Symbols of a Mythical Past

dukes_of_hazzard_largeWhen my in-laws moved to North Carolina about ten years ago, we went on a tour of the local state park, Fort Macon. Fort Macon was a Civil War fort. I was dragging around a small kid, so I wasn’t paying great attention to the tour guide, until he started talking about the War of Northern Aggression.

I said to Steve, “The War of Northern Aggression?”

He replied, “The War of Northern Aggression.”

A state employed tour guide could not even call the Civil War, the Civil War. That’s a problem.

Now, we have the confederacy flag debate. Some people say that the confederacy flag signifies the unique Southern culture, and no longer has any meaning related to slavery. I don’t think there are many black folks in Mississippi with the confederate flag hanging over their homes. TNC deals with this debate more here.

I’m all in favor of taking the confederate flag down over the state capital in South Carolina, but I think that doesn’t scratch the surface of the problem. What is the problem? Are all Southerners racist killers? No. But there is still a problem there. A grayer problem. It’s the mythology of a time of wealth and dignity in a modern world filled with poverty and bad schools and prescription drug habits.

23 thoughts on “Symbols of a Mythical Past

  1. I don’t think the Confederate flag is experienced by anyone as a memorial of wealth and dignity. It was, after all, solely a battlefield emblem. It is either (when defensible) a memorial of gallantry, sacrifice and camaraderie or (when indefensible) a memorial or emblem of resistance to integration and racial equality. Or else it is remembered (by a very few of us) as an emblem of treason, but you have to grow up in an old Republican family, for whom the Civil War is “the last good war,” for it to have that valence.

    P.S. The Confederate flag is not flown “over the state Capitol.” It was once, but it was moved to the Confederate War Memorial nearby a few years ago.


  2. Yes, a symbol of treason, in addition to a symbol of defense of evil. You don’t have to be an old Republican family to think that the flag is a symbol of treason, merely an American.

    ““Shoot, if you must, this old gray head,
    But spare *your* country’s flag,” she said.”

    (Even if it was Mary Quantrell who waved our flag)


  3. When I was 10, before President’s Day became a federal Monday holiday, we went to Floriduh over the second week in February, which was school vacation week in Long Island. And we were walking around my great-uncle’s neighborhood in Satellite Beach and I noticed schoolkids playing in the school playground. What a shock to find out that Floridians didn’t celebrate Lincoln’s birthday. 🙂

    I think this post is already outdated. The pols have decided. Confederate flags are coming down, and good riddance. I’m impressed at how Ta-Nahisi really was an influencer on this issue. He often is, but once he articulated it, it was like everyone knew something they could do and not feel so helpless.

    Whenever I teach A Rose for Emily, I tell my students that it’s basically about the necrophilia inherent in Southern culture, that love for a dead thing no matter how decayed and gross it is. And that was written almost 100 years ago.


  4. “Recent Unpleasantness” is another one. Baffled the shit out of me that the woman (recently died) down the street from me flew the Stars and Bars every Memorial Day. She was from West Virginia, f’Chrissake! The whole POINT of West Virginia was keeping the Union, and not going off to war to preserve slavery for rich Tidewater planters.


  5. I went to JEB Stuart High School in VA. Our mascot was the Raiders (with the confederate flag.) We learned about the “war of northern aggression” in school.

    …yet, I almost feel that the racial divide is even worse out here in the Midwest. It is hard to explain. But in my experience, people seem to self-segregate more here.


    1. Kristen, have you read A Fireproof Home for the Bride? It’s set in the 1950s on the Minnesota-South Dakota border and delves into the racial problems in the Upper Midwest. It backs up your point (and my personal observations) — maybe the divide is worse here because it’s hidden under conceptions of “privacy” and not talked about?


      1. You’re welcome, Kristen! It consumed my reading hours for a few days earlier in the summer — hope you enjoy it!


  6. I think it’s important not to imagine that beliefs of white supremacy are isolated to the South. Imagining that creates an “other” that allows us to ignore the groups and beliefs in our own regions.

    That said, Ta-Nehisi Coates collection of quotes in “What This Cruel War Was Over” are downright horrifying. There really is no historically accurate way to dissociate the war from the evil of slavery. One deduction from the collected quotes is that the values that are remembered fondly from the era of Southern Slavery, roughly, an elegance of life and liberty and equality for white men were predicated on slavery, were a function of slavery, and that the leaders of the time freely made those arguments in defense of slavery.

    Jefferson Davis: “You too know, that among us, white men have an equality resulting from a presence of a lower caste, which cannot exist where white men fill the position here occupied by the servile race.”


    1. “I think it’s important not to imagine that beliefs of white supremacy are isolated to the South. Imagining that creates an “other” that allows us to ignore the groups and beliefs in our own regions.”

      True. I am reminded of Ben Affleck freaking out about having a slave-owning ancestor and wanting Finding Your Roots not to mention it. He later named his slave-owning ancestor as a guy from Georgia. Yet, it didn’t occur to him that his and my common ancestor (yes, Ben and I are, like, 10th cousins) was also a slave owner (on Long Island). My Dutch NY ancestors also owned slaves. Sure, I love that I’m also descended from Quakers and abolitionists (Warsaw, NY, home of the Liberty Party, an early abolitionist political party!) but I’m also descended from slave owners. Can’t deny reality.

