Honoring “Our” Brave and Valiant Confederate Ancestors


When people object to Confederate memorials and displays of Confederate flags on the grounds that they are racist (and treasonous), defenders of the memorials usually say that the displays have nothing to do with racism or slavery, but merely honor “our” heritage and the valor and courage of “our” ancestors. Besides, they often add, you can’t change history.

These defenses, however, are disingenuous. A key question is to whom “our” refers. Are they thinking of all Floridians, all South Carolinians, or just white Southerners, or just those white Southerners who fought for the Confederacy? It is easy to demonstrate just who these defenders have in mind.

Here’s an example. In the United States Capitol states provide statues of two state heroes for display in the National Statuary Hall. Florida honors two of its own. One statue honors Dr. John Gorrie, a 19th century physician, who experimented futilely with methods to cool hospital wards, hanging blocks of ice near the ceilings. He bankrupted himself, as have many Florida dreamers, but achieved everlasting fame in Florida. The other statue honors Edmund Kirby Smith, born in St. Augustine in 1824, a West Point graduate and officer in the US Army until he resigned his commission to take up arms for the Confederacy. He was among the highest ranking Confederate officers, and at the end of the war commanded forces west of the Mississippi. He led his men in the final battle of the war and was the last Confederate general to surrender his men.

Here he is as a US Army officer, in a photograph I got from Wikipedia:

Fearing capture and trial for treason, he fled to Mexico. His wife negotiated on his behalf for a safe return. As the United States was generally gracious toward former soldiers, even officers, he returned to live a life mainly as a college professor and botanist. The Florida legislature chose to honor him with a statue in the US Capitol in the 1920s. He also figures in historical displays in St. Augustine as my darling wife and I saw during a recent visit to that city.

In 1827 there was another US Army officer born in St. Augustine: Stephen Vincent Benet. This Benet was the grandfather of the author of the narrative poem John Brown’s Body, published in 1928. The first Stephen Benet’s father appears in the 1860 census as a slave owner.  Stephen Benet attended West Point, graduating in 1849, too late for the Mexican-American war. He was an ordnance officer throughout his career. During the Civil War he served as a commander of arsenals, and as a professor at West Point. After the war he attained the rank of Brigadier General and wrote books on military history, military law, and technical matters of ordnance.

Here he is:

Florida is a state in the United States. All of its citizens are citizens of the United States. Today, those Floridians who serve as military men and women do so in the US armed forces. Why do you suppose that Florida’s government chose to honor Edmund Kirby Smith and to ignore Stephen Vincent Benet?

I suppose it was because subsequent to the Civil War, the majority of Florida’s white citizens believed that the rebels cause had been right and just, and that the Union had won, somehow, unfairly. While civil wars arise from complex causes at many levels, and men fight both for individual reasons and for social ones, the cause for which Southern white men fought as rebels was the preservation and extension of the economic and social system of black slavery.

By the way, Florida legislators are finally planning to remedy this insult to the United States. They intend to remove Edmund Kirby Smith’s statute, and they’ve been researching who should replace him. The favorite at the moment is Mary McLeod Bethune, a black Florida educator. A good choice in my opinion.

Related to the honor or not of these two distinguished sons of St. Augustine is the matter of who is honored for their Civil War service on the city’s square. Florida seceded from the United States on January 10, 1861. It was the third state to do so. At that time the population of the state was about 140,000 people of whom about 62,000 were slaves, and 78,000 were white people. During the war about 15,000 white Florida men served in the Confederate Army, and about 5,000 died. About 1,000 of those died in combat. The cause was generally popular, and many young white men volunteered for service. The secessionist state legislature encouraged enlistment by declaring opposition to its policies or support for the United States government treasonous.

Florida was a strategic backwater, and Union and Confederate armies fought only one significant battle in Florida, at Olustee in northern Florida in February 1864. The Union Navy, based primarily in Key West, established a blockade to stop both international trade and local and coastal movement. At a few ports, the Union Navy put marines and soldiers ashore and took possession of key cities such as Jacksonville. In March 1862, Union soldiers came ashore uncontested at St. Augustine, and the town remained under Union control for the rest of the war. Although many local white citizens resented the Union presence, black slaves escaped their masters and fled to Union controlled territory. Many of these former slaves, contrabands as they and their families were known, enlisted in United States Colored regiments. They served honorably, fighting for their freedom and that of their still enslaved brothers and sisters. To be clear about this, those Union Army soldiers, black men, were residents of St. Augustine and St. John’s County.

After the war when St. Augustine’s citizens thought to recognize the heroism of “their” brave and valiant soldiers, they chose to recognize only those who had fallen in the service of the Confederacy. I should have been more precise and said when St. Augustine’s white citizens thought to recognize the heroism of “their” soldiers, they thought only of white Confederate soldiers. Indeed, had those white citizens conceived the inconceivable, and ask their black neighbors, now free men and women, citizens of Florida and of the United States, I am confident that the black residents would not have approved of recognizing those who had fought to maintain slavery. Perhaps they would have expected recognition of the bravery of the soldiers of the Colored Regiments.

Thus, it is untrue to claim that the memorials to Confederate soldiers and waving the Confederate flags merely celebrates “our” ancestors and has nothing to do with race. To whom does “our” refer? Those who built the monuments and defend them today have in mind white residents of St. Augustine, of Florida, and of the South. The many black residents do not enter into their mental picture of “our” ancestors.

I am confident that they would be offended by the suggestion to remove the St. Augustine Confederate soldiers’ monument (to a museum perhaps) and to replace it with a monument to all of Florida’s or St. Augustine’s residents who fought on either side. Indeed, many of Florida’s white men enlisted in the Union Army. This is the response that I received to a similar suggestion about Tampa’s Confederate Soldiers’ monument. I say expand “we” and “our” and brave “ancestors” to include all southerners who fought for both sides of that terrible war.

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