There’s been some talk lately, on the blogosphere and elsewhere, about the possibility that the S.C.V. will get a Nathan Bedford Forrest license plate in Mississippi. Brooks Simpson blogged about it today, and Eric Wittenberg blogged about it on the 10th. While both of them explain why Forrest should not be on a plate (and I agree), I’m going to go at this from a different angle.
The problem is that, within an organization supposedly focused on the Confederate veteran, there’s a love affair for 1) the leaders and 2) “the cause”. I doubt we’ll see some great shift from the current trend (though actually, the current trend is more indifference toward, rather than recognition of…), but the story of the Confederate veteran would be better served by taking the common man approach.
Who was the basic Confederate veteran and how should those descended from one (or several) remember him/them?
Frankly, instead of license plates with Confederate leaders, or even a Confederate battleflag… IF we MUST have some sort of Confederate imagery… I’d like to see something like this, from W.L. Sheppard portraying a Confederate infantryman…
Something simple, something unassuming. Something that shows the common man, and where he was, willing or not (yes, OR NOT), at that particular time in history. Something that leaves us asking about the man behind the uniform… not the man behind the symbol or the leader(s)… and, most certainly, we don’t need to know about the man in the car, who defines his Confederate ancestor by the symbol or the leader(s) on the plate.
Instead of the in-your-face imagery of leaders and symbols, how about imagery that makes people ask questions? The first that will probably come to mind to many is… “what/who is that on the license plate?”
Maybe instead of assuming more meaning behind the flag, a symbol with the flag, or a leader, people would be given a chance to engage/interact the imagery… and preferably imagery that does not automatically put one on the defensive (or offensive).
You want people to ask more questions.
“Who was that man in the uniform?”
“What made-up the Confederate soldier, who, in turn, became the Confederate veteran?”
“How was the individual man part of the Confederate story?”
“Was he willing, unwilling?”
“Was he enthusiastic for ‘the cause’… for ‘a cause’?”
“Was he reluctant? Did he become disillusioned, disaffected?”
“How did the man, in the uniform, as a person, struggle with the issues of the day… as handed down to him, not only at the hands of the enemy, but at the hands of those who controlled affairs, in his own state… in his own community… oftentimes the very government under which he served?”
“How did the man see to the needs of his family back at home?”
“Did he desert to tend to them, thinking that he could be more of service to them there, than to a ’cause’ in which he had only part interests?”
“How did he survive, as a man, under these odds, under these elements?”
“How did he continue to exhibit courage (and, I warn you, THAT is defined in many ways)?”
These are just a few good questions to consider, and they are thought provoking if one can get beyond the monolithic terms so commonly used to define the Confederate soldier, and heritage of Confederate ancestry. Regretfully, we won’t answer many of these questions. In most instances, we can’t. But,even if we could, why would we possibly use the answers to define who we are?
What’s important is that we have to make a shift in our approach to heritage.
Defining one’s heritage is complicated enough, but, if reaching for a connection to an ancestor through the Civil War, should one do so through a symbol, a leader, or singularly through a “cause”… that’s not only folly, it’s often a wasted effort.
The real pursuit of heritage is appreciating the challenges we face in understanding the man in the uniform… and not being merely content with the man as defined by the uniform.