Confederate Memorial Day address in Thomasville, NC
Monday, May 12, 2008
I was honored to serve as the main speaker at the Thomasville, NC Sons of Confederate Veterans candlelight service on Saturday. Here is the text of my remarks:
It’s wonderful to see so many families represented here today. Honoring our families and their place in history is what this gathering is all about.
It is that sense of belonging, of community, and duty that made our Confederate ancestors the heroes that they are. And our message today is that their Cause is not over. The South is still alive. We are still here, we are still Southerners, and some people can’t stand it. Despite the odds, we are still a distinct people. If you compare the maps of the 1860 and 2004 elections, you’ll see they’ve hardly changed east of the Mississippi. Dixie is the heart of what they call the Red States. Southerners are predominantly Scots-Irish. Senator James Webb of Virginia wrote a book about us titled “Born Fighting.” Here’s what he wrote about us in that book: the Scots-Irish are "family-oriented, take morality seriously, go to church, join the US military, support America’s wars, and listen to country music." In other words, we’re the heart and body of America.
Observances like this are going on all over the South today, and they’re not just celebrating who we were, but what we are today. Honoring our Confederate heroes says a great deal about our role models, about what we aspire to be. And I’d like to take a somewhat different look at these heroes through the wisdom of another Southerner you may not have heard of.
Edward O. Wilson was born in Birmingham, Alabama. He’s a bug man. That’s what he calls himself. But he’s not an exterminator. He’s a scientist who studies bugs. Dr. Wilson is a Harvard professor who founded the study of sociobiology, which focuses on the biological basis of behavior. Wilson wanted to explain altruism, that is, the sacrifice of oneself for others. Why do they do it? Why do heroes risk their lives? Wilson’s research has influenced not only the fields of biology and ecology, but also psychology, sociology, and political theory.
Little attention has been given to how his Southern upbringing influenced his career and his thought. In his autobiography, Dr. Wilson wrote about his childhood in Alabama:
Young men could aspire to no higher calling than officer rank in the military. The South continued her antebellum dream of the officer and gentleman, honorable, brave, unswerving in service to God and country. He comes to our mind, the newly graduated second lieutenant, clad in dress white, escorting his bride, pretty and sweet, out of the church beneath the raised crossed sabers of his classmates, as his proud family watches. His conduct will henceforth affirm the generally understood historical truth that we lost the War Between the States for lack of arms and the exhaustion of battle-depleted troops. Our men, and especially our officers, were nonetheless individually the finest soldiers in the world at that time. They were Southerners, men not to be trifled with.
Now you understand why commanding officers interviewed on television at Vietnam firebases so often spoke with Southern accents. (Naturalist, p. 18)
Up to college age I retained the Southerner’s reflexive deference to elders. Adult males were “sir” and ladies “ma’am,” regardless of their station. These salutations I gave with pleasure. I instinctively respect authority and believe emotionally if not intellectually that it should be perturbed only for conspicuous cause. At my core I am a social conservative, a loyalist. I cherish traditional institutions, the more venerable and ritual-laden the better.
I have a special regard for altruism and devotion to duty, believing them virtues that exist independent of approval and validation. I am stirred by accounts of soldiers, policemen, and firemen who have died in the line of duty. I can be brought to tears with embarrassing quickness by the solemn ceremonies honoring those heroes. The sight of Iwo Jima and Vietnam Memorials pierces me for the witness they bear of men who gave so much, and who expected so little in life, and the strength ordinary people possess that held civilization together in dangerous times. (p. 25)
You know, Dr. Wilson’s last sentence says much about the worldview that led him forward in his insights into how societies work. The basic teaching of sociobiology, the discipline he founded, is that social behavior can be explained by the biological drive to preserve one’s genetic inheritance. Parents sacrifice for their children, warriors sacrifice for their tribe, and soldiers sacrifice for their nation to ensure the survival of their kin.
Society is held together by the loyalty and affection of extended families – in other words, their blood ties and shared history. This continuity with the past not only provides the individual with identity and purpose, but maintains social order and cohesion, preserving the traditions and way of life that reflect our God-given character as a people. As Edmund Burke observed, the proper balance of liberty and order can only be maintained if “… the whole great drama of national life
And it is that respect for the history that made you what you are that inspires you to respect your elders, and makes you address them as “sir” and “ma’am” as Edward Wilson wrote about his childhood, and everyone here knows what he’s talking about. That respect is what holds society together. I would add that the loss of that respect is why society is tearing itself apart these days.
