Stars, Bars, Heroes and History
by Trey Bahm on February 27, 2015 at 3:45 PM
How do you solve a problem like the old Confederacy? For conservatives, about 50% of what those who took up arms 154 years ago against the President of the United States is in direct conflict with the most basic principles of freedom. For Republicans, the issue could not be more black and white: there is NOTHING at all in the history of the Republican Party that has ANY connection at all to Confederate thinking – the party was actually founded in opposition to slavery!
From a partisan standpoint, recognizing any state’s Confederate heritage is really a Democrat problem.
But more than this, our era is witnessing the sharp demise of what was once a powerful sentiment in certain states: the veneration of the Lost Cause. At the same time, the very tech-driven Balkanization of our society and culture that is silencing the rebel yell has also created a tight-knit and unrelenting sub-unit of those who will not surrender the flag – literally.
Texas is a state with a peculiar personality disorder when it comes to its Confederate past. In Texas, we’re both bigger and we LOVE winners, so we closet a secret disdain for having been on the losing side of the War Between the States (WBTS). We tend to act like the WBTS never happened, preferring instead to celebrate our much vaunted revolution against Mexico. Our attitude is: Everything was fine till we threw in with those eastern losers. This ignoring of the WBTS is driven more by hiding our shameful mark in the L-column, however, than it is any true repudiation of the state’s slaveholding past.
Further complicating matters is the First Amendment. Only a few months ago, a federal appeals court upheld Texans’ right to have a Battle Flag-themed license plate issued by the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles. The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case appealed by then-Attorney General and now Texas Governor Greg Abbott. In opposing the plate design (submitted by the 120-year old Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) with their longtime logo), General Abbott said the state’s attitude had changed regarding the old Confederacy and that the Battle Flag was just too “offensive.”
This, of course, is a fightin’ word. But as the SCV hopes the Supreme Court will come to their aid, Texas’ Confederate aficionados are preparing for a flank attack in the form of watering-down the barely-known “Confederate Heroes Day” on the state calendar. HB 1242 by Donna Howard of Austin (the Legislature’s 30th most liberal representative) authored the bill to replace Heroes Day with “Civil War Remembrance Day.” The bill also removes the date from often coinciding with Martin Luther King Day to an inexplicable date in May (I am not privy to the reasoning of the May date, if any; the only possible explanation is that the proposed date falls close to regular Memorial Day).
But an insignificant May date is but one example of the historical vacuum in which the Howard bill appears to have been conceived. Truthfully, “Civil War Remembrance Day” is nothing but an Orwellian attempt to erase history and sanitize what one era thinks of the motives of another. In the Howard bill, the names of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee are expressly stricken from the official list of state holidays, and the hero sentiment banished in favor of a sterile recognition of “the men and women who served in the Civil War.” Notice how “fought” is not used. And especially not “fought for the Confederacy.”
Equally vapid is the inclusive language. The number of women who served in combat regiments on either side is infinitesimal and anecdotal at best. Of some 3.8 million Americans from any and all states and territories who “served” in the WBTS, we know of a sum total of 24 women who were reputedly in combat for both sides. The only possible standout with a Texas link, Laura J. Williams, is really more of a legend and doesn’t merit inclusion by any historical, let alone empirical, standard. Such recognition is OK for a local county historical society or a Wikipedia article, but not the state calendar. By the bill’s logic and statistical assumptions, it’s grouping of “those who served” would also include the lost record of African-American slaves who fought alongside their masters for the Confederacy, but I am pretty sure Representative Howard wouldn’t want to acknowledge this.
The doublespeak of HB 1242 aside, however, there is merit in considering, how, exactly, Texas’ Confederate heritage and its veterans should be recognized. I also agree that the current January 19 date (Robert E. Lee’s birthday) for Heroes Day is problematic given its proximity to MLK Day (a holiday I think is legit, I want to state). So, what is the proper way to recognize Texas’ Confederate heritage and the men who died in defense of secession, prompted by slaveholding?
More importantly, should Texas do this? I think General Abbott makes some somewhat valid observations, if for no other reason than that the basic memory of the old Confederacy is so quickly becoming a dusty, quaint relic in today’s world, similar to flag semaphore code and the hoop skirt.
We can answer all these questions in one fell swoop. I think Texas should, without equivocation, honor veterans who fought to defend secession with a state holiday. This should be done by acknowledging the following PROs and CONs:
- The personal motivation for these veterans was a commitment to each other, their families and their communities.
- The legal motivation for these veterans was their understanding of the U.S. Constitution. They ended up being wrong, but secession is a 100% valid interpretation that can be considered and vocalized under the protections of the Bill of Rights.
- The ideological and primal motivation was racism – not slavery, not states’ rights – but white hegemony. The Confederate Vice-President, Georgian Alexander Stephens, said, “[Our new government’s] cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.” NOTE: one of HB1242’s additional ironies is that by striking Jefferson Davis’ name from the holiday list, they are actually getting rid of the old Confederacy’s “moderate” legacy; Jeff was the mainstream pragmatist; Stephens the ideologue.
- The economic motivation was the protection of large-acreage slaveholders. This perversion of capitalism and free labor value is contrary to a fundamental understanding of liberty, free enterprise, and – I know atheistic liberals don’t want to hear it – the teachings of Scripture itself (Paul’s comments on slaves demonstrating the gospel through obedience are not, on their face, an endorsement of slavery, and it’s wicked to infer this by either proponents or abolitionists).
With this understanding, Confederate veterans should have their own date for commemoration and reflection. To insist that their negative motivations should disqualify them from proper recognition would also be to say Martin Luther King, Jr.’s honoring should be diminished because of the Civil Rights leader’s marital peccadilloes. For many years, I have been troubled at how America’s racial problems and sins, past and present, have been made out to be worse than its other legally-protected moral failures. If anything, these latter shortcomings are expanding. History’s only true merit is for instruction. In many instances of study, we can derive hope that we, with God’s help, can make things better. This is the whole point of official holidays. But we don’t achieve true “remembrance” if we aren’t frank about what it is, exactly, we are remembering. Recognizing those who shed blood is the best, most provocative, even uncomfortable means of doing this correctly.
And in the spirit of our great republic which survived the tragedy of the WBTS, I propose the following amendments to HB1242:
- Instead of Confederate Heroes Day, rename it “Texas Confederate Veterans Day.”
- Commemorate the Day on February 1. This is the date Texas actually seceded and sealed its fate. We no longer need to preserve the birthdate of Robert E. Lee; he was a great leader but fought no harder than any of the other veterans. Jeff Davis is just a footnote and always has been.
- Texas Confederate Veterans Day does not need to be a state employee or partial staffing holiday. Instead, those wishing to observe it may request of their supervisors time off without penalty to participate in related events.
Trey Bahm has been featured on The History Channel in the documentaries, “Secret Missions of the Civil War” and “The Plot to Kill: Jesse James.”