For some, the Confederacy fought to preserve slavery; for others, it’s states’ rights

This blog post was written by Mike Staton.
This blog post was written by Mike Staton.

The times they are a changin’.

It’s the title of a rather famous song by Bob Dylan, released as the title track of his 1964 album of the same name. He wrote it to create an anthem of change for the time.

The song fits my mood right now. Listen. Remember:

We do change, right? We’re not the same people we were decades ago, right? We grow. Or de-evolve. We become better people. Or demons in human flesh.

In 1976, I joined a Civil War re-enactment group, a Confederate regiment, the 26th North Carolina. It was a way for me to learn about the life of a soldier in the 1860s. One summer during my college years I’d drawn meticulous maps of Civil War battlefields, places in rural America that would collect forever-bloody names like Antietam, Gettysburg and The Wilderness. I’d read the popular Civil War books, both from the late 19th Century and from modern times. With wonderful grandparents, I’d explored some of the battlefields, even watched my Grandpa Frog carve his initials into a grinding wheel cycle at Appomattox Courthouse. But I wanted more… I wanted to live the life of a common Civil War soldier. So I became a re-enactor.

This is the Confederate war dead monument and the battle flag in front of the South Carolina Statehouse that's the center of controversy.
This is the Confederate war dead monument and the battle flag in front of the South Carolina Statehouse that’s the center of controversy.

Where am I going with these thoughts? Here’s where: Had the Charleston AME church killings happened in June 1976, not June 2015, 24-year-old Mike Staton probably would have favored not removing the rebel battle flag from the staff in front of the Confederate soldiers memorial at the South Carolina Statehouse in Columbia. The Mike Staton of 2015 says: “Take the banner down!”

Back in ’76, I had a Confederate battle flag. I didn’t fly it from a flagpole outside my Lancaster, Ohio, apartment. I wasn’t that stupid. But I did have it draped across a piano bench I used as a coffee table in my West Fair Avenue apartment.

Thirty-nine years ago the battle flag meant not only respecting the heritage of Southern soldiers who fought for the Confederacy, it also represented an anti-establishment philosophy of youth against the staid ideas of older generations. At least that’s how I saw it. Having that flag said: “I’m a free spirit, a rebel, don’t fence me in.”

Decades later, I can say I chose a bad symbol. It now belongs to militia groups, skinheads and other racist haters who’d like nothing better than to carry it into battle against progressives of every color who believe in racial equality. Their goal? The subjugation of inferior races. They want to roll back the gains of the civil rights movement.

It's not always easy to weigh controversy, especially if your views end up on the light side.
It’s not always easy to weigh controversy, especially if your views end up on the light side.

Think I’m wrong? Let’s weigh the flag in a balance. The flag as a symbol of Southern heritage and the courage of CSA soldiers versus the flag as a symbol of segregation and racism. I know which would win. Just look at these photos of Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old who executed the nine black Christians inside the downtown Charleston church earlier this month. He loves that flag.

From 1962 to 2000 the battle flag of the Confederacy flew above South Carolina’s Statehouse. It was raised up the flagpole as a defiant go-to-hell gesture aimed at the civil rights movement and the Kennedy brothers, U.S. President John Kennedy and his brother Robert, the U.S. attorney general. At the dawning of the 21st Century – more than thirteen decades after General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia surrendered – a protest movement induced South Carolina politicians to shift the flag from its perch above the Statehouse to the nearby Confederate Soldiers Memorial.

Now let’s move forward to June 2015 and Roof’s murderous bid to incite a white versus black civil war. In mourning, South Carolina leaders lowered the U.S. and South Carolina flags to half-mast. Just a few hundred yards away, though, the battle flag continued to fly at full mast on Statehouse grounds – the emblem borne into battle against Abraham Lincoln’s Boys in Blue, the emblem of Confederate states that went to war to preserve their way of life. Way of life is a code-word phrase for the Antebellum South’s peculiar institution – slavery.

Here's an actual mid-19th century photo of slaves in a cotton field. Hard work... I know friends in North Carolina who picked cotton as teenagers.
Here’s an actual mid-19th century photo of slaves in a cotton field. Hard work… I know friends in North Carolina who picked cotton as teenagers.

