I distinctly remember the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. That was 2011, and back then we had a black president. To ninth-grade me in South Carolina, where I grew up, the history seemed settled, long dead despite its visible reminders. There were a few leftover plantation houses and the annual battle reenactment in a field near our Walmart, but referring to the “War of Northern Aggression” in APUSH still got you laughed out of the classroom and even the hardest of the Carhartt-clad, Confederate-flag-toting dippers could have a black boyfriend. Those few who spoke earnestly in defense of Secession stopped short of justifying slavery, at least in public.
A few years on, that legacy is now more uncomfortable than ever. Yet the South’s status quo seemed of no national concern until Dylann Roof suddenly forced it up against the new racial climate of our post-Ferguson reality. What is at issue now is less what the history is or its character, because I believe few Southerners, let alone Americans more broadly, see the Antebellum South or the Jim Crow era as a model to return to. The question now is rather what relation that past does and should bear to contemporary politics, a question manifesting in debate over what its symbols — namely, the battle flag and the Confederate memorials — mean today.
This is nothing new. The Civil War has been the subject of reinterpretation since before the last Minié ball met its mark, but every political repurposing is selective and so with every round leaves behind some gristle to be worked out in the future. In the first hundred years following the war, it was expedient to white America to bury the memory of the horrors of slavery and emphasize the valor and dignity of both sides in order to reintegrate the two culturally and politically fractured halves of the country. Later, black Americans began to forcibly unsuppress their history from the national conscience in order to work towards a more equal position in society.
What remains of the Lost Cause myth and the unsavory realities of slavery have coexisted, if not comfortably then at least manageably, until only recently. Now the mood has shifted, and because those in the rest of the country have come to see the last physical vestiges of the Confederacy as responsible for sustaining systematic white supremacy, they suddenly feel a real stake in what flags fly on the South Carolina statehouse, what statues populate Dixie’s public places. Unfortunately the simpler question as to whether or not these objects should be removed obscures the deeper question as to which parts of the South’s history should and shouldn’t be actively forgotten.
If there are any parts that should be salvaged, which? And how can they be salvaged when the rest must be thrown away? I don’t quite have an answer to this question, except to say that it’s not easy to move on from anything in the past, not for an individual, much less for a society. Some of the memorials I believe are worth keeping. One such whose tearing down was recorded and posted on social media bore the inscription “In memory of ‘the boys who wore the gray.’” Whatever they fought for (which, at the level of the individual, is mostly unknowable for us), they were sons and fathers and brothers, and their lives had value. When the statue was erected in 1924, the war was in living memory; some of their mothers and widows likely attended the unveiling.
Others can go. I see no reason to honor Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and their like. However, we once put up statues in their honor, and we can never afford to forget that. These memorials I’d propose preserving in museums or — a more novel solution, if I may say so — recontextualizing them with companion statues honoring specific figures who fought slavery (e.g. Harriet Tubman) or merely the anonymous millions of black Americans who lived and died enslaved. Rather than strike out the parts of our past that no longer reflect our values, I say we add information by visually representing how far we’ve come from those old values.
The Civil War has no single authoritative meaning and we should not force it to have one. We must admit the complexity of what that history has meant if the South is ever to deal with its past and use it productively in the future. Over my first winter break, I bought two Confederate flag shot glasses (I was a freshman, after all), partly as a reminder of home, partly in the hopes of shocking some unsuspecting pregame guest. By the end of the year, I was sick of them. They bore more weight than I cared for and didn’t represent what I like about the South anyways.
Later, I launched them up into the air in a parking lot to see them shower down and smash to unrecognizable bits. Some things are easier to move on from than others.
Contact Iain Espey at iespey ‘at’ stanford.edu.