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Happy Confederate Heroes Day!

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Bet that’s a holiday most of you weren’t aware of. Well, down here in Texas we’re all celebrating the legacy of our heroic confederate forebearers, at least as much as we celebrate San Jacinto Day or LBJs Birthday (also official holidays in Texas). State workers get the day off – well, some do – and the rest of us who’ve actually heard of the holiday have something historical to think about – or more likely we’ll just brush it off as a peculiar and slightly amusing leftover of a past era.

I imagine that in the famous ‘blue states’ they find the idea of having a holiday for confederate heroes at the least quaint and at the most somewhat distasteful. After all, we all know the confederacy fought to preserve slavery and oppression against the progressive policies of freedom and equality favored in the north.

Of course the real causes of the Civil War are much more complex and the real attitudes of the two regions towards slavery and equality aren’t as cut and dried as people would like to believe. Just like today the divisions between good and evil weren’t always clear cut and it was possible for brave men to make a noble sacrifice in what they believed was a good cause, even if by our modern standards their cause was in the wrong. But it is the victors who write the history and determine who the heroes are and decide which of the many causes of the war will be remembered through the generations.

Whatever your opinion on the issues, the men who fought for the confederacy were heroes by any standard. They fought when outnumbered, poorly armed, starving, without coats or proper uniforms or even shoes. The vast majority of the enlisted men did not own slaves and lived in conditions not much better than slaves did. They lived in a society where opportunities for education, advancement and even travel beyond their own neighborhood were virtually non-existent even for most white men. They were ignorant, illiterate and impoverished, scratching for a living on marginal land working client farms at the whim of a small class of wealthy landowners. At a time when the north was moving forward with industrialization and a growing middle class they lived in a stratified, agricultural society with no public education, virtually no newspapers or colleges, and almost no industrial base. At a time when the northern states were building up to make America one of the most powerful nations in the world the southern states remained in a colonial condition equivalent to that of ‘third world’ colonies in South America or Africa.

The actual slave owning class in the south was small and becoming smaller as the Civil War approached. In 1860 only 254 out of 8 million southerners owned 200 or more slaves and only 46,000 owned 20 or more slaves. The British had shut down the slave trade in the 1830s and no new slaves were coming into the southern states. As a result the price of slaves had tripled in the 1850s and cotton profits had declined to the point where plantations were already falling on hard times and going through a process of consolidation which squeezed the smaller plantations out of business and made it less and less necessary for them to have slaves. The expense of maintaining slaves and the decline in cotton prices meant that even the largest and best run plantations returned a profit of no more than 10% and they were increasingly vulnerable to fluctuations in the economy, with the rate of bankruptcies rising dramatically and a lot of failed plantations ending up in the hands of northern banks. The vast majority of white southerners lived on small farms of fewer than 200 acres on marginal land and owned no slaves at all. Those small farmers who did own a slave or two lived little better than the slaves did, often housing the slaves in the same room of their single-room shack as their family and eating the same food at the same table.

The one thing which these rebels did have was an awareness of their legacy as free Americans. They believed in freedom and the right to live their lives the way they chose to, however miserable those lives might be. In their minds they were not fighting for slavery, they were fighting to preserve liberty. They didn’t own slaves and the war wasn’t going to get them slaves. If anything slavery was symbolic of the system which kept them poor and oppressed, splitting its profits between a tiny class of wealthy landowners and the plutocratic northern banks and investors who grew fat off of the cotton trade like John Murray Forbes who decried the institution of slavery at the same time he profited from the cotton industry. Slavery was a failing economic system which had already lived two generations beyond it’s viability, a failure demonstrated by the south’s loss of control of the federal government which they had dominated for almost 40 years.

If the average confederate soldier thought of slaves he thought of them as a symbol of wealth he would never have. Despite this the majority of them volunteered to fight, in many cases paid their own expenses and provided their own weapons. They left their families behind to tend farms which could not be managed effectively without them and later many of them lost the land they had fought for and ended up as renters or sharecroppers on their own farms in the aftermath of the war. Despite these hardships they volunteered in great numbers and marched off to fight for a cause they were sure was righteous.

