A Response to Attacks on Confederate Symbols and History

Michael T. Griffith


@All Rights Reserved

Third Edition

Recently I read with disappointment about the changing of the name of Vanderbilt University's Confederate Memorial Hall on the grounds that the name "Confederate" is a reminder of slavery and racism. As an American whose ancestors fought in the Confederate army, and as someone who is proud of his Southern heritage, I am increasingly saddened by the drive to portray any symbol, word, or historical figure associated with the Confederacy as evil and hateful.

I should add that I also say this as someone who has long supported affirmative action and minority set-asides, and as someone who maintains a Web page to educate the public about the abuse that many African Americans have suffered during much of our nation's history. I also say this as someone who has been active in my community to oppose police mistreatment of African Americans.

I'm an American who's proud of his nation and its heritage, but that doesn't mean I have to defend everything my country has said or done. For example, I regret the way the federal government, and especially the federal army, treated the American Indians for decades in the nineteenth century. Similarly, I'm proud of my Southern heritage and of my Confederate ancestors, but I don't have to defend everything every Confederate leader said or did.

When judged fairly and in the context of the 19th century, Confederate symbols are no more reminders of hate or racism than is the Stars and Stripes. Slavery existed for much longer under the Stars and Stripes than under the Confederate flag. Our original U.S. Constitution permitted slavery, mandated the return of fugitive slaves, protected the slave trade for 20 years, and only recognized African Americans as counting for three-fifths of white men for the purpose of determining congressional representation.

It was precisely because of these facts that some early anti-slavery leaders denounced the Constitution, spurned the American flag, and even burned the Constitution in public. One leading abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, urged the state of Massachusetts to secede from the Union. Garrison called the Constitution "an agreement with hell." Garrison wanted no part of America, her constitution, or her flag.

What do we say to militant American Indians who don't like the American flag because to them it's a symbol of racism, broken promises and outright genocide? Certainly one can understand their feelings, but one would also hope they would be able to see the good our flag represents.

Or how about the atrocious wage slavery and child labor that existed in the Northern states, before, during and long after the Civil War? Even some Northern observers noted that many Northern factory workers were treated so badly that they were materially worse off than most plantation slaves in the South. The North had its fair share of social injustices. Yet, who in our day would seriously suggest that the Stars and Stripes is a symbol of wage slavery and child labor, even though those things existed for a long time under that flag?

Using the reasoning that is employed by opponents of Confederate symbols and history, one would have to call for the removal of the U.S. flag from all official buildings and property. One would also have to call for a ban on naming buildings and roads after such famous Union figures as William Tecumseh Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant, both of whom were racists and one of whom (Grant) used slave labor.

For that matter, Abraham Lincoln himself held decidedly racist views about African Americans. He even supported efforts to colonize them in foreign lands. Furthermore, during the war Lincoln repeatedly resisted the demand of the “Radical Republicans” (as they were commonly called) that he turn the war into a war against slavery.  He resisted this demand partly because slavery was still protected by the Constitution and because four of the Union states were slave states. Lincoln only issued the Emancipation Proclamation under intense pressure from the Radical Republicans and only as a war measure that was designed to weaken the Confederacy. Lincoln didn't seriously consider issuing the proclamation until federal forces were struggling on the battlefield. Lincoln told a former Congressman that one reason he issued the proclamation was that he feared that if he didn't issue some kind of emancipation statement, abolitionists in Congress were going to cut funding for military supplies. In addition, when Lincoln wrote the proclamation, he excluded all slaves who lived in areas that were under federal control; the proclamation only applied to slaves who were in Confederate territory. Northern abolitionists hoped the proclamation would lead to a slave revolt that would cripple the Confederacy. Shortly before the war began, Lincoln supported a proposed constitutional amendment that would have made it permanently impossible for the federal government to abolish slavery.  Because of these and other facts, even a few African-American scholars are critical of Lincoln. For example, African-American author Lerone Bennett, an editor for Ebony magazine, says, "There has been a systematic attempt to keep the American public from knowing the real Lincoln and the depth of his commitment to white supremacy." Bennett strongly criticizes Lincoln's record on race and slavery in his book Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln's White Dream (Chicago: Johnson Publishing Company, 2000).

Many people aren't aware that four of the states that fought for the Union were slave states. In addition, four of the states that joined the Confederacy did not take part in the first wave of secession; they didn’t leave the Union because of slavery but because they strongly objected to Lincoln's decision to use force against the seceded states. Those states--Tennessee, Virginia, Arkansas and North Carolina--initially rejected secession. They only seceded after Lincoln made it clear he was going to use force to compel the Deep South states to rejoin the Union.

