Erasing History: George Orwell, Meet the Anti-Confederates

Civil war reenactment at Kennekuk County Park,...
Civil war reenactment at Kennekuk County Park, near Danville, Illinois (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On Thursday, the US House of Representatives approved (as part of a Department of Veterans Affairs spending bill) a measure to limit the display of the Confederate flag in national cemeteries. This measure builds on an ongoing movement to eliminate Confederate statues and memorials from public property and even from public view. I oppose the whole idea, but it’s a sensitive enough issue that I’m going to have to give some background to explain why.

I was born in the south (Memphis, Tennessee) and raised in southern Missouri, where Confederate “bushwhackers” fought Union troops through the entirety of the Civil War and beyond. I grew up in the era of The Dukes of Hazzard and the Charlie Daniels Band’s “The South’s Gonna Do It Again,” when displays of  the Confederate flag were commonplace and uncontroversial.

Later, I lived in Springfield, Missouri, where the national cemetery includes both Union and Confederate memorials and a wall separates the Union and Confederate dead. When the subject of tearing down the wall came up, descendants of the Confederates successfully fought it.

These days, I live in Gainesville, Florida, where a Confederate memorial statue graces the courthouse lawn and the public school district’s headquarters are named after Confederate general Edmund Kirby Smith.

Some libertarians glorify the history of the Confederacy on the claim that the Union side was even worse. I’m not one of them. “Neo-confederates” try to say the war was about secession, not slavery. They’re right. But secession was about slavery. The Confederacy fought to preserve the practice of enslaving black men, women and children, and it prolonged that fight by enslaving, through universal conscription, males as young as 15.  It also fought secession in western Virginia and hanged its own secessionists in eastern Tennessee. It’s a good thing the Confederates lost the war and that chattel slavery was eliminated, even at the cost of the lives of 1% of the population and the not entirely positive transformation of our shared society into another.

But I don’t favor erasing history. Not even ugly history.

I’m glad the tsarist palaces and Orthodox churches survived Russian communism and that the Chinese have preserved the Forbidden City. I’m glad the palace at Versailles survived the French Revolution and that the Arc de Triomphe wasn’t torn down when Napoleon went into his final exile on Saint Helena. I’m glad that we’re still able to contemplate the horrors of Auschwitz in person instead of only examining old photos, and that the echoes of gladiatorial combat can still be faintly heard in the imagination as one passes by the Colosseum in Rome.

I’m fine with proposals to vest ownership and maintenance costs of our nation’s monuments — not just Confederate monuments, but all of them — in private conservation and preservation groups instead of demanding the financial support of unwilling taxpayers for their upkeep.

I’m not fine with Orwellian proposals to scrub the Confederacy from America’s memory. History happened. We should acknowledge it and learn from it, not fearfully flee its very mention.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.

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  • Was it Confederate General Johnston that supposedly said, “We should have freed the slaves and then fired on Fort Sumter”.

    I’m one who believes slavery had little to do with the Civil War, especially after reading some quotes from Lincoln along the lines of, if he could keep the union together without abolishing slavery, he would.

    So why did slavery become as big an issue as it did? I’d suggest times haven’t changed much and it was the need to find a reason to fight- a way to demonize the enemy. Just as we saw in ww2, with pictures of nazi soldiers impaling infants on bayonets, and screams of Assad “using chemical weapons on his own people, people need to be motivated to fight.

    Remember the north didn’t attack the south, even after the south fired on Ft. Sumter, until the south withheld tariffs the north felt was due. Times hasn’t changed much: Follow the money.

    Yep, slavery was brought up by both sides, but I’d suggest it was made an issue to demonize the other side.

    And remember that the Emancipation Proclamation only freed slaves in the south, not the north.

    Why do so many of us like to believe it was all about slavery? Because Americans like to believe in the altruism of their government. After all, we would never attack a country or people for money, would we? We attacked the south to defend human rights, right? And we can all feel great about the Civil War and Lincoln. If we couldn’t bring slavery into the Civil War, it might be a national embarrassment now.

    • Fred,

      The north’s motivation in the war wasn’t to end slavery. It was to suppress secession. Lincoln used the limited Emancipation Proclamation as a military measure and only pushed through the 13th Amendment as the war drew to a close.

      But the south’s motivation in secession was to defend slavery. If you don’t believe me, ask them — that’s what their ordinances of secession said.

      The north didn’t wait for tariffs to be due to attack the south. The bombardment of Sumter was from April 12-14. Lincoln issued his call for 75,000 volunteers on April 15. The first major battle was only three months later. Takes time to recruit, train and deploy troops. Amazing it only took three months prior to modern transport and such.

      • Delaney Coffer

        Well stated. If slavery was to be ended, the South was determined to do it on her own terms and not those of the North.

  • el_kabong_dice_salta

    Yet there was substantial disagreement within the
    Confederacy with regard to slavery. Pray
    tell what would have changed if slaves go from being property to being paid a
    market salary for plantation work? Some
    leave sure, many don’t. Your article
    leads the reader to assume every Confederate character of significance opposed
    this move, a “damn it, we will have Africans plucked from their homes and working
    our fields or die trying,” mindset. It
    is a mischaracterization, to be polite about it; and given your apparent
    knowledge on the subject, qualifies as disingenuous.

    I sometimes wonder if future generations will
    make such impromptu judgments about us. In
    recent history, Americans have consumed a great deal of products made under
    less than ideal circumstances. To claim
    ignorance of the slave labor practices of the modern world would make us no
    different than the average citizen of the Confederate States. How ironic.