Honoring Confederate Veterans

By walterrhett
Community Blogger

Reader submitted blog Published June 29, 2009

Lonnie Randolph, state president of South Carolina’s NAACP chapters, is just flat wrong when he touted that paying tribute to Confederate soldiers is the same as honoring Hitler. The comparison made great fodder for headlines, and the South’s oldest daily, Charleston’s Post and Courier, stripped it across the top of page one. The loud and inflammatory comparison greeted the paper’s early morning readers. Its absurdly false but highly charged premise keeps alive a debate that it’s time to lay to rest.

Mr. Randolph denounced the American President for sending a wreath to an Arlington, VA memorial last Monday, to honor the sacrifice of Confederate soldiers. Earlier, the President received a May 18thletter signed by 60 leading college professors from across the nation–North and South, black and white–asking him “to break the chain of racism” and not honor the Arlington Confederate memorial with any “token of esteem.”

[ Link to the full text of the letter and 90 comments: http://hnn.us/articles/85884.html ]

President Obama did send a wreath to the Arlington Confederate memorial. But for the first time, a President also sent a wreath the Civil War memorial for African-American soldiers, at U Street and Vermont Avenue in Washington, DC’s Shaw neighborhood. Within walking distance of the African-American memorial is a DC high school named for Francis Cardoza who was educated in Glasgow, Scotland and was the son of Charleston marriage between a black mother and a Jewish father. After the 1861 war, Cardoza founded Charleston’s Avery Institute, the leading African-American educational institution in Charleston.

After the 1861 war, Cardoza’s brother, Thomas, won election as Mississippi’s Education Commissioner and brought universal education to Mississippians, black and white.

Those of us in the South who directly benefited from the twin American pillars of freedom and education—including me, the first African-American male graduate of my integrated Southern high school in 1968 (four African-American women were also in the class)–remember with deep thanksgiving the precious gift of liberty wrought out of the devastation of the 1861 war. We who received that education agree, without equivocation, that slavery was wrong. We celebrate its end. But slavery, with all its evils and cruelty, wasn’t mass, deliberate, institutionalized, systemic, race-based genocide.

As a public writer, I am entrusted with the stewardship of that long educational tradition. I am a member of a group who were once kept separate from education by force and law. After freedom, education was an important prize in African communities, and Charleston enrolled over 2,500 students in classes within 2 weeks of its surrender—the largest school enrollment during wartime anywhere in history!

With clarity and without bitterness, I can say that Robert E. Lee, SC’s Wade Hampton (the South’s largest slave owner when the war began and as a Lt. General, the state’s highest ranking Confederate officer), was not the moral equivalent of Hitler.

Closer by specific analogy might Nathan Bedford Forrest, the former slave trader and illiterate Confederate General who directed the massacre of black and white Union troops at Fort Pillow, near Henning, Tennesse, in April, 1864, and who, after the war, was probably a Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, one of the most violent race-based organizations in the nation’s history.

A lesser known incident of genocide did occur at Ebenezer Creek, 12 miles up river from Savannah. In December, 1864, between 3,000 to 5,000 black women, children, and men were killed on the creek banks by Confederate Calvary led by Gen. Joseph Wheeler, after the Union army removed the platoon bridge spanning the creek, making it impossible for the refuge train to cross. Shot, whacked, trampled and drowned, their bodies floated out of the creek for years after. When it rains, Ebenezer Creek echoes the plaintive cries of the victims, locals say.

USCT troops (fair use)

What Mr. Randolph says reminds me of an earlier protest effort this year by PETA who donned Klan robes outside New York’s Westminster dog show to protest puppy mills and in-breeding for dog shows. In both cases, PETA and Mr. Randolph’s, the analogy to racial violence and genocide, overwhelms the message.

Despite talk of states right and freedom, as an 1865 Charleston editorial stated unequivocally, the Confederacy defended and fought to preserve slavery, a point I made on television and in news interviews during Charleston’s activities surrounding the 2004 burial of the crew remains of the Mobile-built submarine, the CSS Hunley (named for its builder). Slavery adds a bitter taste to this legacy. The defense of this institution of force by default is an unteniable proposition that still inspires modern rage.

Mr. Randolph looks back and feels this rage.

But in Mr. Randolph’s equation, he made the common mistake found when history is used as a measure to condemn or justify acts of the present. Mr. Randolph contemporized history. He applied the standards of the present to acts of the past. He is looking back through the lens of the moral high ground that makes the past, by the new standards, as outrageous as the idea that South Carolina’s native Americans were cannibals when the colonial era began, or as chilling as cutting out the hearts of publescent women by the Aztecs, who also ate sacramental bread as the body of the gods and who duly practiced confession.

Beyond the fallacy of misplaced concreteness caused by temporizing history, in Mr. Randolph’s state, a leading African-American legislator, state senator Robert Ford, a gubernatorial candidate for 2010 who I last had lunch with in Charleston a few weeks ago, authored and introduced legislation to make Confederate Memorial Day an official state holiday.