What about the first seven Southern states to secede, i.e., the Deep South states? Did they secede only to preserve slavery? Did they put up such a fierce fight simply because they wanted to keep their slaves? The vast majority of the soldiers in the Confederate army were not slaveowners. At least 69 percent of Southern whites did not own slaves (and the figure was quite possibly closer to 85 or 90 percent). So why did Confederate soldiers fight so heroically against larger, better-fed, and better-equipped forces? Why did most Southern civilians support the Confederate cause? And why, in the first elections after the war, with the slaves freed and much of the South in ruins, did Southern voters elect former Confederates in truly overwhelming numbers? The answer is clear: Because the Deep South didn't secede, and didn't fight, merely to preserve slavery.  Although slavery was the chief factor that led the Deep South to secede, it was by no means the only factor.  The Deep South feared that the Republicans, especially the Radical Republicans, would seek to abolish slavery through illegal means and without compensation.  There were several other important reasons that the Deep South decided to separate from the Union. Secession and the war were two different events anyway—the causes of the one were not the causes of the other.  Most Southerners expected that Northern leaders would allow the South to leave in peace.  The vast majority of Southerners, both in the Deep South and in the Upper South, believed they were fighting to resist aggression and to preserve their independence. 

It’s important to note, furthermore, that the main dispute over slavery involved the extension of slavery into the western territories, not the continuation of slavery where it already existed.  Most Republicans were not opposed to the continuation of slavery in those states where it was already established.  Indeed, Lincoln’s cabinet was dominated by men who had no interest in disturbing slavery where it already existed.  Lincoln himself not only shared this view but supported a proposed constitutional amendment that would have made it permanently impossible for the federal government to abolish slavery. 

The direct, immediate cause of the Civil War was Lincoln's refusal to allow the South to go in peace. If Lincoln had not decided to invade the South in order to crush Southern independence, there would have been no war. In one famous exchange between a captured Confederate soldier and Union troops, the Union soldiers asked their prisoner if he was a slaveowner. He answered that he wasn't, and that in fact he was rather poor. "Then why are you fighting for the Confederacy?", they asked him. "Because you're here," he replied. Civil War scholar Francis Springer put it this way:

For stark truth, the so-called "Civil War" ought to be called "The War for the Destruction of the South." It was as much a war for destruction as any war that was ever fought on this or on any other continent. It is surprising, nevertheless, how often the question is asked, "What was the South fighting for anyway?" and the usual answers are just as surprisingly vague and involved. The real answer is quite simple. The South was fighting because it was invaded. (Francis Springer, War for What?, Springfield, Tennessee: Nippert Publishing, 1990, reprint, p. 132)

Few people know that some Confederate leaders believed slavery was wrong and that many Southerners supported emancipation.  Even fewer people know that key Confederate leaders were prepared to abolish slavery. General Robert E. Lee, the Confederacy's leading general, early on urged the abolition of slavery and said slavery was “a moral and political evil” years before the war.  General Joseph E. Johnston, the second highest ranking general in the Confederacy, disliked slavery and often called it a “curse.”  Another famous Confederate general, Stonewall Jackson, wanted to see all the slaves freed and was known for the kind, respectful way he treated people of color. Confederate general Patrick Cleburne advocated emancipation for all slaves who would enlist in the Confederate army, and twelve Confederate brigade and regimental commanders supported this proposal, including General Daniel Govan, General John H. Kelly, and General Marc Lowrey. Several Southern governors also supported emancipation for slaves who served as Confederate soldiers.  Governor William Smith of Virginia, Governor Joseph Brown of Georgia, Governor Milledge Bonham of South Carolina, Governor Charles Clark of Mississippi, and Governor Zebulon Vance of North Carolina endorsed a resolution calling for emancipation for all slaves who served faithfully in the Confederate army.  Duncan Kenner, a prominent member of the Confederate Congress and one of the South's largest slaveowners, supported abolition very early in the war. Also, as early as 1862, the Confederate Secretary of State, Judah Benjamin, proposed abolishing slavery in exchange for European diplomatic recognition. Two years later, in 1864, President Jefferson Davis and other Confederate leaders were prepared to abolish slavery to gain European diplomatic recognition in order to save the Confederacy.  I think these facts are important because they show that independence was more important to top Confederate leaders than the continuation of slavery.

As Americans we rightly repudiate the bad things that have been done under our flag. We emphasize the good in our heritage and symbols. Similarly, those who are proud of their Confederate ancestors should be allowed to repudiate the negative aspects of their heritage and symbols and to focus on the good thereof. Confederate symbols, names, and historical figures do not necessarily have to remind anyone of slavery, especially since the vast majority of Southerners did not own slaves, since four of the eleven Confederate states did not secede over slavery, and since Confederate leaders were prepared to abolish slavery in order to achieve Southern independence. To many Southerners, Confederate symbols and names bring to mind such noble principles as limited government, courage, sacrifice, honor, loyalty, freedom, the rule of law, democratic government, a Jeffersonian respect for state sovereignty, and faith in God.

