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.
- “Erasing History: George Orwell, Meet the Anti-Confederates,” by Thomas L. Knapp, Ventura County, California Citizens Journal, 05/20/16
- “History must not be erased,” by Thomas L. Knapp, Orangeburg, South Carolina Times & Democrat, 05/23/16
- “George Orwell, meet the anti-Confederates,” by Thomas L. Knapp, Roanoke, Virginia Times, 05/27/16
- “George Orwell, meet the anti-Confederates,” by Thomas L. Knapp, Martinsville, Virginia Bulletin, 05/27/16
- “Erasing history: George Orwell, meet the Anti-Confederates,” by Thomas L. Knapp, Waynesboro, Virginia News Virginian, 05/27/16
- “Erasing history: George Orwell, meet the anti-Confederates,” by Thomas L. Knapp, Fayette, West Virginia Tribune, 06/27/16