In the last week or so, a new civil war has erupted online, the defenders of Southern heritage against progressives who find it offensive to see the battle flag flying high on State Capitol grounds after the massacre of nine worshipping African-Americans inside the Emanuel AME church in Charleston, the city where the Civil War began on April 12, 1861. The war has gotten quite vicious. One woman, Connie from Alabama, has mounted a spirited defense of the Confederacy and Southern Rights including the legal right for Southern states to secede from the Union.

In comments below a Charleston Gazette news story, Connie wrote: “I think you just hate white Southerners. For me, the Confederate flag is a symbol of heritage, and it is completely immaterial to me whether you buy that or not. You and your opinions about it are irrelevant, capisce?”

In a later comment, she wrote, “If your people had wanted to end slavery, they didn’t have to send an army to kill Southerners. All they had to do was quit buying the cotton. Why do you suppose they didn’t?”

Southern writers prior to the opening of hostilities would say that their Negroes were better off as slaves. In some cases, they contended that Northern factory workers were treated far worse.
Southern writers prior to the opening of hostilities would say that their Negroes were better off as slaves. In some cases, they contended that Northern factory workers were treated far worse.

As if charging into a hailstorm of Yankee minie balls, Connie continued, “There was nothing in the Constitution that prohibited secession, nothing that delegated the power to prohibit secession to the United States. They were bullying the South back into the Union at the point of a bayonet. They destroyed the federal (voluntary) union and made this country a prison states.”

A prison? This woman is living in the wrong time. I almost offered to make my time machine available to transport her back to 1861 where she belongs. But then I thought it might be more appropriate to take her to May 1856 so she could give caning lessons to U.S. Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina so he could do a better job of smashing his cane on the head of U.S. Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, an abolitionist and prominent leader of the Republican Party. Earlier, Sumner had given a fiery speech blasting what has become known as Bloody Kansas, a mini-civil war that offered a foretaste of what would come in five years. It was a fight between anti-slavery Free-Staters and pro-slavery Border Ruffians from Missouri. In Sumner’s speech, he launched a tirade against South Carolina’s Sen. Andrew Butler. Of course, Brooks had to defend Butler’s honor, just like Connie is defending the South’s honor.

Remember Connie saying the North and the South could have settled their differences short of war? Did Brooks settle his differences with Sumner peacefully? In 1859, did John Brown, abolitionist and veteran of the Kansas war, have second thoughts and not conduct the raid on the federal armory at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia? Of course not. The raid for weapons failed and slaves did not rise against their white masters. Brown was captured and later hanged.

Dylann Roof poses with a Confederate battle flag. What do you think that flag means to him?
Dylann Roof poses with a Confederate battle flag. What do you think that flag means to him?

In the war, Union troops sang a song about John Brown. “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the ground. But his soul goes marching on. Glory, glory, hallelujah. Glory, glory, hallelujah. His soul goes marching on.” Julia Ward Howe heard troops singing the song while they paraded near Washington, D.C. They inspired her to write new lyrics for the tune, The Battle Hymn of the Republic.

I recently read a blog post of a Civil War historian who writes, “If you’ve convinced yourself that the Confederate flag is not a symbol of slavery and racism, you’ve managed to ignore what pretty much every prominent Confederate of the 1860s said.” He then provides links to dozens of speeches and writings of Southerners of the mid-19th Century. The first takes readers to Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens’ Cornerstone Speech of March 21, 1861, delivered in Savannah, Georgia. Read aloud and listen to his defense of secession. “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”

Here's another flag Dylann Roof decided to desecrate.
Here’s another flag Dylann Roof decided to desecrate.

Stephens then pointed out where Virginian Thomas Jefferson went wrong. “The new Constitution has put at rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions – African slavery as it exists among us – the proper status of the Negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson, in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the ‘rock upon which the old Union would split.’ He was right. What was conjecture with him is now realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and still stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old Constitution were, that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with; but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other, in the order of Providence the institution would be evanescent and pass away. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of the races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the idea of a government built upon it – when the storm came and the wind blew, it fell.”

The post Civil War Jim Crow Era in the South... a time of lynchings, of terror campaigns conducted by men in white robes.
The post Civil War Jim Crow Era in the South… a time of lynchings, of terror campaigns conducted by men in white robes.

There you have it… the Confederate States of America went to war to preserve slavery. That’s why Union troops sang John Brown’s Body Lies A-Mouldering In The Grave, and why slaves ran away from plantations to follow Union troops when they drew near. Nowadays, apologists for slavery like to point out that some freed black men owned slaves. My answer? Evil comes in all colors.

