Southern Heritage Then and Now

By March 22, 2017Blog

Order of the Southern Cross Banquet, Sons of Confederate Veterans National Reunion, Asheville, North Carolina, August 1, 2003

As the direct descendant of a private in the 42nd North Carolina and a sergeant in the 20th North Carolina, I am honoured to talk to a group descended from notable officers in our War of Independence–or the War to Prevent Southern Independence, as I like to name it.

Nobody gave me any orders as to what to talk about, which is a happy situation. I am going to talk about “Southern Heritage Then and Now,” about the place of Southern heritage in American life.

We all know that before and during the War and during Reconstruction and for years afterward, our ancestors were officially the demons of American history. We were the evil people who tried to “destroy the greatest nation on earth” because of our lust for slavery. This is easy to believe if you start out with the assumption that everything Yankees do is always righteous and that, obviously, any people who don’t want the inestimable blessing of being governed by Yankees are by definition bad people.

There were always decent Northerners who decried this bloody-shirt mentality. It was, interestingly, the Northerners who had actually fought in the War who wanted to treat defeated Southerners with respect and to do what they had fought for—restore the American Union—rather than continue to oppress, exploit, and slander the South.

Joshua Chamberlain at Appomattox saluted the defeated. He later wrote of the Confederates: “There stood before us … the embodiment of manhood, men whom neither toils and sufferings, nor the fact of death, nor hopelessness could bend from their resolve.” And he remembered his feeling was not of triumph but rather that all Americans should fall down on their knees and beg forgiveness.

Another hard fighting Union soldier, Ambrose Bierce, was enraged by a Republican orator who wanted to prevent the decoration of Confederate graves. He wrote these verses:

The brave respect the brave. The brave
Respect the dead; but you—you draw
That ancient blade, the ass’s jaw,
And shake it o’er a hero’s grave.

But such generous foes then were a minority.

In the 1890s, things began to change. A truce was called to which most Northerners and Southerners subscribed in good faith. It was symbolized by Charles Francis Adams, Jr., who in 1907 made a speech on the centennial of R.E. Lee’s birth called “Lee, the American.” This speech was delivered in Boston and Charleston and others places. (Charles, Jr. was the only one of the Adamses who actually fought in the War, by the way.)

The truce was also symbolized by Fitz Lee and Joe Wheeler and many Southern volunteers joining up for the war with Spain and by joint reunions of Union and Confederate veterans. And by D.W. Griffith, the genius of early American cinema and son of a Confederate soldier, who produced The Birth of a Nation, which combined a sympathetic account of Southern experience with an admiring portrait of Lincoln.

The terms of the Truce went something like this. Northerners agreed to stop demonizing Southerners and to recognize that we had been brave and sincere and honourable in the War, although misguided in trying to break up the Union. Northerners agreed also that Reconstruction was a great wrong that would not have happened if Lincoln had lived. And they willingly accepted Confederate heroes like Lee and Jackson as American heroes.

For our part, Southerners agreed, in exchange for a little respect, that we were glad that the Union had not been broken up and that we would be loyal Americans ever after, something which we have proved a thousand-fold since.

And both agreed that the War had been a great tragedy with good and bad on both sides, a great suffering out of which had emerged a better and stronger United States.

The Truce held pretty well for a long time, til past the middle of the 20th century. I have seen a photograph of Franklin D. Roosevelt making a speech before a huge Confederate battle flag. Harry Truman picked the romantic equestrian painting of Lee and Jackson for the lobby of his Presidential Library. Churchill wrote admiringly of Confederates in his History of the English Speaking Peoples, and Gone with the Wind, book and movie, was loved by audiences worldwide.

If you look at the Hollywood movies and also the real pictures from World War II, you will see battle flags painted on U.S. fighter planes and flying over Marine tents in New Guinea. Well, my friends, that truce is over.

Let me tell a few stories from recent history. George W. Bush, while governor of a Southern state and running for president, sent his henchmen in the middle of the night to remove two harmless UDC plaques from a state office building. Governor Pataki of New York banned the true Georgia flag from the display at the state capitol.

More recently, Vice-President Cheney refused to come to the funeral of a longtime respected Congressman if that Congressman’s wishes to have a Confederate flag and “Dixie” at his funeral were followed. The Secret Service was on hand to make sure that the V.P. was not embarrassed by any display of evil symbols of the Confederacy. (Nevertheless, a few months later, he came back and South Carolinians gave him a dinner at which they contributed $300,000 to his campaign chest.)