There were two things which the pundits in the newspapers of both the North and the South agreed on at the time of the war. The first was that it was a “poor man’s war and a rich man’s fight”, in the sense that the poor would pay the price in blood for rewards which would mostly go to the wealthy classes. The other was that on the issue of moral principles alone the south was probably in the right. Many northern politicians admitted that on the precedent of the Revolutionary War the South had some validity to its claim that it had the right to secede from the union just as the colonies had been entitled to separate themselves from Great Britain. But at the same time they argued from the perspective of Liberalism which was the powerful new political movement of the era, which said that the general welfare of all the states and all of the people was best served by preserving the union and that the “greatest good for the greatest number” was the best way to protect the rights of individuals, through a stronger federal government directly defending the rights of citizens against abusive state governments.  They argued that the south had dominated the government for decades on the basis of captive slave votes and corrupt slave money and that the election of 1860 was a revolution against that “slave power conspiracy.”  In truth those wealthy bankers and land owners had held southerners as much in thrall as northerners and the real struggle was between economic systems more than geographical regions, but most of those who fought on both sides had very little awareness of htis.

Despite the romatic view which many hold of the South, the war they embarked on was doomed from the very beginning, not because of the weakness of their troops or the flaws of their society or the fact that they owned slaves, but because the north outnumbered them, outproduced them industrially and could outspend them by an enormous factor. Because of the emphasis on cash crops like cotton in the south the northern states even produced more food than the south did. As William T. Sherman said at the outbreak of the war “in all history no nation of mere agriculturalists has ever made a successful war against mechanics,” and he was dead on the mark. The South was a failed society fighting for a lost cause with inadequate resources and nothing to sustain them but an unshakable belief in liberty because that liberty was all they really had.

In the end, what is more noble than fighting against impossible odds in the worst conditions for principles which you believe in? It does not matter that they were largely ignorant of the real causes of the war.  By the measure of their sacrifice and their suffering for a cause they did not entirely understand beyond the awareness that they fought to keep their freedoms as Americans, the soldiers of the Confederacy can only be called heroes. They did not fight for greed or lust or hatred. They fought for freedom against a government they believed had betrayed, abandonned and oppressed them. Hate slavery and hate the exploitation of the southern states and their people, but keep and speak only respect for the forgotten heroes who fought for the rebel cause.

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About Dave Nalle

Dave Nalle is Executive Director of the Texas Liberty Foundation, Chairman of the Center for Foreign and Defense Policy, South Central Regional Director for the Republican Liberty Caucus and an advisory board member at the Coalition to Reduce Spending. He was Texas State Director for the Gary Johnson Presidential campaign, an adviser to the Ted Cruz senatorial campaign, Communications Director for the Travis County Republican Party and National Chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus. He has also consulted on many political campaigns, specializing in messaging. Before focusing on political activism, he owned or was a partner in several businesses in the publishing industry and taught college-level history for 20 years.
  • Your headline belies us taking this post seriously – though it is more serious than the headline.

    Still, I seriously think you are trying to be annoying and stir the shit with such statements as In the end, what is more noble than fighting against impossible odds in the worst conditions for principles which you believe in?

    I’m sure you can see how this applies to even more distateful situations.

  • >>Your headline belies us taking this post seriously – though it is more serious than the headline.< < My headline acknowledges that people aren't going to take the holiday seriously, as I explain in my first paragraph. The rest of the essay explains why maybe they SHOULD take it seriously. I subscribe to the theory that a little bit of appropriate humor doesn't damn a topical essay. >>Still, I seriously think you are trying to be annoying and stir the shit with such statements as In the end, what is more noble than fighting against impossible odds in the worst conditions for principles which you believe in?< < Huh? It is the act and intentions of the soldiers in this instance which determine whether what they did was heroic or not, no matter if we judge the war or the cause as righteous in retrospect. >>I’m sure you can see how this applies to even more distateful situations.<< Yes, and I believe the basic principle is true in those situations as well, though I deliberately avoided making any comparisons outside of the topic of the essay, even though they certainly occured to me. Dave

  • Replace “the Confederates” with “the Taliban” or even with “the soldiers of al-Qaida” and all the basic premises of your argument will remain essentially unchanged. Yet you will surely reach the exact opposite conclusion.