I understand this is a sensitive issue for some people. It's also a sensitive issue for those whose ancestors fought in the Confederate army. It's also a sensitive issue for those who are offended by the unceasing, unfair efforts to demonize everything associated with Confederate heritage.

The Confederacy was a democratic nation. Throughout the war, the South had a vigorous free press. The Confederacy held free and fair elections during the war. Confederate postage stamps included the images of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson. The Confederate seal featured George Washington. After all, Confederate citizens were still Americans; indeed, the official name of their new nation was the Confederate States of America. They believed they were preserving the true principles of American constitutional government that the founding fathers had established, such as limited government, states rights, low taxation, and the rule of law. They also believed, and with some justification, that the North was increasingly rejecting these principles. The Confederate Constitution was closely patterned after the U.S. Constitution, and it included modifications that even some Northern commentators conceded were improvements that made government more responsible and more accountable to the people. Yes, the Confederacy permitted slavery. So did the U.S. Constitution. So did four of the states that fought for the Union, and for decades New England slave traders made fabulous fortunes selling slaves to the South, Brazil, Cuba, and the West Indies.  In addition, it’s often overlooked that the Confederate Constitution permitted the admission of free states to the Confederacy, banned the African slave trade, and allowed Confederate states to abolish slavery within their borders.  Furthermore, as mentioned earlier, some Confederate leaders opposed slavery and were willing to abolish it. The Confederate Constitution mandated free trade and made it very hard for the government to raise taxes on its citizens. It forbade the general government from getting involved in welfare and from using taxpayer money for "internal improvements" (i.e., public works projects and corporate welfare).  It also made it easier for the president to block wasteful spending by permitting him to use a line-item veto. Confederate citizens enjoyed all the rights that we enjoy today, if not more.

Finally, it needs to be observed that the Confederacy did not engage in rebellion or insurrection against the federal government. Secession is not the same thing as rebellion or insurrection, and it's certainly not treason.  Only if one defines “rebellion” solely as resistance to aggression and invasion can one say the Confederacy engaged in rebellion.  Thomas Jefferson recognized the right of a state to leave the Union in peace, even if he didn't agree with the state's reason for leaving. The state of Massachusetts threatened to secede in the early 1800s, and its leaders obviously believed they had the right to do so. President John Quincy Adams likewise believed a state had the right to secede. So did President John Tyler. So did the great constitutional scholar William Rawle, who was appointed as U.S. Attorney for Pennsylvania by George Washington, and whose book A View of the Constitution was adopted as a textbook at West Point and at other institutions.  So did another early American legal giant, George Tucker.  When the U.S. Constitution was ratified, three of the states specified in their ratification ordinances that their citizens retained the right to resume the powers of government if they felt the need to do so. Virginia cited this fact in its ordinance of secession.

The Southern states attempted to leave the Union peacefully. In fact, before the war began, most Southerners believed secession would be a peaceful process. The Southern states seceded in a peaceful, democratic manner, with the overwhelming support of their citizens. One of the first acts of the Confederate government was to send commissioners to Washington, D.C., in an effort to establish peaceful relations with the North. The Confederacy was prepared to pay compensation for all federal installations within its borders, to pay for the Southern states' fair share of the national debt, and to allow Northern ships to continue to use the Mississippi River. The Confederacy neither attempted nor desired to overthrow the federal government. It wanted to be left alone and to live in peace with the North.  Even after the confrontation at Fort Sumter, which Lincoln later admitted he provoked, the Confederacy expressed its desire for peace.


Michael T. Griffith holds a Master’s degree in Theology from The Catholic Distance University, a Graduate Certificate in Ancient and Classical History from American Military University, a Bachelor of Science degree in Liberal Arts from Excelsior College, two Associate in Applied Science degrees from the Community College of the Air Force, and an Advanced Certificate of Civil War Studies and a Certificate of Civil War Studies from Carroll College. He is a two-time graduate in Arabic and Hebrew of the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, and of the U.S. Air Force Technical Training School in San Angelo, Texas. He is the author of four books on Mormonism and ancient texts, and of one book on the John F. Kennedy assassination. He has completed advanced Hebrew programs at Haifa University in Israel and at the Spiro Institute in London, England.

Mike Griffith’s Civil War website www.geocities.com/mtgriffith1/civilwar.html