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April 14th, 2010
03:38 PM ET

Confederate history is about race

Confederate symbols have denoted opposition to equal rights, Grace Hale says.
Confederate symbols have denoted opposition to equal rights, Grace Hale says.

Grace Elizabeth Hale
Special to CNN

It has been eight years since people in my state of Virginia got a chance to debate the meaning of the Civil War in front of the nation, and the comments posted on CNN and other news Web sites suggest our passion over the topic has not dimmed.

If Governor Bob McDonnell wants his fellow Virginians to think deeply about "how our history has led to our present," then his declaration of April as Confederate History Month has accomplished this goal, if not exactly in the manner he intended.

The problem with the celebration of Confederate History Month, however, goes far beyond McDonnell's "mistake" in not discussing the centrality of slavery in the Civil War in his original proclamation.

Confederate "history" means more than the four years during which Virginia and other states fought a war to form a separate country called the Confederate States of America. It refers to the many uses of Confederate symbols and evocations of Confederate history in the almost century-and-a-half since Appomattox as well.

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Filed under: 360° Radar
soundoff (22 Responses)
  1. Jon Adams

    i've lived in Africa and believe me they're proud of their slave history. The people in Nigeria claimed that the slaves were gifts from other tribes and they just supplied them to the Europeans who paid in mostly gin and glass beads. Believe me the slaves were much better off when they came to the US than they were at home. Slavery still exists in Black Africa today and always will.

    April 14, 2010 at 4:21 pm |
  2. Mike in NYC

    A Union soldier once asked a Southern POW why he was fighting. The Southerner replied, "because you're down here."

    Most Southerners would have recognized that, should they have won their independence, slavery would not have lasted long afterward. The South would have been forced to quickly industrialize, as not doing so would have meant falling behind the Northern states and Europe, and leaving themselves open to future conquest. Slavery is incompatible with an industrial system, which requires a supply of free, mobile labor, and would have become extinct within a few decades of a Southern victory.

    As for establishing slavery in territories they may have had designs on, this would have embroiled the Confederacy in wars whose costs would have outweighed their value.

    April 14, 2010 at 4:20 pm |
  3. D in VA

    Often overlooked in debates about the meaning of the Confedracy is the fact that by the mid-19th century, the Union was not a warm and cozy alliance of independent states. Because of differentials in transportation, population, economics, political power and other factors, the northern and southern sections of the country had grown apart and developed distinct regional identities. For a number of reasons the house was in fact deeply divided before the southern states passed acts of secession. Oversimplification of those into a single issue, as horriffic an issue as slavery was, is not a scholarly interpretation of history.

    April 14, 2010 at 4:19 pm |
  4. Smith in Oregon

    Confederate history is not only about white supremacists, it is also about rampant hatred towards the Federal Government which led to mass fratricide of American people taking up arms against one another.

    The South totally relied on the Slave labor for their fields and manufacturing plants, not unlike Republican led former US Corporations overseas which entirely rely on workers that recieve pennys per items sold for hundreds of dollars. A great part of the Civil War was sheer greed by rich landowners and their factorys who were not willing to pay workers salarys which would deduct from their net income.

    April 14, 2010 at 4:11 pm |
  5. Charles

    Supporters of the confederacy were traitors against the United States of America. Those who continue to support this abomination are no less so. Drive old dixie down!

    April 14, 2010 at 4:08 pm |
  6. CT Yankee

    I was born & raised in the north, and have done extensive reading on the Civil War. Breanna IS right – the focus of the southern states was primarily on states rights and a fear that the federal government was overriding them to the detriment of southern interests (hitting a bit close to home today, I'd think!) It was only as the war progressed that slavery became as much of an issue, and was – frankly – a political football utilized by both sides. Consider the timing of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation – at a time when England and France were very seriously considering forcing a moderated peace on North and South; his was a briliant political move which in actuality changed nothing (freeing only those slaves held in states in rebellion) but it took the moral high ground away from any foreign effort to interfere. Or the South's last-gasp efforts to enlist slaves in the Confederate Army (Jan, 1865) with promises of their freedom.

    Obviously, slavery has and will continue to polarize people in this debate. However, NONE OF US should forget those Americans who fought so bravely for the southern states (most of whom owned NO slaves) or the sacrifices made by them – any more than we should disregard the death and destruction suffered by the north (FAR less than the south). I think the VA proclamation was intended as such – to honor those who fought for the Confederacy. That should not be construed as "honoring slaveowners". If your view is as simplistic as that, then I'd suggest you read more so you can address the situation more clearly and fully.

    April 14, 2010 at 4:01 pm |
  7. yada yada

    The civil war was not fought over states rights. That has been the convienient alibi used by people that recognize the practice of slavery is indefensible. The civil war was always about maintaining an economic system whereby people of shallow moral character held people in bondage in order to reap great financial benefit. Nothing more – nothing less.

    April 14, 2010 at 3:42 pm |
  8. intpmann

    I am a Southerner. I was born in Georgia, moving to Virginia when I was very young and have lived there ever since. My ancestors were Confederate soldiers and slave owners. I don't think the Confederacy should be celebrated - but I do think the valor of the Confederate soldiers should.

    Southerners have long parsed semantics to somewhat legitimize "the cause". And then there's people like my cousin, who argue that our family were "good" slave owners, like there's any such thing. But the truth is that we treated other human beings like farm equipment, to own, to use and abuse, and to underwrite loans.

