Ta-Nehisi Coats has invited some fine guest contributors in recent weeks. I’ve been enjoying the work of Andy Hall, a frequent commentator at TNC who also blogs at Dead Confederates. As TNC says Andy’s “…knowledge of all things Civil War is truly intimidating.”
There are many myths about the Confederacy, but one of the biggest is that it was a political movement built around honor. It wasn’t. It was a movement built around protecting a system of stolen labor and the ‘rights’ of a selective few to grossly profit from that system. Selling ideas of honor, states rights and outright racism was how a small group of 19th century Southern Oligarchs built an army to fight for injustice. Ever since their defeat these Confederates and their idealogical descendants have worked hard to spin their treasonous racist enterprise into an honorable ‘lost cause’ and in recent decades they have completely captured the Republican Party and the modern conservative movement.
In the beginning of the last century the Confederates were early adapters of new technologies to spread their myth. It was D.W. Griffiths’ “The Birth of a Nation” that spread the myth of Confederate honor across America and presented millions of white immigrants a narrative of white supremacy and shiftless, lazy, untrustworthy and threatening blacks. It was a narrative that generations of immigrants embraced as they and their children became Americans and it was a narrative that spread the reach of the Confederate Party and its ideology of hate to all 50 states.
The power of this myth is fading, but the Confederate Party is making a desperate effort to keep it alive with new (and yet old) lines of racist attacks, charges of ‘reverse racism’ and the search for new enemies of the white race (Hispanics, gays, Islam and non-white foreigners) to add to their old standard enemies lists of blacks, liberals, unions and abolitionists. This latest iteration of the Confederate Party is trying to mobilize a new army of teatards, wingnuts, racists and neocons to protect a new generation of oligarchs and new ways to steal labor. And just like 150 years ago they are selling myths of honor, states rights and appeals to white supremacy to build their movement. One can draw a straight line from the Dred Scott decision to the effort to end the birthright citizenship guarantee of the 14th Amendment. Many things have held this movement together over the last century and a half, but perhaps the biggest one is the myth that the Confederacy was honorable and that by extension some forms of racism can be honorable as well.
Confronting racism in America requires that the myth of Confederate honor is destroyed. And that gets me back to this guest post by Andy Hall at TNC’s site which strikes at the heart of the myth of Confederate honor. Citing an essay by David G. Smith, “Race and Retaliation: The Capture of African Americans During the Gettysburg Campaign,” Andy goes on to explain just what Bobby Lee and his Army of Confederates were after on their raid into Pennsylvania in the summer of 1863 (emphasis added):
During the Gettysburg Campaign, soldiers in the the Army of Northern Virginia systematically rounded up free blacks and escaped slaves as they marched north into Maryland and Pennsylvania. Men, women and children were all swept up and brought along with the army as it moved north, and carried back into Virginia during the army’s retreat after the battle. While specific numbers cannot be known, Smith argues that the total may have been over a thousand African Americans. Once back in Confederate-held territory, they were returned to their former owners, sold at auction or imprisoned.
That part of the story is well-known. What makes Smith’s essay important is the way he provides additional, critical background to this horrible event, and reveals both its extent across the corps and divisions of Lee’s army, as well as the acquiescence to it, up and down the chain of command. The seizures were not, as is sometimes suggested, the result of individual soldiers or rouge troops acting on their own initiative, in defiance of their orders. The perpetrators were not, to use a more recent cliché, “a few bad apples.” The seizure of free blacks and escaped slaves by the Army of Northern Virginia was widespread, systematic, and countenanced by officers up to the highest levels of command. This event, and others on a much smaller scale, were so much part of the army’s operation that Smith argues they can legitimately be considered a part of the army’s operational objective. Smith is blunt in his terminology for these activities; he calls them “slave raids.”
The last army of the Confederacy had “slave raids” as a top strategic priority and why wouldn’t they as the entire enterprise was built around protecting the theft of labor. The new teatard/wingnut Confederate Army is working to update the ‘slave raid’ concept for a new century with attacks on uppity negroes, ACORN, the NAACP, teh gays, brown people and the latest runaways to capture: anchor babies. Then as now the goal is to take prisoners, deny freedom and inflict punishment motivated by revenge and hatred.
I know that this will hurt the feelings of those who completely buy into Confederate mythology, but the cold fact is that the modern Confederate movement is without honor just like the traitorous movement that took up arms against our Nation 150 years ago. And sure, there may be examples of individuals who occasionally engage in honorable acts in any iteration of the Confederate movement, but these isolated incidents can not make the Confederate movement honorable any more than the honorable act of an individual German soldier could infuse the Nazi movement with honor or the honorable resistance to Hitler’s army by Russians in Leningrad and Stalingrad could, by extension, make Stalin’s Soviet regime honorable. There are political ideologies that justifiably belong on the ash heap of history–and the Confederacy is one of them.
A call has been made to treat Glenn Beck’s magic day of September 12 as Burn The Confederate Flag Day. Perhaps I will head down to a local statue of that old racist Bobby Lee and burn one. And then head over and burn another in front of a local statue of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, the author of the Dred Scott decision. I might, but the time to do it would give the Confederacy far more honor than it deserves. Still, it might be fun.