    This is why I find your whole argument unpersuasive.

    I highly doubt you would use the word “heroes” to describe the outnumbered, outgunned, and outsupplied opposition of the United States federal government in its current war against terrorism.

    I highly doubt you would say the Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese Army were “heroes,” either.

    Yet in all these cases, their tenacity and courage in the face of an overwhelmingly superior American military force is comparable to that displayed by the Confederate troops.

    Don’t get me wrong here. I am no admirer of the Taliban, nor of al-Qaida. The Viet Cong and the NVA are not heroic in my mind.

    I certainly do not accept the arguments of those who claim we should admire those who fight for the Taliban or for al-Qaida.

    Much like the Viet Cong, much like al-Qaida and the Taliban today, the South was absolutely in the wrong. Its leadership was definitely fighting to preserve the insitution of slavery. The documents of the time show this beyond question. Modern right-wing revisionists cannot change this fact.

    Much like their modern counterparts, the rank and file of the Confederacy was, at best, duped into fighting for a cause that directly opposed the core values of their own deeply held religious and cultural beliefs.

    There is nothing heroic about that.

  • Reading your commentary, Dave, reminded me of the basic premise of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel: the community with the economic and historic advantages he deatiled tends to win in a clash of civilizations.

    At a time when the north was moving forward with industrialization and a growing middle class [Southerners] lived in a stratified, agricultural society with no public education, virtually no newspapers or colleges, and almost no industrial base. At a time when the northern states were building up to make America one of the most powerful nations in the world the southern states remained in a colonial condition equivalent to that of ‘third world’ colonies in South America or Africa.

  • Victor Plenty said more directly what I was alluding to.

    You can’t “deliberately avoid(ed) making any comparisons outside of the topic,” because logically and practically your definition includes the Taliban and other such groups which we all find evil.

    You seem to be saying, and I’m sure you’ve heard this, “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”

    I did enjoy the post, as I said, it was a serious take. But it’s conclusion is devoid of meaning.

  • >>You seem to be saying, and I’m sure you’ve heard this, “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”<< That's not exactly what I'm saying, though it's certainly true that the difference between a terrorist and a hero is subjective and changes with the perspective of history. For example, in my history classes I was always able to shock students by pointing out that by every definition we use today the Sons of Liberty were terrorists. They blew up buildings, murdered people, threatened families and property and incited riots. But today we think of them as the good guys. But interesting though all that is, it's not entirely relevant here. The difference between the confederate army and terrorists is that for the most part the confederates made war by the rules of war as they existed at that time. The fought the union army, they did not primarily do random violence against a civilian population to incite terror and anarchy. While I agree that many might see the terrorists of today as heroic freedom fighters, the key differences are that they wish to impose their will on others - all the confederates wanted was freedom for themselves - and they are willing to make civilians primary targets for a war with no rules at all. These are very important distinctions. Dave

  • Many Confederates targeted civilians. Black civilians, before, during, and after the official war years, were often brutally murdered for such “crimes” as attempting to vote, attempting to learn how to read, or looking a white woman directly in the eyes.

    Not every Confederate soldier participated directly in these lynchings and other terrorist acts against the civilian population.

    But every single Confederate soldier fought on behalf of the system that made such terrorism possible.

    When modern admirers of the “freedom-loving” Confederate cause overlook such facts, we can all learn that moral relativism is a game played skillfully by the right wing, just as much or even more so than by the left.

  • >>Many Confederates targeted civilians. Black civilians, before, during, and after the official war years, were often brutally murdered for such “crimes” as attempting to vote, attempting to learn how to read, or looking a white woman directly in the eyes.< < This was not the manner in which the war itself was carried out for the most part. Sure, there were plenty of racist southerners who did all sorts of horrible things. There were plenty of racists in the north and midwest as well and they also practiced discrimination and segregation and the occasional lynching. But the people who fought in the war didn't think they were fighting for their right to abuse black people. Even those who owned slaves didn't think of themselves as abusive. >>Not every Confederate soldier participated directly in these lynchings and other terrorist acts against the civilian population.