These are not leftwing multiculturalists. These are so-called “conservative” Republicans. These are people who could not have been elected without the votes of Confederate descendants.

I could spend the rest of the month talking about the total unconditional surrender of Southern institutions to organized hatred of the South. Right now, there is a carpetbagger who holds an endowed chair in history at a major Southern state university who teaches that America would be a better place if Southerners had been exterminated at the end of the War. Another carpetbagger in another endowed chair in history in the South teaches that so-called Southern honour was nothing but crude, violent suppression of dissent. Another teaches that Southern women did not really support the War and their menfolk, but were in secret rebellion against the white male ruling elite. Another teaches that every favourable thing we believe about our ancestors’ courage, skill, and honour is a “Lost Cause Myth,” a pack of lies made up after the War to cover up our evil and failure.

When the Confederate flag controversy was raging in my state, some 90 historians in the state signed a statement which said that the Confederate flag represents slavery and nothing but slavery, and that this is not an opinion but is a “fact” established by their expert knowledge. The unstated premise was that South Carolinians are deluded about our own history and need to be corrected by wiser people. What they are really saving is that we should discard our history and accept their myths.

Of course, many of these historians were in other fields and knew nothing about the War. Some were recent imports from strange places like Burma or California. Their position did not rest on study and knowledge. It is a party line that you must agree to, to be a member of the club of so-called “experts,” an officially proclaimed “truth” not too different from what used to pass for history in the late Soviet Union.

But my main point is: The Truce is over. Those times are gone. gone. gone. Yet many of those who are charged with the defense of our heritage are living in a dream world, pretending that it is still 1950. The breaking of the truce has nothing to do with us. We did nothing to cause it. We kept our part of the bargain. It has happened because they have changed and they are in a mode which requires them to scapegoat us—and not for the first time in history.

We have been for several years now fighting brush fires instead of realizing that we are in a war—a cultural cold war with an enemy who wants us dead. Our Confederate heritage is being banished to a dark little forbidden corner of American life labeled “Slavery and Treason.” And incidentally, all the vast admirable contributions of Southerners to American history over four centuries are redefined as “American” and not really “Southern.”

The people who are after our heritage are not folks we can win over by presenting historical evidence and assuring them that we are good, loyal Americans free of hate. They could not care less about truth or heritage. In fact, they don’t even know what we are talking about when we speak of honouring heritage, that is, respecting our forebears. We are not in an argument over the interpretation of the past. Our very identity as Southerners—today and tomorrow, as well as yesterday—is at stake.

If I am right, what should we do? First, I think, we need to embrace and claim all of Southern history, from Captain John Smith and Pocahantas right up to this moment. The four years of war, as important as that is, is only a part of the long and continuing history of Southern people. The SCV summer camps are a great idea. So is the “Lincoln Reconsidered” conference recently sponsored by the Virginia SCV and the Abbeville Institute summer schools. We need many more such events where respectable scholars can be mobilized to challenge their mythology. We ought to commission a thorough, comprehensive documentation of Union army atrocities, which are now being played down as insignificant, and perhaps mount a campaign for reparations —for after all. Southerners are a people who have been, and still are being, economically exploited through the whole existence of the United States.

But most of all, we need to reorient our thinking and fight this war rather than the last one. And I must say that many of those Southerners who have the most power and influence have betrayed the Southern people and left the real fight to be carried on by blue collar Southern white males, who have less public power than any group in the United States today. We need action from Southerners who have influence, who make campaign contributions, who can call up governors and state legislators and newspaper editors and put on some real pressure.

In one of the greatest of all war films, the 1964 Zulu, there is a scene just before a few hundred British soldiers are attacked by thousands of war eager natives. An anxious young soldier asks: “Why us?” The veteran unflappable old sergeant-major replies: “Because we’re here, boy, that’s why.” We are here. If we are going to save our heritage as a part of American life, it will have to be done by us. After us, it will be too late.

Clyde Wilson

Clyde Wilson is a distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at the University of South Carolina where he was the editor of the multivolume The Papers of John C. Calhoun. He is the M.E. Bradford Distinguished Chair at the Abbeville Institute. He is the author or editor of over thirty books and published over 600 articles, essays and reviews and is co-publisher of, a source  for unreconstructed Southern books.

Leave a Reply