Looking back at the Confederacy with modern eyes

Special to the Star-Telegram

Any attempt to judge our history by today’s standards — out of the context in
which it occurred — is at best problematic and at worst dishonest.

For example, consider the following quotations:

"So far from engaging in a war to perpetuate slavery, I am rejoiced that
slavery is abolished."

"[T]here is a physical difference between the white and black races which
I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social
and political equality."

By today’s standards, the person who made the first statement, Confederate
Gen. Robert E. Lee, would be considered enlightened. The person who made the
second, President Abraham Lincoln, would be considered a white supremacist.

Many believe that the War Between the States was solely about slavery and that
the Confederacy is synonymous with racism. That conclusion is faulty because
the premise is inaccurate.

If slavery had been the sole or even the predominant issue in sparking the
Civil War, this statement by Lincoln is puzzling: "My paramount object
in this struggle is to save the Union and it is not either to save or destroy
slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slaves I would do it."

If preserving slavery was the South’s sole motive for waging war, why did Lee
free his slaves before the war began? In 1856, he said slavery was "a moral
and political evil in any country."

Why was Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation effective in 1863 rather than when
the war started in 1861? And why did it free only the slaves in the Confederacy
and not in Northern or border states?

If slavery was the only reason for the Civil War, how do you explain Texas
Gov. Sam Houston’s support for the Union and for the institution of slavery?
In light of the fact that 90 percent of Confederate soldiers owned no slaves,
is it logical to assume they would have put their own lives at risk so that
slave-owning aristocrats could continue their privileged status?

There are few simple and concise answers to these questions.

One answer, however, is that most Southerners’ allegiance was to their sovereign
states first and the Union second. They believed that states freely joined the
Union without coercion and were free to leave.

You could say they really believed in the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
— the "powers not delegated" clause. They believed that the federal
government should be responsible for the common defense, a postal service and
little else. They viewed the Union Army as an invader, not an emancipator.

I am not attempting to trivialize slavery. It is a dark chapter in our history,
North and South alike.

However, I am a proud Southerner and a proud descendent of Confederate soldiers.
I honor their service because, to me, it represents the sacrifice of life and
livelihood that Southerners made for a cause more important to them than their
personal security and self-interest.

I’m aware of the genocidal war conducted by my country against the American
Indian, but I’m still a proud American. And I’m also aware of the atrocities
that occurred at My Lai, but I am proud of my service as a Marine in Vietnam.

If the Confederate flag represented slavery, the U.S. flag must represent slavery
even more so.

Slavery existed for four years under the Stars and Bars and for almost 100
years under the Stars and Stripes.

If the few hundred members of racist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan want to
adopt the Confederate flag as their symbol, over the objections of millions
of Southerners, should we believe it has been corrupted for all time?

Given that the KKK has adopted the cross for its burnings, should churches
across the country remove this symbol of Christian faith from all places of

Should we diminish the service of the Buffalo Soldiers (black U.S. cavalry
troopers of the late 1800s) because they were an integral part of a war that
subjugated and enslaved the Plains Indians?

No. We should not surrender the Confederate flag or the cross to the racists,
and we should not tear down the monuments.

Retroactive cleansing of history is doomed to failure because it is, at heart,
a lie. We should memorialize and commemorate all of our soldiers who served
honorably — those who wore blue or gray or served as Buffalo Soldiers — whether
or not we in today’s enlightened world completely support their actions.

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