Confederacy celebrations stir passion
By Jeff Gill
April 24, 2010
Visit Redwine United Methodist Church in South Hall this afternoon and you may feel as if you have entered an eerie time warp.
Men and women will be decked out in late 19th-century attire, some wielding rifles from that era and others walking amid gravestones in the church’s historic cemetery.
The whole scene is part of an observation planned as part of Confederate Memorial Day, which falls on Monday, a remembrance of Southern soldiers who died in the Civil War.
But others aren’t so keen about the day, seeing that era as a blot on U.S. history, a time when the institution of slavery was upheld and defended.
“History can never be erased. The only way we can improve relations with each other is that we have long, extended and careful conversations that allow us to get to a different place,” said Rose Johnson Mackey, executive director of the National Coalition for Burned Churches and a Gainesville resident.
“One part of that is African-Americans do say that you cannot honor and celebrate the Confederacy without acknowledging and placing the whole issue of slavery center to that discussion,” Johnson Mackey said. “And when … that big piece is left out, it causes confusion and tension.”
Confederacy remembrances and symbols have drawn fire in past years, from Georgia’s fights over its state flag to Southern states, including Georgia, declaring Confederate Memorial Day as an official holiday.
Most recently, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell was criticized for issuing a proclamation declaring April as Confederate History Month in the commonwealth.
Participants and supporters have staunchly defended Confederate Memorial Day, saying, among other things, it is about paying homage to Southerners, particularly soldiers, who felt compelled to protect their homes and families from Northern invasion.
“They fought bravely for their beliefs,” said Douglas Young, a Gainesville State College political science and history professor with a strong interest in the Civil War.
“I certainly believe that slavery was ultimately a major root cause of the war, but there were many, many causes of the war. There was a fundamental disagreement about the proper constitutional role of the federal government, and states’ rights was a major manifestation of that.”
Taxation, trade and government spending also were polarizing issues.
“The war was not fought to abolish slavery. (President Abraham) Lincoln always said his primary objective was to preserve the union.”
Young also noted that five slave states — Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, Delaware and West Virginia — fought for the Union.
“I know of nobody who is celebrating slavery, a horrifically evil institution, South and North and everywhere in the world where it existed,” he said.
Richard Pilcher is president of The Longstreet Society, which seeks to preserve the legacy of Confederate Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, who settled and was buried in Gainesville.
“When the war was over, he was the first prominent Southerner that proposed that we give former slaves full citizenship rights and advised us against prejudice, which he said did no good for anybody,” Pilcher said.
“If the war was fought over slavery, I don’t think he was terribly dedicated to that cause.”
Pilcher is the featured speaker at today’s Confederate Memorial Day ceremony sponsored by Gen. James Longstreet Chapter 46, United Daughters of the Confederacy.
He said Southern soldiers fought for a variety of reasons.
“Most of these guys came from farming families … that didn’t own slaves,” Pilcher said. “And some thought (the war) would be a great adventure. Some felt it was their duty because their state called them.”
Mark Willard, former senior vice commander of a Sons of the Union Veterans camp in Snellville, said he sees no particular problems with Confederate Memorial Day, which is observed with the closing of state offices on Monday.
“That was a very traumatic time in the South,” said Willard, an Iowa native who lives in Lilburn. “You had a lot of soldiers who gave their lives, and they deserve to be honored for their willingness to sacrifice.”
They fought largely because “they were told to by people they saw as leaders.”
“People in those days … it was part of our culture in America that when you were called to serve, you served.”
He also noted that the Union had its own day at one time to honor its war dead.
That day morphed into Memorial Day, when veterans of all wars are remembered.
Also, “there were a lot of Georgians who served in the Union Army during the Civil War and that tends not to get the level of attention it deserves,” Willard said.
Clay Ouzts, a Gainesville State history professor, said he hopes such observations as Confederate Memorial Day don’t themselves fall into history.
“When we, as a nation, start lopping off parts of our history, or dilute it, or change it, or ignore it, because it does not conform to certain cultural criticisms or political ideologies, then our nation is truly in deep, serious trouble,” he said.
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