In the wake of posting about the annual proclamation for Confederate History Month in Virginia yesterday, I have some additional thoughts. First, were Virginians in the Civil War era, by default, Confederates? Absolutely not. Were those who lived throughout the South at the time of the war, by default, Confederates? No. So, why do people seem to think this way?
Well, maybe we should boil this all down. Really, what’s Confederate History Month all about? Is it about us or them? Keep it in the back of your mind… I’ll get back to that.
What should we do for Confederate History Month? Think about this… let’s put aside talk about Unionists, slaves, free blacks and everyone else… just get straight to the “Confederates”. That’s what this proclamation is all about, right?
So, where do we start? Shall we start with our ancestors first? After all, in all probability, that’s where we have the connection (if your roots go back that far in Virginia) to Virginia Confederates. But hold on a second. Shall we start placing Confederate flags on all their graves and start talking about how they were fighting to “defend hearth and home”, “combat the tyranny of Lincoln”… and all that other stuff? Ok, this is where problems start… the word “were”. For one thing, how do you know any of those reasons were the reasons why they fought AND, is the same or similar reason the case with all your ancestors in gray? Some may know because of diaries and letters, but in the absence of these, how do you know? In most cases, most of us don’t have letters and diaries. We don’t have long memoirs of our Confederate ancestors. We don’t even have a scrap of paper giving us a hint why they fought. Like it or not, we have to read between the lines, and most of the times that means reading over the military records carefully, reviewing pension records, local newspapers, and even looking to see if that ancestor (or those ancestors) participated in postwar Confederate veteran activities. There’s a lot of legwork to get to understand your Confederate ancestors and it isn’t about finding a military record and, in the absence of information telling what they served or fought for, meshing Robert E. Lee’s reasons for fighting (just as an example) with that of your ancestors. In reality, most people don’t really know but are left to speculate; but if you speculate, the least you can do to really honor an ancestor is to try and bark up the right tree.
If Confederate History Month is REALLY about them, we need to do some serious work within the month to educate ourselves (probably the first greatest need) about the complexities of Virginia and her citizens and the affiliation with the Confederacy. We need to lay aside the “moonlight and magnolias” and get a grip on the many different meanings of what it meant to be affiliated with the Confederacy, for better or worse, and whether they wanted to or not. The key is being able to accept that fact that not everyone in gray or in the South, embraced the Confederacy as much as some people today try to play it up. Making others aware of this folly isn’t PC, it’s responsible stewardship of history.
In addition to this and all that I have mentioned above, we also need to be aware of the differences between honoring sacrifice and honoring cause. It’s easier to appreciate sacrifice in a person from 150 years ago than it is to understand cause. All too often, some people have made them one in the same.
If it is about us… that’s getting silly, especially when the people of the past are played up as something they may not have been, and believing things in which they may not have believed.