Remembering the Civil War: The Fine Line Between Honoring Heritage and Upholding Oppression

The picture below shows the Rebel Flag flying along with the American Flag and the state flag of South Carolina at the State Capitol Building. Does this display cross the fine line? What if it has flown in this spot since the 1860’s? What if it was put up in a haste during the civil rights movements of the 1960’s? Do the details matter?sc-flags-capitol

Most controversial events in history have multiple sides to the story. War in particular will have a side of the victor and the loser and any number of variations in between. Modern historians tend to embrace multiple perspectives because they provide a more nuanced and complete picture of the event. But what if one of those perspectives are grossly misinformed or completely wrong? Is it still valuable?

Millennials growing up on the west coast of the United States are exposed to a very simple and straightforward interpretation of the Civil War: Slavery was bad, the South wanted slavery, Honest Abe said no, the two sides went to war, the North won. This is obviously oversimplified but it was clear, there was only one legitimate side to the story. Even in advanced high school history classes there was no mention of “states rights,” the Sambo thesis, “The War of Northern Aggression,” or slavery in the northern states. The North were the good guys and they liberated Blacks from their southern oppressors. As a 26 year old male living my entire life on the west coast, I was was still wholly unaware how prevalent alternate interpretations of the Civil War were.

Obviously there were a handful of crackpots and racists that were clinging to prejudice ideals and rebel flags, but it seemed highly unlikely that a large portion of Southerners were still bitter over their loss nearly 150 years ago. I could not have been any more mistaken. Tony Horowitz, an admitted Civil War lover and historian, journeyed through the South observing and inquiring how the War is remembered and why it is surrounded which such nostalgia. He easily establishes that for many people in the South, the Civil War is “far from over,” quoting a Charleston man spouting neo-Confederate rhetoric. (Horowitz, 68-69)

Neo-Confederates paint the motivations for war as a product of rising tensions between “two distinct and irreconcilable cultures.” (Horowitz, 68) They deemphasize the importance of slavery by characterizing it as a non-issue or ignoring its presence altogether. The problems with this point of view are obvious, if we cannot acknowledge the source of the War we cannot work to overcome its causes. This sort of Civil War remembrance presents obvious divisiveness that can be dangerous. The hate associated with neo-Confederate views galvanizes the symbol of the Confederate battle flag and propels modern battles on the Civil War battlefront like the murder of Michael Westerman in Guthrie, Kentucky. (Horowitz, 90-93)

But not all forms of remembrance of the Civil War end in murder. Many of the Southerners that Horowitz interacts with have nostalgic memories of the war that do not seem to have any intentional negativity or racist intent. Many of them passionately “spoke of family and fortunes lost in the War; of their nostalgia for a time when the South seemed a cohesive region upholding Christian values and agrarian ways; and, most frequently, of their reverence for larger-than-life” civil war heros.” (Horowitz, 384-385) They reenact the battles of their ancestors in hopes of resurrecting the emotions of pride and connectedness with their heritage that seems damaged by, but also defined by, the Civil War.

Civil War remembrance, and specifically reverence, prompts two distinct and divergent memories. One that digs at the pains of forced bondage and racial segregation, even bemoaning the disintegration of white supremacy. However there is another, often unrelated, stream of memory that memorializes and heroicizes ancestors and the events they took part in. The latter seems to be rather harmless, but what if memorializing the Civil War, no matter the intent, causes others to feel continued oppression and pain from a legacy of racial tensions? This is certainly the biggest question that Horowitz addresses, “is it possible to honor one heritage without upholding the other?” (Horowitz, 80) Can we honor the Rebel Flag without upholding a legacy of racism?

This is a tough question, one I honestly have not come to terms with myself. I tend to be opposed to tearing down old monuments, no matter how antiquated they are, and instead I advocate for reinterpreting those monuments from different perspectives. However, I am not sure that works for everything. We need to take all public displays of history and heritage on a case by case basis; we need to be sensitive to the stakeholders: local interests, national interests, and human rights advocates. There may be appropriate places to fly the Rebel Flag, and their may be other places that it is absolutely wrong, and maybe that is perfectly okay. There is obviously a fine line between honoring heritage and upholding mechanisms of oppression.

Horowitz comes to that same conclusion after visiting Vicksburg, he explained that everywhere he went he “had to explore two pasts and two presents; one white, one black, separate and unreconcilable. The past had poisoned the present and the present, in turn, now poisoned remembrance of things past. ” He continued, “the best that could be hoped for was a grudging toleration of each other’s historical memory.” (Horowitz, 208) I certainly hope it can be a little better than that, maybe in the next generation we can move from “grudging toleration” to thoughtful understanding of one another’s perspectives on the past and the present.

As Slavery and Public History argues, the best way to overcome some of these problems is through education. As my own personal anecdote expresses, education on the Civil War and slavery was limited at best. According to Slavery and Public History “when students are fitted with such intellectual blinders they are likely to become citizens incapable of understanding why we remain a divided nation.” (Slavery and Public History, 37-38) If we better understand what actually happened, we will be more willing to look at our nostalgic memories, as pleasant as they may be, through a critical lens.

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