My mother was born in 1903 in the Missouri Ozarks and – educated to the eighth grade – wrote letters to me with better grammar and spelling than half of the college students I taught in the 1980s and ’90s.
But she had a soft spot for the Confederacy, which she imagined as a “Gone with the Wind” dreamscape of noble cavaliers and beautiful young women. She told stories she had heard about her ancestors being forced to part from their weeping slaves, the slaves eager to remain those ancestors’ property.
My ancestors rich enough to own slaves? It’s tough to believe, given the hardscrabble photo of my mother’s family on our bedroom wall in Shawnee. In that 1908 picture, my mom appears as the tiniest of her clan of two parents and six siblings photographed before a rickety farmhouse (half of it the original homestead of logs covered by clapboards).
My mother, now dearly missed, had a tender spot for the South as do many Americans. That’s why the Confederate battle flag is displayed at tea party gatherings, Donald Trump’s Republican rallies, the recent insurgent takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon and, most tragically, from the hand of 21-year-old Dylann Roof last year shortly before he shot to death nine black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C. We must assume “rebels” display that flag because they believe the Confederate cause was admirable.
Was it really? For that we have to ask why the Confederacy in 1861 started the Civil War, or at least fired the first shots as they cannoned Charleston’s Fort Sumter into surrender. That war killed in battle 720,000 Americans, more than died in all our other wars combined. So, why the Civil War?
Some Americans today whose ancestors gallantly fought for the Confederacy (perhaps including my great-grandfather) understandably say it was not for slavery. It was for the South’s honor and liberty, to defend states rights and oppose an intrusive central government. But Southern leaders in 1861 – those who ordered the cannons fired – spoke more bluntly. Mississippi’s “Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession” jumps right in:
“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest of the world – a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution. … There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union.”
Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens declared that the cornerstone of the new government “rested 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. This, our new government, is the first in the history of the world based upon this great physical, philosophical and moral truth.”
South Carolina said in its declaration of causes: “A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States (Abraham Lincoln), whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery … that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.”
The Georgia secession document, which uses the words “slave” or “slavery” 27 times, argues that the Union sought to keep slavery from expanding into territories that were not yet states.
“The claim itself was less arrogant and insulting than the reason with which she (the Union) supported it. That reason was her fixed purpose to limit, restrain and finally abolish slavery in the States where it exists.”
The Texas “Declaration of the Causes which Impel the State of Texas to Secede from the Federal Union” states: “They demand the abolition of Negro slavery throughout the Confederacy, the recognition of political equality between the white and Negro races, and avow their determination to press on their crusade against us, so long as a Negro slave remains in these States.”
The Constitution of the Confederate States of America cites the word “slavery” more than 20 times. It ensures that slaveholders need not worry that entry of more slaves would devalue their property: “The importation of Negroes of the African race from any foreign country other than the slaveholding States or Territories of the United States of America, is hereby forbidden.”
Countless times, like today’s insurrectionists, those Confederate leaders called the United States a “tyranny.” Civil War fighting was savage, but after surrender our government was incredibly mild. When they earlier had joined the U. S. Army, Gen. Robert E. Lee and other Southern generals took oaths of allegiance swearing to defend the United States against all enemies.
So did I when I entered the U. S. Army, as do all our members of the armed forces. Yet no Confederate leader who fought U.S. troops was ever prosecuted as a traitor. After the surrender at Appomattox, Union troops fed Lee’s army and allowed the soldiers to go home. Confederate officers, cavalrymen and artillery personnel kept their horses and swords. Officers like Lee also kept their sidearms.
At times America has been tyrannical, enslaving black people for centuries, then abusing them through segregation for another century after the Civil War. During World War II we interned Japanese-American citizens on the West Coast while their sons bravely fought German troops in Italy. Our nation much later apologized and paid those U.S. citizens some compensation.
My own father was born in Germany. He immigrated in 1928 and lived quietly with my family through the war. His skin, of course, was white. That was America’s ingrown racism on display. In 2016, we are decent enough as a people to be ashamed of it.
My little mother in a plain cotton shift, her blonde hair cut like a boy’s, glances half sideways out of that 108-year-old photograph on our bedroom wall. That little girl was lucky enough to miss the worst tyranny America ever knew: slavery. She saw American women gain the right to vote in 1920 – one more tyranny down. More cruelties would go as she lived out her 79 years.
America today is a far better and freer land than the one my mother was born into at the dawn of the 20th century – despite modern rebels’ cries of “tyranny!”
Charles Hammer is a special contributor to the Kansas City Star.