It’s not been an easy road for many blacks since the Civil War. Until recent times they’ve had to contend with Separate-But-Equal laws and voting disenfranchisement. Think about it for a second. Antebellum whites described slaves as shiftless. Today, many conservative whites continue to label blacks as shiftless, as welfare abusers, as thugs ready to kill. You see it all the time in posts found on Facebook and Twitter. It’s depressing.

For decades after the Civil War blacks were terrorized by the Ku Klux Klan and often lynched without trial. And as portrayed in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, they were found guilty if they got a trial – even when the preponderance of evidence pointed to their innocence.

The Civil Rights Era and a black protester whose sign is both poignant and sad.
The Civil Rights Era and a black protester whose sign is both poignant and sad.

As a kid in the ‘50s and ‘60s I’d watch old movies about the Civil War. Always, the Yanks were the bad guys and the Johnny Rebs were the heroes defending their homesteads from the invader. America before the Civil Rights Era fell in love with the Lost Cause fable popularized by another novel, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind. This one even included the scalawags and carpetbaggers of Reconstruction.

Nowadays, in some quarters, the Confederates are heroes for standing up for States’ Rights. It’s all mixed in with the heated political rhetoric that states need to take back the rights and powers usurped by the federal government. Texas politicians like to bring up that word many Union veterans had thought they’d buried in the bloody soil of battlefields from Pennsylvania to Florida – secession. The Civil War and its turbulent aftermath continue to ravage this nation 150 years after its ending. Dylann Roof killed nine African Americans because he thinks like Alexander Stephens. We need to bury the hatreds that linger long after the end of the Civil War. That’s why that flag shouldn’t fly on the South Carolina Statehouse grounds – even if it’s on a staff at the war memorial and not atop the Statehouse dome.

I’ll end this post with the first stanza of a song sung by Billie Holiday, Strange Fruit. You can hear her sing it here.

“Southern trees bear a strange fruit.

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root.

Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze.

Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees.”

A march over a bridge in Charleston and people with hands clasped... perhaps a vision of the future.
A march over a bridge in Charleston and people with hands clasped… perhaps a vision of the future.

I’ve reconsidered. I’m not going to end this with Holiday’s Strange Fruit and the 1930s in Dixie. Instead, I’m going to take you to Charleston earlier this week – Sunday, June 21. Mourners from the Mount Pleasant side and the Charleston side marched across the Arthur Ravenel Bridge at dusk in a show of unity. They met in the middle, clapped and sang, This Little Light of Mine. Black and white hands clasped, a sign of the future when – in the words of Martin Luther King Jr. – “And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men, white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at Last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

# # #

Martin Luther King with protesters in the early '60s. His stand against racial oppression cost him his life in 1968.  But his words of hope resonate today, almost 50 years later.
Martin Luther King with protesters in the early ’60s. His stand against racial oppression cost him his life in 1968. But his words of hope resonate today, almost 50 years later.

Since I wrote this piece in the wee hours of Monday, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has called for the flag’s removal. So has U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Republican candidate for President. It’s a start, but flag supporters will fight it to the bitter end – and could ultimately prevail. The state legislature convened a special session on the budget Tuesday and agreed to debate the flag removal once the final budget gets approval later this summer. Budget first then – when passions have cooled – the Confederate battle flag. Hopefully, when they do debate, they’ll look at the empty seat of their fellow legislator, Sen. Clementa Pinckney, pastor at Emanuel, killed in the massacre.

For myself, I see no problem allowing the flags in cemeteries (flagpole flags in Confederate cemeteries, smaller flags beside soldier graves), monuments in battlefield parks, and in museums – not on democratically elected Statehouse grounds. South Carolina’s elected politicians represent all the Palmetto State’s people – not just whites.

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25 thoughts on “For some, the Confederacy fought to preserve slavery; for others, it’s states’ rights

  1. Well written, Mike. My feelings on the flag and what it represents essentially mirror yours, including how my beliefs have evolved over the years. I agree–those who claim the war wasn’t about slavery are simply ignoring facts. Sadly, people are good at that. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Joe. Lots of people in the US today are not just upset about possibility of the Confederate battle flag coming down, now they’re made about the Supreme Court’s Obamacare and Gay Rights’ decisions. June 2015 has turned into a very historic month.


