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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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