Taking the opposite tack to Mr. Randolph, Senator Ford believes that such a holiday will significantly reduce racial tension in the state, through mutual discussion.

I think fair minded people look beyond the words, to the heart of the issues, and see old hurts that can’t be solved by wreaths, or withholding wreaths, or by bills for holidays.

Nor can soltice or progress be found in comparisons to Hitler.

“Fair-minded words,” the powerful phrase Obama used in his Notre Dame address, is the best hope for a new national standard when discussing race, abortion, war, bailouts, health care, Cuba, terrorists, green policy, the stimulus, earmarks—and history.

“Fair-minded words” can often find the hidden common ground.

I found this hidden ground reading two personal accounts by witnesses to the 1861 war; the online diary of Meta Grimball of Charleston, who had two sons in the war and Susan King Taylor’s book, “Reminiscences of Life with the 33d US Colored Troops,” which describes Harriet Tubman’s war service in South Carolina, at Hilton Head nd at Charleston.

Althrough on opposite sides, both women want the same thing. They want the war to end; they pray for peace. They want friends and family and soldiers safe. They want community restored.

At St. Michael’s Church in Charleston, Meta Grimball son’s name appears on the memorial for the 1861 war. In her dairy, I have read her words of grief, and I knew the man who was his namesake.

Her son, killed so young, grieved by a mother who counts a former slave and servant as her only guiding Christian witness. This son is not grotesquely like Hitler. Not according to acts of Meta Grimball’s former slave who brought the family gifts of food and small coins after the war, when she was free. Not according to Harriet Tubman who breathed freedom and pushed it to the edge of death. Harriet Tubman roundly condemned slavery, but never dehumanized or made demaogues of those who dehumanized her and put a $40, 000 bounty on her head.

“Fair-minded words” can often be unpleasant, but South Africa found the power of unpleasant truth when its Truth Commission received the testimony and witness of thousands of citizens who had committed inhuman acts of atrocity, even murder, during the anti-apatheid struggle. The public confessions, rather than inflaming passions, actually had the opposite effect. The truth–ugly, mean, and painful–give recognition to a common ground, a recognition that the suffering and evil, now done, led the way to a higher humanity. Rather than kept alive the cruel blows inflicted on a people, the confessed memories became a shrine of history that tells in its memories why its days should never again be visited.

What South Africa truth commissions, Harriet Tubman, and Meta Grimball share is a fierce passion for mercy.

At the depth of their struggle is mercy, and its unwavering propensity to heal. For them, progress is tied not to protest, but to faith. Whether fast or slow, the pace of change is inextricably tied to the quality of mercy. Forgiveness cleanses bitterness without a naïve acceptance. Mercy finds the courage for the open heart to stand in the full storm. It was mercy that led to the powerful prayer of intercession in 1by a John’s Island (SC) woman who told God in 1934, “Give them better.”

The wreath sent by Barack, in the firestorm of protest and flash points of outrage, marks the quality of mercy. It honors all, confederate and slave, because it forgives.

This, too, is consistent with history. Slaves praised and celebrated their jubilee without reaping revenge. Their dignity lead to the establishment of Avery, and statewide, free education in Mississippi, and elected officials at the state and national levels throughout the South, including two Lt. Governors in South Carolina and several members of US Congress, including Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church’s pastor, Richard H. Cain, in 1868. Emanuel is the nation’s most important religious shrine to freedom, having built and finished a 3,000 seat church only a year after Charleston’s surrender.

At “Mother” Emanuel AME, the jubilee praised the God of their deliverance and gave thanks for strength along the jouney.

For all the hubris, honoring Confederate soliders on Memorial Day is a modern tradition, began by Woodrow Wilson.

Truth be told, soliders on both sides fought bravely. The confederate defense of slavery as an institution was wrong and tragic. By mercy, we can remember the faults and promise not to repeat the errors of the era’s dark vision; we can honor the lessons of virtue, and grieve those whose saracifice taught our nation the lessons of freedom for all.

After the war, the jubilee community greeted each other, saying “merci’trust,” and “merci’forgive.” “Trust in the mercies of God. His mercy is our forgiveness and deliverance.”

And after the war, Wade Hampton won election as South Carolina’s governor with considerable African-African votes.

The speeches of Robert Smalls, Martin R. Delany, Robert Elliot and other black public officials, the diaries of South Carolina’s white families record little concern for the acts and honors accorded to Confederate soliders during the era after the war.

In fact, Charleston actually established the first Memorial Day celebration. In 1865, the African-American jubilee community organized a parade and speeches to remember the Union soliders who had been buried in mass graves.

As to the current debate over including Confederate soliders in the holiday memorials, the newest Democratic Senator, Arlen Spector, made a comment on another matter that tells why the turns of history mandate a careful, inclusive look at all experience, whether good or bad: “somebody with experience has something to add.”

The only photo of the 33rd USCT SC V, the first African-American
US Army troops. circa 1864 (fair educational use)

Thanks for reading!, hope you found food for thought.

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