  2. Wow, Mike, you have a lot of thought and research into this article. And you certainly brought tears to my eyes by the end. Hatred is often born of fear–fear of another race’s abilities or power perhaps. In the Cvil War’s case, probably greed played a part as well in some form. When we visited a Civil War battlefield in 2001, the day before the towers were hit, a lady visiting it who was from New England then, but had grown up in the South, found that she was discriminated against when she returned. She had lost her southern accent pretty much and was considered a northerner now in the south, and actually felt discrimination still in some stores! I was amazed at the strong feelings still displayed apparently. I also thought that pointed out how silly hanging on to those negative feelings was as they now were rejecting “one of their own” so to speak. You are so right: Evil comes in all colors. Thanks for a great perspectiee.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad you are able to see that my post is well thought out, backed with legitimate evidence. So much of what I see online is just plain falsehoods and if they fit in with folks’ preconceived notions, they will ‘share’ them.


  3. Well done Mike. I like all of the thought you put into the article as well as expressing your honest, evolving view points. Racism drives me crazy because it’s so arbitrary and superficial. When people argue about their heritage of the stars and bars, it makes sense if their family had owned a plantation and slaves. If not, then they their family was probably poor, impoverished by the lopsided economics of slavery. (White trash is a term from the 1830s.) Many of the Rebel soldiers were sold a phony bill of goods, fighting a system that kept them down and I still seem that happening today. (People fighting passionately against their own self interest.) Lincoln instituted public Universities and we are all better off for it. And one more thing about liking the rebel flag in the seventies. I remember a Clash album with one of the band members wearing a leather jacket with the rebel flag on it. I’m sure Joe Strummer would have been horrified if it was thought to be a symbol of racism and slavery. I think it was a British punk rebellion thing. But things have changed as hate groups use it as their emblem. Sorry for the rambling, you wrote a great article that got me thinking.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So true. In the ’70s, I wore my Confederate slouch hat when not re-enacting. It was a kind of a hippie thing, I thought it looked good. It didn’t have any insignia, just an old man’s Sunday hat that was gray in color, and when made to look worn, was the perfect infantryman’s hat. Yankee uniforms were by the book. Confederates wore what they could… butternut pants, gray, threadbare shell jackets, muslin shirt. The hat went great with the tattered look. Toward the end of the war, Confederates were sometimes barefoot… that’s why they’d take shoes off Yankee dead. I can see why the veterans wanted their sons and grandsons to honor their memories, but time moves on… the war’s been over for 150 years. Today’s SCV members never even met their soldier grandpa… I doubt most even have the rifle, canteen, cartridge bag or sword carried by him, let alone letters or a diary.


  4. The actions of this young man upsets me. A church should be the safest place in the country. Supreme Court justices should only be allowed to serve 2 short terms, 2-4 years at a time. America has some deep problems that aee only getting worse. I too thought of the rebel flag as a sign of being a rebel. Cher’ley

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree. The church should always be a sanctuary. It’s sad that those Bible study men and women invited him in and were companionable, all the while he waited until the right moment — in his head — to start killing them. A recall an incident on the Italian Front in World War II… Germans using a Medieval church tower to snipe and observe American lines, American artillery having no choice but to bring the tower down. But that really didn’t solve the problem much; the tumbled-down masonry became a great defensive position.


  5. All flags are problematic, depending on time and place. The U.S flag in Iraq or Vietnam for example, the Union Jack when you consider Amritsar and other places in the world we once ruled. I suppose our nearest equivalent to the Confederate flag is the English Cross of St. George. It was the iconic standard associated with Agincourt or Crecy – glorious victories or hideous war crimes depending on pov. Its peculiar relevance is how close it came to being appropriated by far right groups in this country. The question is, do we allow them to appropriate an historic icon or do we reclaim it as the more univeral emblem of a nation? One counter-intuitive take on the issue is to commercialise and make the confederate flag ubiquitous so that it loses much of its potency. As it stands now this righteous condemnation risks making it even more glamorous to the rebellious. Having offered these thoughts I must end by saying how much I enjoyed reading your take on all this, Mike. It was reasoned rather than a knee-jerk polemic

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wonder how many Americans actually know some history and background of Agincourt and Crecy, battles in the Hundreds’ Years War. Most Americans are quite content with superficial knowledge of geography and history. That’s why you see so much historic stuff without perspective shared on Facebook, like talking about Democrats and Republicans of the late 19th century without including a bit of historical context. In America, we’ve suffered a convenient amnesia about the 1970s in the North. For example, Boston when a court ordered desegregation of the schools. The ugly racism displayed in Boston neighborhoods was as bad as any shown in the South during the Civil Rights Era’s freedom marches.