      Ha, the Daily Mail kind of beat me to it:


      1. It’s sort of convenient to have one’s first American ancestor come to the country only ten years before the Civil War and way too poor to have done anything evil like owned a slave or been an ancestor to anyone in the cast of Gigli.


  7. “I think it’s important not to imagine that beliefs of white supremacy are isolated to the South. ”

    Nor indeed were the antebellum economic benefits limited to the South. How much of industrialization was based on weaving cotton?


  8. Aside from the wrongness of displaying such an offensive symbol of racism, I’ve always been baffled about how people can take real pride in anything their distant ancestors did (in this case, fighting a war, but for anything). Seriously, how attached can you be to people you’ve never met? My great-grandparents came over from Germany-ish in the late 1800s, and the most I can say about the family history is that it’s “sort of interesting” to me. If they did something terrible… meh. If they did something great.. meh.


    1. People long to feel connection to the history the preceded them. I wouldn’t describe my feelings about my abolitionist ancestors as “pride” per se, but it’s a connection of some kind.

      Awkward, though, is hanging out with your 2nd cousin once removed in Germany, and looking at photos of his father who died in WWII and saying “Oh, my grandfather fought in WWII and … uh…. *crickets* Well, he served in the Pacific!”


  9. I think people feel a sort of connection to their ancestors the same way some people feel a connection to their city’s sports team–I’ve never met any of them, after all–or their fellow contemporary Americans–I’ve never met most of them either. And within those categories, most of feel more connected to Captain Sullenberger than to Dylann Roof, or to Derek Jeter than to Alex Rodriguez. Likewise, it’s easier to feel connected to your Patriot ancestors than the Tory ones, or the abolitionists than the slaveowners, or the refugees than the persecutors. (I have plenty of all of them, as do most of us if you go back far enough.)


    1. My husband doesn’t have any abolitionist ancestors, or Patriot ancestors, or Tory ancestors. Maybe slaveowning, but in a more feudal sense. All 4 of his grandparents were born in Germany.

      I’m actually surprised at how attached I’ve become to pretty much all my ancestors.

      Btw, Derek Jeter’s ancestry as revealed by Finding Your Roots was fascinating. The whole show is fascinating, and I am depressed that PBS is temporarily (I hope!) suspending it because of my STUPID 10th cousin.


  10. The Ben Affleck story is a good example of distancing oneself from the humans do to each others by presuming that they are another category of people — “a guy in Georgia” (as opposed to the guy in New Jersey or Connecticut), and of course, the initial story, of simply erasing that apst.

    Ben Affleck can be a good guy (though I don’t know anything about him) in spite of having slave ancestors, and whether he bears any responsibility depends on how much he benefited (as opposed to all of the rest of us) from the enslavement. And I say “us”, even though I came to this country long after slavery had ended because slavery was probably one of the bedrocks on which this pretty great country was built. Morality is muddy, and everyone is capable of good and evil. All of us have persecutors and refugees and freedom-fighters in our heritage.


  11. I recommend the Open Yale Course “The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877,” by David Blight. It helped this Northern girl understand the Civil War. Professor Blight (in the course) does point out that the denial of slavery as a cause of the war started just after the Civil War. Previously, the confederacy was quite clear they were leaving the Union to preserve slavery.

    I regard the controversy as a symptom of the lingering wounds left behind by a civil war which was fought on southern soil. The closest analogy, perhaps, to the modern emotional response by some people might be the hyperinflation in the Weimar Republic, an experience which left deep scars (and an aversion to soft money policies) in modern Germans.

    The Civil War’s battles devastated the South. The South lost half the (non-slave) men eligible for military service, and they all served. Look at the “Civil War Service by Population” contrast between the Union and the Confederacy.

    The emancipation of the slaves (morally right) devastated the economy. I suppose the equivalent would be taking all the home equity and savings from the population. (Add to that the valueless confederate currency.) For many Southerners, their slaves were their most valuable household asset. Even the citizens who did not own slaves were bankrupt by the change, because if your customers can’t pay you, they won’t. The bitterness which remained was sown in part by the Union’s treatment of the Southern states during Reconstruction.

    Then, after the war, I presume anyone who was inclined to leave, or had the means to leave, did leave.

    Had the North enacted a plan like the Marshall Plan, who knows what might have happened?

    Then again, Scotland’s relationship to Great Britain is fraught with tension these days. The two entities were joined by royal inheritance, not by war, but there are still people loyal to Scotland, even though it’s been hundreds of years since Scotland was independent.


    1. Those are some really pointless, misleading analogies.

      The southern economy was based on agriculture. The land was still there. The labor was still there (migration to the North didn’t really take off for a generation). What was lacking was any willingness to pay the labor.

      You’ve taken the “Birth of a Nation” view of the Reconstruction, except you left out the part where the Klan heroically saves the day, which I guess is an improvement. Reconstruction was hardly perfect, but, as the history of what happened after Reconstruction indicates, it was completely and obviously necessary to stop the use of murder and terror to prevent blacks in the south from exercising their constitutional rights to vote.

      There were attempts to enact a plan like the Marshall Plan. The white part of the south objected because it involved giving the aid to the former slaves.

      The Scotland analogy I don’t understand.


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