This week, the Supreme Court heard arguments re Texas’s refusal to allow Confederate flags to be stamped on license plates as part of a “Sons of Confederate Veterans” design. I wouldn’t ask sons of Confederate veterans to disown their ancestry; in fact, my mother’s mother’s family was southern, and four of my great-great-grandfathers fought in the Confederate army. And I know that lots of Americans sincerely see the Confederate flag as a symbol of states’ rights — particularly because virtually no Confederate soldiers actually owned slaves. But, personally, I see the Confederate flag as the symbol of men who, as Lincoln put it, wrung their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; who, “to strengthen, perpetuate, and extend” slavery, were willing to “rend the Union, even by war.” And I’m a very reasonable man.
“Both parties” to the Civil War, said Lincoln, “deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish.” That war killed about three-quarters of a million Americans, and the Stars and Bars are the symbol of the men responsible — regardless of its having also been a symbol of men who were just trying to defend their homes.
Needless to say, the South has lots to be proud of, and — though it might not be my place — I’d like to point out something that could (and ought to) supplant its traditional reverence for the Confederacy.
The best estimates of the size of the Confederate army range from 750,000 men to a million. One hundred ten thousand additional southerners fought in the Civil War — for the Union. That means that more than one of every ten southerners who fought in the war fought to end slavery and keep the country united. The South ought to be very proud of that.
Over the last 150 years, historians have carefully dissected the Union Army, which was 2.2 million strong; 1.2 million Boys in Blue were born in the United States, but the rest were immigrants: 5,000 Polish Americans born in Poland, 6,000 Mexican Americans born in Mexico, 7,000 Jewish Americans born all over Europe (including, I’ll slip in, another of my great-great-grandfathers). The largest subdivisions were 200,000 men each from Germany and Ireland; the third largest such “minority” was the southern contingent. A very impressive record. In fact, southerners constituted such a large proportion of the Union Army that every Southern state except South Carolina assembled at least one battalion. Ulysses S. Grant singled them out for praise as “brave and loyal men who volunteered under great difficulty.”
I understand the inclination of Confederate soldiers’ great-great-grandchildren to glorify their great-great-grandfathers. I’m not ashamed of the Confederate side of my Civil War ancestry — after 150 years, you can’t possibly know why a man did what he did. Many Confederate soldiers abhorred slavery; many found rebelling against the United States acutely painful. God knows they weren’t Nazis, though they certainly picked the wrong side.
But every few years, when a battle breaks out over the Confederate flag, I can’t help thinking that it’s time that the South, en bloc, abandoned the Confederacy and embraced the heritage of southern Unionists. Your average adult southerner today has between 128 and 256 ancestors who were alive during the Civil War. Statistically, it’s very likely that some of those ancestors were included in the number Henry Clay Work described in his song “Marching through Georgia”:
Yes, and there were Union men who wept with joyful tears,
When they saw the honored flag they had not seen for years;
Hardly could they be restrained from breaking forth in cheers
(While we were marching through Georgia).