      1. I see that a black female activist took down that rebel battle flag flying on the SC Statehouse grounds, an act of civil disobedience. As a retired reporter, I find this political ‘dance’ fascinating.


  6. My heart has been heavy for the past week or so just thinking about the hatred and division that continues to plague not only our country, but the entire world. I recently watched a TV show that depicted the problems between Ireland and England, something that hasn’t been shown in quite sometime, and it reminded me of all the oppression people have, and continue to endure, and the the evil that hatred brings. I long for the day when God’s people will truly be “free at last” and Satan and his army are banished forever: “what a day of rejoicing that will be!” Thank you, Mike, for your in-depth research and thought-provoking post!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. A difficult subject that you handled with grace and balance. We have a right to heritage, but at what cost do we cling to old beliefs? There is not a easy answer as the sides hopefully work to end the destructive results of said beliefs. I applaud you taking this subject on. Doris


  8. I left a comment earlier but it hasn’t shown up. But then cyber-space has been acting up lately.

    I applaud you for your even, yet heartfelt post. It is never easy to try and correct another persons thought patterns. We can only keep trying and hope that someday the message will win through. Doris


    1. Just an example of the importance of getting past the emotions of the moment, or as Michael Keyton put it, “knee-jerk polemic.” People online much prefer to call people they disagree with retards, idiots, etc. They offer up absolute statements like “The Civil War wasn’t about slavery,” without an iota of effort to present any evidence in support. Have people lost the ability to analyze? Doris, we can plot out and write books. Most others are too lazy to do the necessary research. The Internet Age has unveiled just how superficial many people are when it comes to analytical thinking.


  9. Well-researched, well-written, and thoughtful post, Mike. Thanks. It is hard to believe racism still has such a strong hold on our society, but the events of the past few years have shown that it does.


    1. I’m with you, Cherley. After seeing the turbulence of the ’60s through the eyes of a child and then a teenager, I thought we were making real progress. Now it seems like it’s one step forward, two steps back. What we didn’t have until recently… online comment sections that virtually give racists unbridled opportunities to spew their hatred. I clicked on one link to a conservative blogger’s piece, and one of the commenters said he was disappointed that no one had shot Obama. Back in the ’80s when I was a daily newspaper reporter in Florida, the crazies wrote letters to the editors that often didn’t appear because they were way out of bounds. Now it appears no one monitors comments.


  10. Excellent post, Mike. I thought we’d made progress, too, but it’s obviously going to take a lot more work. Like yours, my views about that flag have evolved over the years. In Texas, the Civil War has been over for a very long time–growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, I never heard any elderly people re-arguing or re-fighting it; we were Americans, and the war was history. I don’t think the high schools that used the Confederate flag as a mascot for their “Rebels” football teams made any connection between the flag and racism or slavery or any political point of view. I thought it was a pretty flag, but I’ve never seen one up close. At this point, I consider it the symbol of a confederation whose leaders committed treason by trying to undermine the sovereignty of the U.S. government, and I think it should be taken down. It’s a fine thing that Charleston has come together over the shooting, but if any change is to take place, Charleston is going to have to stay together and work together, and so are the rest of us, nationwide. So many lives were wasted in that war, and all these years later, lives are still being wasted.


    1. Fine points made, Kathy. Talking about the war dead, most died from their wounds (medical care was awful). The typical response to an arm or leg wound… saw it off. I ‘liked’ the Gettysburg historic museum, and they had a link to a story about Baltimore officials looking at Confederate-related monuments in the city. First, I was surprised to hear there are Confederate monuments, although I do know Maryland was a border state during the war with definite Southern sympathizers. When Lincoln was traveling to Washington, D.C. for his first inauguration, the Secret Service sneaked him through the state by dressing him in women’s clothing and having him go through Baltimore on a train not on the itinerary (if my memory hasn’t betrayed me). How do I feel about Confederate monuments? I’m still running that through my mind. I love American history; as part of the learning process, we need to stress that these monuments for the most part were erected by the generation that fought the war. It’s all about perspective. Do we bulldoze the national battlefield parks, or destroy the Confederate monuments, leaving just the Union ones? At some point, it could become like book burning.


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