Caveness is treasurer for The Center for Civil War Living History Inc. in Roanoke
The Sept. 19 commentary "The real history of the War Between the States" by Ronald Mitchiner is perhaps one of the most misguided as well as defamatory commentaries on Southerners I have read in The Roanoke Times.
Typically one can recognize a position in a debate as not having much credibility when the debater must rely on cynicism and blatant insults to make his point. These tactics are often used when there are few facts to support one’s position.
Mitchiner attempts to heap all the sins and responsibility for slavery on the South and implies that Southerners with any interest in their heritage or the Confederate battle flag are racist supporters of the Klu Klux Klan. He takes exception to the realistic viewpoint that the South has a complicated and misunderstood heritage.
Let’s briefly examine the guilt for America’s original sin, slavery. Of course slavery is wrong and has no place in civilized society. The South had large landholders who used slavery in the conduct of business. However, our society must also understand the guilt for the institution transcends both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, as well as the Atlantic Ocean.
New England-based Yankee fleets in large part facilitated the slave trade by doing business with the African chieftans selling their defeated enemies into slavery. We should also recognize that Northern corporate America profited handsomely by insuring slaves as property.
Moreover, the majority of the revenue of the United States government prior to the Civil War — there was no IRS or personal income tax then — was from tariffs placed on the export of cotton picked by slaves in the South.
The vast majority of this revenue was spent in the North, building its infrastructure. Why? Because the North controlled the congressional votes that determined how revenue was spent. This disproportionate spending was a primary cause for the South’s interest in secession from the Union.
So, yes, slavery is truly an American sin with blame resting on both sides of the War Between the States. In the evolution of America, this tragic war precipitated an end to a horrid institution that benefited certain wealthy parties residing in both the North and South.
With respect to the Confederate battle flag, more than 90 percent of soldiers who fought for the South were nonslave-holding citizens, and secession didn’t occur overnight. Virginians initially were against secession, and it was months after the firing on Fort Sumter that Virginia seceded.
The North’s decision to invade the South precipitated Virginia’s decision to secede and join the Confederacy. Our state’s citizen soldiers simply responded to their state and new nation’s call to duty. Their circumstance is not much different than, say, the Vietnam veterans who also fought in an unpopular war but whose courageous service we appropriately honor.
For the millions of Americans descended from the Southern soldiers of the Confederacy, the battle flag represents this patriotic courage and regional pride. It does not represent racism to us.
The Confederate battle flag is not copyrighted, just as the stars and stripes and crucifix are not. These symbols, too, are readily found at Klu Klux Klan rallies. It is unfair to Southern American heritage to pick and choose which symbols are racist. Yes, Old Glory flew over a slave-holding nation for nearly 100 years preceding the Civil War, and the Bible is rife with stories of slavery.
It has been apparent for some time that historians and Southern Americans are faced with the challenge of rescuing the Confederate battle flag, which has been hijacked by racist groups and extremists on the other side who wish to characterize the flag as a racist symbol. But we do have history to help us to provide balance to these modern images we see on our television sets and Web sites.
Our organization does its part in promoting education by preserving hallowed ground for living history presentations and re-enactments. To date, we have facilitated the purchase of approximately $2.7 million worth of battlefield ground from urban development.
Columns like "The real history of the War Between the States" are extremist viewpoints that promote racism and widen the division between black and white, and North and South. The sooner Americans appreciate it’s OK to respect one’s heritage, the sooner we become a society with multicultural and multiracial understanding.