July/August 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 4
Symbol of a brave past or banner of treason? And is there perhaps another Southern standard to be raised?
“My ancestors fought for the question of who was supreme, the federal or the state government. They felt South Carolina freely went into the Union and had the right to opt out, like an independent country.”
“Would you ask the Jewish community to accept a smaller swastika flag? This is the flag of treason against the United States government, and it should not be celebrated or put in any kind of prominent position.”
There, in a nutshell, is why the controversy over if and where and how high the Confederate battle flag should fly at South Carolina’s capitol has continued to elude a resolution acceptable to all of the state’s citizens. The first opinion comes from the state senator Glenn McConnell, a white Republican from Charleston; the second, from the state representative Fletcher N. Smith, a black Democrat from Greenville. But the central question —whether the flag should be honored as a testament to the courage of Confederate soldiers and Southern “heritage” or should be banished as a symbol of racism—has already flummoxed much more prominent national politicians.
During the primary season Gov. George W. Bush resolutely, steadfastly refused to express an opinion on the subject, invoking the principle of States’ Rights (a principle that seems to fade away with the morning dew when a state starts making noises about, say, legalizing marijuana or gay marriage). Meanwhile, the flag issue all but derailed Sen. John McCain’s straighttalk express, leaving the war hero to pronounce himself firmly on both sides.
The flag has at least had the happy side effect of re-creating the old civilrights-era coalition of African-Americans and white businesspeople, one of modern America’s more effective agents for change. The state legislature did work out a compromise that managed to please at least some people on both sides. And Senator McCain did in the end display rare political courage in admitting that he had been wrong, and calling for the flag to come down.
Unfortunately, not all of the senator’s partisans followed his lead. In fact, a journal edited by one of his leading advisers in the state, Richard Quinn, perpetuated some rather shameful historical distortions in making its case for the flag. The journal in question is the Southern Partisan Quarterly Review , which—in between defending slavery, vilifying Abraham Lincoln and the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and bashing gays—has picked up the old saw that the entire Civil War was fought not over slavery but over States’ Rights and the preservation of the “Southern way of life.”
The reasons the Civil War came to pass will probably be debated for as long as our nation endures. Yet I would submit that they lie as much in what W. J. Cash called the mind of the South as in anything to do with economics or States’ Rights. That is to say, the Civil War was fought over slavery. It was not fought over some abstract defense of Southern rights so much as it was over the South’s frustration that it could not persuade the rest of the United States to acquiesce in its “peculiar institution”—an institution that it always suspected in its own heart was at best untenable.
The proof lies in the very denial, defensiveness, and projection now permeating the “heritage” argument. It was more than coincidence, for instance, that the flag first began to fly above Southern capitols in the early 1960s. The supposed reason was the centennial commemoration of the Civil War, but the real point was to send a message to the growing civil rights movement.
Any reading of the mountains of speeches, letters, diaries, newspaper articles, and editorials written by the South’s leaders prior to the Civil War reveals the same ferocious denial. As the secession crisis neared its climax, they turned out more and more pamphlets defending slavery as an institution that benefited blacks and whites alike, one endorsed by the Bible, the Constitution, and all science and nature.
Gone was the old attitude of the Founding Fathers from the region that slavery was an embarrassing holdover from colonial days that should be allowed to die a natural death. Instead, many of the South’s firebrands even clamored for the resumption of the Atlantic slave trade.
Such is the implacable logic of injustice. The more disagreeable slavery became to white Americans, the more harsh and odious became the methods necessary to preserve it.
Yet the legal right of Southerners to own slaves was never seriously threatened before the Civil War. Even after the Republican victory in the 1860 elections, abolitionists remained a decided minority in the North. Lincoln made it clear again and again, in the months between his election and his inauguration, that his first priority was to preserve the Union.
Southerners did fear Northern abolitionist conspiracies, and it seemed as if their worst nightmares had come true when it was learned that John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859 had been backed by a group of prominent Bostonians. Still, the collective shiver that ran through Dixie was more the product of deliberate political fear-mongering than any objective concern. Brown’s raid, after all, was ineffectual, condemned in much of the North, and quickly suppressed by federal troops.
