In this era of political correctness symbols of the Confederacy have come under increasing attack by the media and many special interest groups. Monuments, flags and even the names of men who served have been subjected to barrages of contempt and protest by people who find them to be personally offensive. Of course the main target of their consternation is the battle flag which is also known as the St. Andrew’s Cross. What many people do not know is that this flag was never the national flag of the Confederacy. It was not even the only battle flag used by the Confederate armies but that brings me to my point. Southern history (and history in general) seems to be misunderstood by the majority of people.
Many people that speak out against the battle flag do so because they believe it symbolizes the Confederate States of America which in their mind was created only to defend and perpetuate the institution of slavery. Many of these same critics seem unaware or unwilling to consider the men, who fought, suffered and died under this flag were fighting for many different reasons. The least of these for most of them was slavery. So, what were the motives that caused soldiers to fight, suffer and in many cases die for the Confederacy in the War Between the States?
In the novel Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier, a Confederate soldier named Inman has had enough late in the war and leaves the battlefields for home. In North Carolina he meets an old mountain woman who asks him: “Did you own any (slaves)?” “No. Not hardly anybody I knew did.” “Then what stirred you up enough for fighting and dying?” “Four years ago I maybe could have told you. Now I don’t know. I guess many of us fought to drive off invaders.” Frazier’s Inman was not alone in having expressed that thought. In Ken Burns’ PBS television series The Civil War, novelist-turned-historian Shelby Foote is asked the same question the mountain woman asked Inman. He replies with this anecdote: “Early on in the war, a Union squad closed in on a single ragged Confederate. He didn’t own any slaves and he obviously didn’t have much interest in the Constitution or anything else. And they asked him what are you fighting for? He said, ‘I’m fighting because you’re down here.”
The best evidence gathered and studied by some of the most renowned historians of the day bear out the contention that defense of slavery was not what the War was all about to the Southern yeomanry who actually fought it. That evidence can be found in the letters and diaries of the soldiers themselves. The book For Cause and Comrade: Why Men Fought in the Civil War by James M. McPherson is based on the reading of some 25,000 letters and 249 diaries written by Union and Confederate soldiers. McPherson found no opposition to slavery in the Southerners’ writings and only 20 percent of them even mentioned slavery at all. To extrapolate even further only 12 percent of the men from non-slave-owning families did. McPherson found Southern hatred of Northerners was a far stronger motivation to fight. Many young Southerners viewed the Yankees in the same manner that most of their ancestors viewed the British of 1776 and 1812. They just wanted to be left alone. They wanted to be their own nation with their own idea of liberty and justice. They considered themselves patriots for fighting back, slavery or no slavery.
Toward the end of the war the the Confederate government considered emancipation in order to draft black soldiers. Many soldiers expressed the view in letters and diaries that they preferred a slave free Confederacy than re-joining the Union with slavery intact. In his book The Confederate War by Gary W. Gallagher, he reminds the reader that General Robert E. Lee urged Jefferson Davis to consider emancipation early in the War to no avail. The Confederate Constitution legitimized slavery and so did Southern public opinion. Gallagher also studied this subject through letters, diaries and the newspapers of the day. He concluded that while the Confederacy was truly a nation united in purpose and sense of identity the reason for that was not the elected government and political institutions as much as it was the public perception of Lee and his soldiers. They were “the critical agents that engendered unity and hope and the preeminent symbols of the Confederate struggle for independence and liberty.”
That brings up another reason unrelated to slavery as to why Southerners went into battle. Many young men of that time and place had a very gallant idea of war. The classic book The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy by Bell I. Wiley begins with: “The man who was to be Johnny Reb was rarin’ for a fight in the spring of 1861.” Wiley pioneered the use of letters and diaries in studying its subjects and was first published in 1943.
Another factor was State loyalty. Many of the Confederacy’s greatest champions like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson for instance were not in favor of secession and only followed the South out of loyalty to their home state of Virginia. Modern day students of the era often forget that in the 19th Century most individuals felt greater loyalty to their home or adopted states than to the government and nation at large. During that era one was a Virginian, Pennsylvanian or a Kentuckian first and an American second.
Other factors for Southern men to go to war include: peer pressure, boredom, and indoctrination. These same reasons have motivated many and perhaps most soldiers all throughout human history. Most soldiers on either side probably also went to war for at least one of these three reasons. Entire communities were emptied of their young men and those who stayed behind were liable to be mocked by their female contemporaries. Since many soldiers were poor farmers, boredom and the simple longing for adventure may have inspired many of them. In the 19th century the lack of transportation options caused most people to never travel more than fifty miles away from their homes. Other men would have been roused to righteous indignation by the rhetoric that was used to inflame the populaces on both the sides.
In closing, Confederate symbols reflect Southern heritage and serve to honor the brave soldiers that fought for what they believed was right. Regrettably, I must admit slavery was a component but human bondage was also an accepted practice in the United States until 1865 when the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified. It is estimated that around 100,000 people were not freed until the Amendment went into effect on December 18. To assume that both of these countries’ symbols represent hate and racism because of this is an illogical conclusion.
It is important to keep in mind an analogy of symbols that represent the United States of America (which I also proudly honor and respect). Monuments, flags and even the names of men that served this great nation are rarely vilified but American history can be questioned as well. Remember, besides slavery this nation violently uprooted and in many cases mass murdered Native American men, women and children. It also imprisoned thousands of Japanese American men, women and children in internment camps during World War II. And it also was a country that considered all women unworthy of voting or owning property. These examples were not products of some minority extremist movement but widely sponsored by actions of our federal government.
So, while American symbols at different times in our history represented a country that permitted human bondage, performed genocide, unlawfully imprisoned thousands and sanctioned sexist policies, nobody ever suggests that we should hate them like some do with Confederate symbols. Instead they are passionately embraced by most citizens as symbols of American culture and heritage in the same way that Confederate symbols should be allowed to be embraced as symbols of Southern culture and heritage and not just slavery.