You Can’t Change History


When some people call for the removal of Confederate Soldiers Memorials or Monuments or of statues honoring leading Confederate generals or officials, or government displays of the Confederate Battle Flag, defenders of these assert that the displays have nothing to do with racism. They only wish to honor their ancestors for their valor, gallantry, and bravery. This wish, the defenders say, has nothing to do with the causes for which their ancestors fought. Besides, they assert, you can’t change history.

It is not hard to demonstrate that these defenses are, knowingly or unknowingly, disingenuous. The issue turns on just to whom it is that “their ancestors” refers. They are not referring to the ancestors of all residents of Florida, or South Carolina, or any other Confederate state (or any loyal state from which soldiers enlisted to fight for the Confederacy). In 1860, the Florida’s population was about 140,000, of whom about 80,000 were white and 60,000 were black slaves. About 1/3 of Florida’s 15,000 white families owned slaves. I conclude from this that the only people in Florida today who would defend a Confederate Soldiers Monument on the grounds that “we are only honoring their ancestors” are white residents honoring white ancestors. If the “we” and “our” of “We only wish to honor our ancestors for their courage and bravery” refer to all 1860 Florida residents, then today’s Florida residents, including white and black people, would not chose the Confederate Battle Flag to honor all of Florida’s 1860 residents.

Nor will it hold water for the defenders of the monuments and flags to say that they only mean to honor the brave soldiers of that era. They are leaving out a significant part of Florida’s Civil War soldiers by only honoring Confederate fighters. During the Civil War years, about 15,000 Florida white men fought for the Confederacy. Florida also raised several regiments of white soldiers who fought for the Union. Freed slaves also enlisted in U S Colored regiments and fought for their freedom and the freedom of their still enslaved brothers and sisters. I have found contradictory data on the numbers, but there were several regiments of each, and there were several thousand white and black Union soldiers from Florida. Why are there no monuments to them? I confess that this is a rhetorical question, because I know the answer, and I’m sure you can guess it.

This situation applies to all of the Confederate States, and to Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri, slave states that remained (with Delaware) in the Union. Consider, just to take one more example, the case of South Carolina. In 1860, its population was 700,000: 300,000 white people, and 400,000 black slaves. Nearly half of South Carolina’s 60,000 families owned slaves. Slaves were nearly 60% of South Carolina’s population. Just what do South Carolina’s legislators, and editorial writers mean when they say “We wish to fly the Confederate Battle Flag at the Confederate Soldiers Monument on the State Capitol’s grounds to honor our ancestors”?

I ran across an elegant expression of this idea in remarks by the great narrative historian of the Civil War, Shelby Foote. If you watched Ken Burns’ PBS Civil War documentary, you saw Shelby Foote many times with his informative, knowledgeable, and genial remarks. Here’s his picture, which I’m sure you’ll recognize from Ken Burns:

I got this from Wikipedia.

I think his three volume The Civil War: A Narrative is wonderful historical writing. It’s three volumes and 2400 pages, so make sure you have a comfortable chair for reading. Mr. Foote is a Southerner, born in Mississippi in 1916. His paternal grandfather, who he never met, was a Confederate veteran. Growing up he lived in Greenville, Jackson, and Vicksburg, MS, in Pensacola, FL, and Mobile, AL. He attended the Univ. of North Carolina for a time and served during WW II in both the Army and the Marines. He did not see combat. He is definitely a Southerner. In remarks in a Bibliographical Note, on page 813 of Vol. 1, he remarks that he had known some Confederate veterans, including a drummer boy, the last survivor of the ones he knew. In these remarks, he says that he is a novelist, not a professional historian. Nevertheless, he strove for accuracy and balance, and in my opinion he achieved both. Yet on page 816, he refers to those veterans he knew and to his desire for balance and says: “…I hope I have recovered the respect they [the Confederate veterans] had for their opponents until Reconstruction lessened and finally killed it.” I’m afraid that this view of Reconstruction reflects the ideas in D. W. Griffiths famous movie from 1915, Birth of a Nation. You wouldn’t find a remark like that in Eric Foner’s book Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877.

Foote continues: “Biased is the last thing I would be; I yield to no one in my admiration for heroism and ability, no matter which side of the line a man was born or fought on when the war broke out, … If pride in the resistance my forebears made against the odds has leaned me to any degree in their direction, I hope it will be seen to amount to no more, in the end, than the average American’s normal sympathy for the underdog in a fight.”

At this point, and to understand who he’s thinking about when he says “my forebears”, I have the 1860 US Census data for Mississippi. The population was a bit under 800,000, of whom nearly 440,000 were black slaves, and about 355,000 were white people. That is, a majority of Mississippi residents were black people. Of the more than 60,000 families, about half owned slaves. Thus, I conclude that “my forebears” does not refer to Mississippians of 1860, but of white Mississippians. Indeed, about 18,000 black men served in the Union Army. I don’t think Shelby Foote has them in his mental picture of “my forebears” when he is thinking of valiant soldiers. According to a Mississippi state government web site about “80,000 white Mississippians fought in the Confederate Army; some 500 white Mississippians fought for the Union. More than 17,000 black Mississippi slaves and freedmen fought for the Union.” I see that more than 40,000 white Tennesseans fought for the Union. More than 20,000 Tennessee black men served in U. S. Colored Regiments, and several thousand more in Home Guards units.

Furthermore, by his construction, the Civil War was a struggle between white soldiers resulting from a difference of opinion about a presidential election. In this struggle, he asserts that the Confederates were the underdog. But they were not. The three and a half million black slaves oppressed by the 5.5 million Southern whites were the underdogs. Of course, Shelby Foote knows this. It’s why, I’d say, that his brilliant history is a narrative of battles and marches, with little discussion of the larger reasons the soldiers fought. I can contrast this with James McPherson’s great book Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. McPherson narrates the battles, but half of his book is about the social, political, and economic movements that produced that terrible conflict and motivated the fighters and their civilian supporters. The issue of the causes of the Civil War and the motivations of the fighters is a large, complex, and controversial one. I’ll have to explain my views in another post.

While it is true that we cannot change the events of the past, people can and do change history: what we know about the past. Those who defend Confederate monuments and displays of its battle flag are the ones who have erased the contribution of white and black Southerners to the Union war effort. Where are the monuments to them in Florida, South Carolina, Mississippi, and elsewhere? Those who defend Confederate monuments and displays of its battle flag who have erased the primary cause of the Civil War, well known and accepted by people on both sides at that time. That cause was black African slavery.

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