipathy for the Confederacy’s cause does not demand that I turn every man in gray into a bloodthirsty devil or every Union man into a moral titan.

Ultimately I don’t think that any of the dead deserve honoring. We owe the dead nothing; they’ve had all that they could ever be given and have no use for more. But we owe ourselves the truth about the dead, their times, their virtues and faults. They, like us, had their share of great humanitarians and great villains. Like us, the great and good among them could have horrifying personal failings and the scorned and infamous could have surprising moments of humanity. Their times produced our own, but are not our own. They did not simply rehearse our struggles, but had their own. We should imagine them complexly.

I suppose all of this amounts to saying that we would do better to understand the dead than to honor them. In turn that deeper understanding of the past can deepen our understanding of the present and the long, difficult road from there to here.

Survivors in Blue and Gray

A South Carolina artilleryman at Petersburg.

A South Carolina artilleryman at Petersburg.

I come late to this party, but I lived in a bunker made of spreadsheets at the time. Via Kevin Levin of CW Memory, I’ve learned that some historians share my discomfort with the usual understanding of soldiers in war. I think that understanding goes something like this:

As the apotheosis of patriotism, a soldier on the battlefield comes quite near to divinity himself. To such a person, we owe not just the gratitude we would have toward any civil servant performing an important task but a kind of reverence. A soldier is Superman come among us, somehow more than human, and we should act accordingly and with great deference to his (and rarely, her) every sentiment. We have a powerful moral imperative to honor his sacrifices and those of the soldiers that did not come home.

Reverence makes us feel better about ourselves, but it also has a way of encouraging us not to ask questions of people who, whatever course their lives took, have not actually left behind our species for a better one. Skepticism becomes disrespect and so we must close our eyes to the nuances of the real world. That cannot be healthy for us and cannot help us understand events in the past or present. Understanding comes through asking questions, not from refusing to do so.

But that leaves one without any framework within which to understand the soldiers. In that absence, the usual frame can easily slide back in. My personal interests do not lay very close to the level of individual soldiers, so I don’t think I noticed the lack until I read Kevin’s post. He quotes Michael J. Bennett’s essay in This Distracted and Anarchical People: New Answers for Old Questions about the Civil War-Era North, which looks like it needs to go on my pile of books to read:

How can these accounts be folded into the current narrative of the war?  The answer is that they cannot.  The best way to reach an understanding of what really happened at Bull Run and the events that followed is to rethink what soldiers when through in combat.  Watching GIs commit “un-American acts” against German soldiers in Italy during World War II pushed the combat artist George Biddle to seek a reassessment of the soldiers’ combat ordeal.  He wrote that it was unfair for civilians to think of soldiers as heroes or stars.  Instead, he thought it more appropriate that soldiers be viewed as survivors of a great disaster like a mine collapse or a burning building.  Only then could civilians truly understand the desperate circumstances and decisions under which soldiers fought. (p. 150)

My bold.

That makes a lot of sense to me. As the subject doesn’t naturally draw me, I have not asked many soldiers about their experiences. I recall only two: my grandfather and a man I went to college with. Though I had access to him for a good twenty years and a good decade of interest in history before I worked up the nerve to have the conversation, I asked my grandfather only once. I did not hear the usual stories one would expect, and which the media has primed us for, when it comes to veterans of the Second World War.

I felt bad afterwards. He volunteered quite a bit, but I clearly stirred some very unpleasant memories. I only ever saw him cry that day and at my grandmother’s funeral. A cousin took him to Saving Private Ryan and apparently got a similar response. He obviously did not feel like a hero, but rather a survivor.  He spent some effort, I don’t think entirely successfully, convincing himself that the war had to happen and his job had to be done. He clearly preferred an alternative he suggested then: each country sends its biggest couple of guys to fight it out somewhere and abide by the results.

Which brings us back to imagining people complexly again, I suppose. The heroic narrative denies soldiers their humanity, turning them into cardboard cutouts of patriotic virtue just as much as a narrative of historic Southerners always chomping at the bit for secession, or present day Southerners locked in embittered Confederate stasis for a hundred and fifty years denies them their humanity. They could have more than one thing in their head at a time, just like everyone else.

A soldier might fight for flag, for family, for a culture he wants to preserve, for Union, slavery, adventure, independence, to prove his manhood, to escape things at home, the list goes on and on. But that soldier remains a person. His warfare does not remove his humanity any more than it enhances it. That same soldier also feels fear, sees things few of us would like to see, and lives with the memories of terror and horrors that may far exceed peacetime imagining. The soldier creates victims of war with his weapon, but in doing so he also himself becomes a victim.

I don’t mean to equate shooter with target here, but the vast number of soldiers required for anything resembling a modern war precludes recruiting just from the minority of humans who don’t have any problem killing others. Rather war puts them in positions where they receive encouragement to do so and where circumstances and concern for their own futures demand it. The two are not quite the same, but it almost makes more sense to view a soldier like we would a person who accidentally ran over someone with their car. We naturally care more about the victim, or at least we want to, but the person behind the wheel or behind the gun pays a personal price for the act as well.

That said, I have one reservation. I imagine Bennett probably talks about this in the full essay, which I’ve yet to read, but I think it’s worth saying anyway: Mine collapses and burning buildings just happen. Rarely are they the result of deliberate sabotage. Wars, by their very nature, require people deciding that they shall make war upon one another and so, consequently, that other people shall pay the costs in their blood, broken bodies, and scars less visible but no less real. Those disasters don’t just happen; we make them happen.