I was born and raised in Houston, Texas. Nobody in my family ever said much about the Civil War or my family’s part in it so I just assumed that my ancestors had fought for the Confederacy. I had a rather childlike attitude about the whole incident with the exception of feeling a bit uncomfortable about slavery, a practice of which I did not have a great deal of information. To say I was naive about the whole thing is an understatement.
When I was a bit older my paternal grandmother gave me some documents that had been handed down to her from my great grandmother. They were the discharge papers of my great grandfather, John William Seth Smith, who had served with the Union Army. I was rather surprised to learn that my relations who had almost always lived in the south had supported the Union. As I did more research I learned that Kentucky, where my great grandfather enlisted, was a state that was quite divided in allegiance to one side or another. I found myself wondering what had prompted John W. S. Smith to choose not just to stand with the Union but to join the battle. Secretly I heaved a sigh of relief that he had chosen to fight for the preservation of the nation. He became a kind of hero to me even though I know little about him and don’t even have a photograph to picture how he looked.
Being a peacemaker at heart and someone who encourages free thinking I have tended to be rather forgiving of those who so foolishly decided to secede from the Union. Like many I have romanticized the battles of Americans fighting one another and I have been rather magnanimous in forgiving the Confederates for the reasons that they tried to set up a government of their own. Over time I have found less and less reason to support their cause not just because some of them may have been shooting at my great grandfather, but because the foundation of their reasoning was based on the ugly existence of slavery.
Economics and states rights are often cited as the basis for the anger that lead to a break from the United States of America. Even given that bit of moral latitude the discussions always came back to the financial aspects of slavery, an argument that was used even at the beginnings of the country as a reason to allow slavery. To think that finances came before human life is upsetting beyond reason. Not only was the cause a foul one draped in phrases about freedom, but the act of declaring war was in itself outright treason. As I critically assess the incident I can say that the only good thing that came from it was the freeing of the slaves and no matter what any sons of the south may say, the northern states were rather magnanimous in their forgiveness when all was said and done.
Sadly many of the heroes of the Confederacy had once been soldiers in the United States military, educated and trained at West Point. Try to imagine how we would react today if a group of American soldiers allied to declare war on the rest of the country. We would no doubt consider them to be terrorists attempting to launch a coup. There would be few of us who would even think to support their cause.
So this makes me wonder why we have been so understanding in allowing the Confederate flag to continue to fly and for monuments to be built in adoration of the heroes of the Confederacy. In many ways our permitting such things is akin to letting people fly the Nazi flag and put up monuments to Hitler and his allies in the town squares of German towns. We would surely think that such a thing would be crazy.
Some argue that Confederate memorials are simply a part of history and even a culture that should be honored and allowed. Statues should be about people who are worthy of glory, not those who had a very misguided attitude about slavery and the importance of continuing as a nation. The Confederate leaders were determined to leave the Union, keep slaves and even allow the expansion of slavery to new states. There was nothing particularly noble about any of that.
The fact is that the Union held. The Confederates lost and Lincoln wanted to welcome them back into the fold. The slaves were freed and that should have been the end of that, only it wasn’t. We know that many of the southern states enacted Jim Crow laws that segregated Blacks and limited their freedoms including the right to vote for another one hundred years.
I am all too aware of egregious things that I saw as a child in the 1950s. I remember the Blacks sitting at the back of the city buses. I vividly recall the signs designating water fountains and restrooms for “Coloreds” and “White.” I all too often heard the “N” word being bandied casually about. I knew that there were certain parts of town where Black citizens were forced to live. I even have a memory of hearing a man explain that Blacks had to depart from certain areas where they worked at maids and laborers before dark or risk being arrested.
During the time from about the 1890s to the 1950s treatment of Black citizens was horrific. In the same era many of those statues and monuments were erected. Schools, streets and even military bases were named after the so called heroes and while those honors proliferated people mostly looked away. Few dared to suggest that it might have been in poor taste to do such things and so there was an implied if not spoken agreement that those who attempted to destroy the United States were not really so bad after all. They had been forgiven and if people wanted to honor them for their service in an attempt to overthrow the government of the United States surely there was no problem.
We have reached a point of maturity in our thinking. We have begun to understand that the silent message of all of these memorials is that those who lead a civil war had an honorable undertaking despite the ugly aspect of using it to keep slavery flourishing. Little wonder that those symbols have made some of our citizens feel as uncomfortable as constantly driving past a statue of Hitler in Times Square might make World War II veterans or Jewish citizens feel.
The time has come for us to be mature enough as a nation to take down, rename and move on from the darkest chapters of our history. We certainly must continue to learn lessons from what happened, but we should not keep making excuses for those who were unwilling to rid our country of the scourge of slavery and then use war to keep it. There is nothing noble about what they did. Many citizens of the south who had never owned a slave in their lives were forced to fight battles that should not have occurred. They were used as cannon fodder for an inglorious and lost cause. It’s time that we rid ourselves of the stain that has stayed with us far too long. Let’s rename our military posts after other real heroes who fought for this country, not against it. Let’s do it in the name of respect for our flag, for our veterans and for all Americans.