Not long ago, a Northern transplant wrote this letter to the editor:
I find it disturbing that these white southerners have chosen to identify with their Confederate past. If they wanted truly heroic ancestors to venerate, how about those patriots who defeated the British Empire and created a free nation on this continent? Or the “Greatest Generation,” which survived the Depression and won World War II?
And every now and then, you’ll see another slam against the South for honoring the "losers" of the Civil War.
Well, now. As a matter of fact, we Southerners do venerate the heroes of the American Revolution and of World War II. We consider them role models. George Washington’s image was on the official seal of the Confederate States of America. And any objective history of the American Revolution will tell you the war was pretty much lost in the North, but saved by the South. The next time some know-it-all Yankee tells you we Southerners are traitors, remind him that New York contributed more volunteers to the British Loyalist army than to George Washington’s rebel army. The American Revolution was won in the South through the heroism of such men as Francis Marion, known as the Swamp Fox, and Daniel Morgan, who defeated the British at the Battle of Cowpens. After the bloody Battle of Guilford Courthouse, the British met defeat at Yorktown, largely thanks to Southern militias. The principles of 1776 were frequently invoked by Southerners during their own war for independence.
We Southerners have nothing to apologize for. We have sacrificed our flesh and blood for this country far out of proportion of our numbers. That devotion to duty that Dr. Edward Wilson wrote about still inspires young Southern men. We Southerners are only about 25% of the general population, but the South has provided more than her fair share of troops for the wars the United States has fought. Southerners made up 26% of the armed forces during WWI, 34% during WWII, 35% of the troops in Korea, 36% of the men in Vietnam, and an astounding 41% in the Persian Gulf War. In WWI, Alvin York of Tennessee was the most highly decorated and recognized American soldier. In WWII Audie Murphy of Texas was the most decorated American soldier.
And what do you think motivated the men who fought to defend their civilization against foreign invasion in World War II? They weren’t fighting for an ideology, or some meaningless abstraction. The were instead determined to fight and die to preserve their way of life, their rights, and their existence as a distinct people, rather than submit to foreign conquest. They are heroes to us because they embody the ultimate example of patriotism, which is loyalty to one’s own people, their history, their culture, their unique identity.
And that’s what our Confederate heroes fought for. Did they lose? Just look around, and you’ll see two things – that our culture is still alive, but – that it’s also under attack. That means one thing – that there’s a battle for this generation to fight as well.
As for Southerners honoring losers, off the top of my head, I can say, well, we’re not the only ones, and thank God for that. Think about the 300 Spartans who died holding back the Persian army more than 2,000 years ago, saving Greece, and maybe all of Europe from Asian conquest. Think about the heroes of the Alamo. 200 men holding off an army of 3,000, knowing they were risking their lives – which they lost. Or how about the Warsaw uprising 100 years later in Poland? In the middle of WWII, Jews in Warsaw rose up against the Nazis who were murdering their people. They held them up for five months. All three of these heroic actions ended in defeat and death. But even though they lost their battle, they inspired others who went on to win their greater battles. Greece would have died, and there would never have been a Republic of Texas or an independent Israel if these fighters had not sacrificed themselves for their own people.
Every people has its own heroes, men and women who sacrifice to preserve their heritage. Every people has the right to exist, to be proud of its own, and to strive to continue their heritage into the future. Carrying on a cultural heritage means loving and perpetuating those things that make us what we are, and rejecting those things that diminish our uniqueness. Understanding one’s place in the story of one’s people gives meaning and direction to our lives.
We hear about young people who are lost in a world of drug addiction and crime. Over and over, we hear that they feel unconnected to the world, that they do not know who they are. Modern society and political correctness have stolen that from them. I cannot think of a greater crime against young people.
We are here today honoring our Southern heroes, and at the same time, exploring our own connections to our past, to our heroes. These are connections that are vital, noble, and worthy of honor. We are not living in the past, but are instead acknowledging the heroes, the sacrifices, and the loyalties that make our future possible. For that reason, we gather here to proudly say, “God Save the South!”