    Confederate soldiers were like soldiers everywhere, mostly doing their jobs, sometimes with selfish devotion to duty and their fellows that approached the level of being something sacred. But they did it for an evil cause that was driven by greed, arrogance and ignorance. So like soldiers for Nazi Germany, the USSR, and many other evil regimes throughout history, many served honorably for an evil country.

    So yes, honor the soldier's heroism and valor: they charged fearlessly into fire and laid down their lives for their brothers in arms. But also remind all who will listen that the cause for which they served was not just.

    April 14, 2010 at 3:39 pm |
  9. Dave

    You are correct Breanna. As others have said, at least one of the states' rights (if not the most important one) that the South was fighting for was the right to continue to own slaves.

    April 14, 2010 at 3:33 pm |
  10. Amee

    the civil war was a war that was fought, it is history, it deserves to be known so that maybe it won't happen again. The United States was broken apart and pulled back together stronger than ever. It was a terrible time in history but that is just the way it is and it happened. It should not be swept under a rug never to be talked about again. The majority of the people that was fighting was fighting to defend their land and their families. The majority was not slave owners, there were some that wanted to keep it the way it was but this was something that had to be done to heal the nation and bring us all together. I am from Alabama and we have had our rough patches in history, but it is
    a good place to live and work and I believe it is a fair place now.

    April 14, 2010 at 3:29 pm |
  11. oldcavalry

    True Legacy of the Civil War is ...this is what happens when our elected officials put pride & personal interest above the public interest.

    ....kinda like what's going on in Congress today!

    April 14, 2010 at 3:19 pm |
  12. GlennInHouston

    I'm from the south but I don't believe in slavery or state's rights. I think we got it wrong on both counts. I can be proud of some things but not everything. Let's just move on with our lives shall we? It was 150 years ago.

    April 14, 2010 at 3:11 pm |
  13. Joe

    Fair enough that many people associate the Confederate flag and the attempted secession with individual rights vs. government intrusion, but to ignore the fact that millions upon millions upon millions of others associate it with racism and a very bloody and unpatriotic part of America history is fairly narrow-minded and selfish; and borders on intentional disregard for the feelings of others.

    I think it's safe to say that most Americans associate the Confederate flag with racism. If you want to fly under that banner, then you're either proud of that association or don't care about it.

    April 14, 2010 at 2:24 pm |
  14. Judith

    Here's the problem: the Confederacy, the "Stars and Bars" the proclamation by Governor McDonald are nothing but a distasteful, hurtful reminded to every person in this country of African-American descent. I am Caucasian, but I feel this is the crux of the problem. Let the Sons of the Conderacy celebrate among themselves, but to have a State that once enslaved so many promote anything having to do with the Confederacy is an racist outrage and pretends that the South was "honorable" in seceding from the union. Of course, McDonald is pandering to his base, conservative white males, and many of them still harbor a lot of animosity toward minorities.

    April 14, 2010 at 2:21 pm |
  15. Sarah

    It wasnt about state rights but HUMAN rights! Basic respect for human dignity and freedom always trump the rigts of any stTe or union.

    April 14, 2010 at 2:18 pm |
  16. Don Beal

    Would the Civil War have occurred without black slavery? Would southerners have fought over the tariff? Brave though they may have been, I doubt it.

    April 14, 2010 at 1:46 pm |
  17. Hank

    Would the States Rights issue even been contended if the slavery issue wasn't in the forefront? The States Rights issue was centered on giving the Confederate states the right to own slaves. Lincoln's election was an issue because of his stance on slavery. Even in defeat the south spoke in terms of how they would deal with the freed slaves in the Reconstruction south. Slavery was certainly the key cause of the Civil War.

    April 14, 2010 at 1:44 pm |
  18. Southern Roots

    If the holding of slaves had not existed, there would have been no issue over state's rights. Let's not rewrite history. Unfortunately, the holding of slaves is the history of the United States, and that fact includes the South.

    April 14, 2010 at 1:35 pm |
  19. charles rogers

    I am a s.c.v. my family did not own slaves or anybody .if we cannot have hertige why should you.

    April 14, 2010 at 1:28 pm |
  20. earthseer

    If there had been no slavery, there would have been no southern rebellion or Confederate States. It's as simple as that. So to pretend that there was some high and mighty attempt to assert states' rights over federal sovereignty just for the principle of it, is just plain BS. Too many southerners (and Republicans) long for the days of the 'old south' when slaves and all people of color knew their place and white folk sure as hell kept them there.

    April 14, 2010 at 1:05 pm |
  21. Claudia, Houston, Tx

    The proof was found in Africa that we all originated from Africa and that is a history we all avoid. We'd rather look at the color of ones skin to determine our origin which results in hate and racism.

    April 14, 2010 at 11:35 am |
  22. Breanna (a proud Southern gal)

    I for one would like to know exactly which side of the Mason-Dixon line this poor woman calls home, as she is certainly incredibly mistaken as to both the history of the Civil War and the reasons for which it was fought. This war was fought as a matter of states' rights versus those of the federal government, rather than merely as an issue of racism, which admittedly did play a role in the motivations of the average Southerner at this time. If she is indeed from the South, I for one would like to advise her to show some pride in her heritage, rather than openly deriding it through posts such as these.

    April 14, 2010 at 10:51 am |

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