In fact, many of the South’s leaders—particularly those in the congressional delegation and state government of South Carolina—were badly disappointed when Brown’s foray into Harpers Ferry did not immediately lead to secession. By December of 1859 they were actively weaving their own plot to sunder the Union.
Their conspiracy centered on an anti-slavery book, The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It , by one Hinton Rowan Helper. Helper was, ironically, both a North Carolinian and a ferocious racist, whose argument against slavery was based on the claim that it hurt the South’s small white farmers. Helper’s book was vociferously denounced throughout the South—and endorsed by sixty-eight congressmen from the fledgling Republican party, including Ohio’s John Sherman.
Sherman would claim that he had endorsed the book without actually knowing what it said. This may well have been true. Throughout his long and successful career in the House and Senate, Sherman seems to have often been gloriously unaware of what was done in his name, including such major pieces of legislation as the Sherman Antitrust Act and the Sherman Silver Act. Or he may have simply been trying to withdraw his endorsement because, thanks to a Democratic-party split, he had a chance to be elected Speaker of the House.
The South’s congressional delegations made it plain that they would try to block the ascension of any man who had endorsed The Impending Crisis . William Porcher Miles, a prosecession congressman from Charleston, announced that South Carolina’s legislature should go one step further and pass legislation that would force its representatives to resign from the House should Sherman be elected.
However, as Steven A. Channing traces in his prizewinning Crisis of Fear: Secession in South Carolina , Miles was playing an even deeper game. Correspondence between the congressman and South Carolina’s governor, William Gist, discloses that Miles and others considered seizing control of the House chamber if Sherman was chosen and “ejecting the speaker elect by force.”
Governor Gist replied that he preferred “a bloodless revolution” or at least one that “should begin in sudden heat & with good provocation rather than a deliberate determination to perform an act of violence which might prejudice us in the eyes of the world.”
These qualms aside, Gist made it clear that he would support whatever Miles chose to do: “If however, you upon consideration decide to make the issue of fire in Washington, write or telegraph me, & I will have a Regiment in or near Washington in the shortest possible time.”
Here is an opportunity for the alternative historians: a Civil War that begins with a coup on the floor of the House, backed by a regiment of South Carolina militia rushed to the capital. As it happened, the plot fizzled when Sherman failed to win election. Instead, South Carolina’s leading politicians set themselves to wrecking the Democratic party, something they succeeded in doing the following year at its national convention, conveniently held in Charleston. The result was the election of Lincoln, secession, and the most terrible war in America’s history, a war that would end with John Sherman’s brother, William Tecumseh, burning his way through South Carolina.
Why were so many leading Southerners so eager to wreck the Union and risk a war that was always at best a desperate gamble? The awful effects of a slave society must have been obvious to any intelligent Southerner; one need only read Mary Chesnut’s revulsion at living on her father-in-law’s South Carolina plantation, surrounded by slaves who were her husband’s half-brothers and -sisters.
The South’s leaders could not all have failed to see what slavery was doing to all their people. They simply could not see how to do without it. They thought instead that they could switch flags to compensate for their lack of vision—and ended up leading hundreds of thousands of brave young men to their deaths.
Is this flag, then, an appropriate memorial to the South’s heritage? Well, if the compromises currently being floated fail to take, one might make the argument that the South’s Civil War dead are already well commemorated by the monuments in every Southern town.
One might also argue that if South Carolina is really not satisfied with the Stars and Stripes or with its own beautiful blue palmetto flag, so redolent of the Revolution, it should perhaps design a new flag, one that would honor the rest—and the proudest part—of the South’s heritage. That is to say, a flag that would honor all those Southerners, black and white, who took part in another war, a different kind of war, one with blessedly fewer casualties but one that nonetheless brought a greater triumph, the rarest kind of triumph, which is to say, a victory over the crimes and hatreds of the past. That flag need be only the simplest of ensigns, carrying upon it—and thereby affirming—the words of the Reverend King from the depths of Birmingham Jail: “One day the South will recognize its real heroes.… One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters they were in reality standing up for the best in the American dream and the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, and thus carrying our whole nation back to great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in the formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”