The US National Park Service lovingly maintains more than 70 battlefields and other sites related to the war between North and South – the Union and the rebel Confederacy — which saw 600 000 Americans butchered by each other between April 1861 and April 1865.
The sites include Fort Sumter in Charleston harbour at whose federal garrison South Carolinian secessionists fired the war’s opening salvo. Replicas of the original mortars still squat a few blocks from Mother Emanuel AME church where, two weeks ago, Dylann Roof slaughtered nine African-Americans at Bible study, hoping, he said, to start another war.
“No, you’ve raped our women, you’ve stolen and you’ve taken over the country, so no, this must be done,” he reportedly told his victims when one them pleaded with him to reconsider.
A century and a half earlier, Henry Benning said much the same thing. He was one of the commissioners dispatched by South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Lousiana to whip up support for secession in other slave states. In a letter to the Virginia legislature, he wrote:
“If things are allowed to go on as they are, it is certain that slavery will be abolished…The black race will be in a large majority…We will be overpowered and our men will be compelled to wander like vagabonds all over the earth, and as for our women, the horrors of their state we cannot contemplate…We will be completely exterminated and the land will be left in the possession of the blacks.”
“The past”, the South’s greatest writer, William Faulkner, wrote, “is never dead. It is not even past.”
Benning was a lawyer, a pillar of his community, no outlier. He would go on to serve as a brigade commander in General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Fort Benning, home of the US Army’s armor and infantry schools, is named after him. Lee’s battle flag, the flag Benning fought under, is the flag in Roof’s selfies — the one that is now being hastily memory-holed all over the country as a symbol of racism.
A symbol of racism is exactly what it is. It has been the logo of white supremacists for generations, the n word emoji, yet tolerated. Why?
I live next to one of the battlefields the Park Service maintains so beautifully, Antietam, bucolic scene of the bloodiest single day in American military history. The north sustained 12 000 casualties, the south 10 000. As you tour the park, there is plenty of signage to tell you whose division did what, when, to whom, at what appalling cost of life. There is little to tell you why these men were killing each other, let alone help you draw any moral distinction between the causes for which they died.
President Abraham Lincoln, initially, might have wanted it so. His goal was a country at peace, reconciled and free. For that, he was willing to say the offence of American slavery originated in both south and north and that the war was God’s way of punishing both. In his second inaugural address, delivered shortly before the south’s capitulation, he drew on Jesus in the gospel of Matthew: “Let us judge not that we be not judged.”
He was judged a month later. A bittereinder shot him. Historians argue over what might have been had he lived. His successors did, for a while, implement a sort of RDP for newly freed and enfranchised southern blacks. But this was undone by unholy politics, indifference and a financial crash. The leaders of the rebellion could have been prosecuted for treason but were never indicted and never had to tell the truth.
In truth’s place, myth flourished. The war had not been about slavery but self-determination. Southerners, gallant agrarians rooted in the soil, had fought to protect their homes and hearths against the rapacious designs of northern industrialists. Their slaves were happy members of their families. Besides few of those who fought for the south actually owned slaves.
In time, Hollywood would lend a hand, glorifying the Ku Klux Klan in DW Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, and presenting the antebellum empire of bondage as a golden age of good manners and chivalry in Gone with the Wind. Ted Turner continued the tradition with his turgid epic, “Gettysburg”.
“For too long, we were blind to the pain that the Confederate Flag stirred into many of our citizens”, President Obama said at the funeral of Mother Emanuel’s Rev. Clementa Pinckney.
“Removing the flag from this state’s capital would not be an act of political correctness. It would not an insult to the valor of Confederate soldiers. It would simply be acknowledgement that the cause for which they fought, the cause of slavery, was wrong.”