    But every single Confederate soldier fought on behalf of the system that made such terrorism possible.< < That kind of terorism went on more after the war than it did before or during it, and if it was produced by a particular system it was the economic and social systems of the entirety of 19th century America, not just of the south. And the point is that confederate soldiers were not fighting on behalf of a 'system'. That system was just part of the society which they were part of, and they were fighting for their right to determine for themselves how they would live their lives. >>When modern admirers of the “freedom-loving” Confederate cause overlook such facts, we can all learn that moral relativism is a game played skillfully by the right wing, just as much or even more so than by the left.<< True enough, since the main modern defenders of segregation and racism have for the most part been Democrats who were liberal in most other ways. Dave

  • >>True enough, since the main modern defenders of segregation and racism have for the most part been Democrats who were liberal in most other ways.

    Yeah. And we were all making sense until that statement.

  • >>>>True enough, since the main modern defenders of segregation and racism have for the most part been Democrats who were liberal in most other ways.

    Yeah. And we were all making sense until that statement.< < Yes, I know it's ironic, but remember that the truth is that almost all the prominent segregationists who ended up in the Republican party had previously been Democrats (Thurmond, Helms, etc.) and felt that their party had abandonned them, and some of them stayed behind and remained democrats - like Robert Byrd, Fritz Hollings, George Wallace and Lester Maddox - and the rest of the party didn't press them all that hard to give up their racist past. And as you may recall it was a Republican president who freed the slaves (Lincoln), a Republican president who ended segregation in the federal bureaucracy (T.Roosevelt), a Republican who enforced the Brown decision (Eisenhower), etc. You might find this quiz amusing: http://www.balloon-juice.com/archives/000957.html

    Dave

  • Hey, I should add to my previous post that the Republican party was a hell of a lot better party before the Democrats dumped their riff-raff on it.

    Dave

  • Eric Olsen

    I agree this is a serious and thought-provoking post on a subject I would normally just write off, but I would also say there is no way to extract a celebration of individual military heroism from the cause under which it was fought and as a result I think it utterly inappropriate to publicly celebrate any aspect of the Confederate past: not a single Confederate soldier was unaware that he was fighting to preserve slavery and a system that — as Dave eloquently expresses — was backward and oppressive for a vey high percentage of the population, white and black alike. the decision to fight for that cause can never be a legitimate decision to celebrate. Add to that the exceptionally hurtful symbolism of such a celebration for those most oppressed by that system and I don’t think any amount of elaboration or spin can resurrect it.

    “Freedom” is not an abstract: what you do with that freedom is its essential meaning, and the freedom to continue a system that reduced human beings to chattel is not worthy of celebration on any level, I believe very strongly.

  • Down here in the south they call the holiday that just passed King/Lee/Jackson Day. I don’t believe it’s official though.

  • i love this book it is awesome i am a confederete flag man

  • James Howell Stephenson III

    The north has always hated the south and in 1861, the south decided to become their own country. What is so wrong about that? The south is still oppressed by the north and many of us would like to join Texas if they ever do succeed. When Lincoln was elected, after not receiving any support from the southern states, the south knew the time had come do withdraw from the union. Lincoln and his administration is to blame for the deaths of millions of Americans because there were much simpler and more efficient solutions to the dispute. When Lincoln declared that slaves were free, he caused many southerners to lose their most valuable possessions (in many cases, more valuable than their land and homes). He did not offer to buy their freedom. The north destroying the south to preserve the union is not dissimilar from a man beating his wife to preserve their marriage. After the war, Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens maintained that Lincoln’s attempt to reinforce Sumter had provoked the war.

  • richard powell

    Remember that Lincoln wanted to send the blacks back to Africa, becasue they were , in his apeion, and lower race of people. And he told their leaders that in a meeting he had with them.