Let’s learn from the Civil War, not fight it again

By Bob Ray Sanders
Star-Telegram Staff Writer

Can we please stop fighting the Civil War?

Let us study it, lament it, commemorate those who fought in it. But, for God’s
sake — and ours — let’s end the battles over a conflict supposedly settled
more than 140 years ago.

It seems like every other year or so there is a major flare-up about Confederate
symbols or about a politician’s statement about the Confederacy, which causes
the different camps to re-engage the endless war of words.

The latest incident occurred Thursday, when Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson
appeared at his office in the company of members of Descendants of Confederate
Veterans, who were dressed in the traditional gray uniforms. The official occasion
was a news conference in which Patterson would accept a $250 check from the
group to support preservation of historic documents and maps at the Texas General
Land Office.

Patterson, who has an ancestor who fought for the South, admittedly staged
the event to call attention to Texas’ historical connection to the Confederacy
and more particularly to Confederate Heroes Day, which was Friday.

"We should memorialize and commemorate all of our soldiers who served
honorably," he said in a statement.

Well, the land commissioner should have known that to conduct such a public
ceremony in a state office honoring the symbols and heritage of the Confederacy
would be considered inflammatory by those who don’t like to be reminded of that
period in American history, especially the part that includes slavery.

Just as inflammatory, however, was a statement by Gary Bledsoe, president of
the Texas branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored

"To say that, to use Confederate with heroes is an oxymoron," Bledsoe
told Star-Telegram reporter Jay Root. "It’s like using Nazi with hero.
You just can’t do that. … Their cause was immoral."

Patterson, who has a genuine love of Texas history and a passion for artifacts,
believes that the positives and the negatives of the Confederacy should be talked

The problem is that many people don’t believe there were any "positives"
associated with a "rebel" government that wanted to preserve the institution
of slavery.

I have said often in the context of this topic that history should be told
in whole, rather than in part. We should examine its truths from various perspectives
and teach it well — its negatives and positives, its triumphs and tragedies,
its heroes and antagonists — and how it’s viewed by those with different experiences,
persuasions and heritages.

I shall never forget arguing with a college history teacher who had explained
in class, as I hear many people say today, that the Civil War was not fought
over slavery; it was fought over economics and states’ rights.

Using my best debate-team technique, I asked him questions in front of the
class. What was the basis of the Southern economy? Wasn’t it free labor (that
is, slavery)? And what was the major states’ right that the Confederacy wanted
to have? Wasn’t it the right to own slaves?

Some people still get as worked up about this subject today as I did when I
was a sophomore in college. The wounds — the vestiges of slavery as well as
the pain of defeat — are still raw, and easily infected, after all these years.

The problem is that it is difficult to learn, to explore, to grow intellectually
as long as we are shouting at one another, pointing fingers and labeling anyone
who disagrees with us a bigot.

I’ve argued for years that if people want to display their Confederate battle
flags in their yards or on their pickups or clothing, so be it. Let them do
it. But the flag doesn’t belong over state buildings or on public property unless
in a historical context.

As for other Confederate symbols, such as statues on the campus of the University
of Texas at Austin, the goal of those who object should not be to remove them
but to make sure that other groups with different points of view are represented.

At UT-Austin, while a study group is at work to decide that very issue, it
seems that the university has taken steps to make its mall exhibits more representative.
In 1999, for example, a statue of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was added, and
likenesses of labor leader Cesar Chavez and politician-professor Barbara Jordan
are in the works.

It is true that some people’s heroes are other people’s villains. That isn’t
likely to change anytime soon.

It is also apparent that some folks will never acknowledge that "The War
Between the States" is over.

I only hope that Patterson’s public foray into the controversy will cause people
to think and to restudy history rather than just continue fighting this old

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