Some of the blogs I follow set what I consider a good example in avoiding political posts, and when I started this blog, I intended to follow their lead. But recently Georgia began offering specialty car tags with a Confederate battle flag theme for the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), and I don’t want to let that pass without saying something about it.
According to the Sons of Confederate Veterans (I debated linking, but I want anyone who wants to be able to read the things I mention), the tag commemorates Southern heritage. I tend to take people at their word, so my original intent in writing this post was to question exactly what they meant by Southern heritage. I assumed they meant what people usually say they mean when they talk about Southern heritage. You know, chivalrous plantation owners sipping bourbon on their front porches, or fighting and dying heroically for a noble but lost cause, or just the polite manners of Southern society. I was going to ask about other aspects of Southern heritage, like slavery; Jim Crow; lynchings; racial discrimination in voting, education, and public services; or laws that prevented blacks from drinking from the same water fountains as whites, or eating at the same restaurants, or staying in the same hotels. I was going to contrast what I assumed was their view of Southern heritage with a grimmer view of it.
But then I read their Web site.
There I learned about General William Tecumseh Sherman’s war crimes, Little Mary Phagan Day in Georgia, the Lincoln movie myth, and the removal from the grounds of the state capitol of a statue of a post-Civil War politician named Tom Watson.
Sherman’s war crime was removing about 400 mill workers from near Atlanta and shipping them north, where most of them disappeared forever. According to the SCV, at least some of these 400 mostly women workers died on the trip.
Mary Phagan was a 13-year-old mill worker who was raped and murdered in 1913 at a pencil company in Atlanta where she worked. On the day she was murdered, she was going to collect her wages of $1.20 and then was going to attend a parade celebrating Confederate Memorial Day. This was apparently enough connection for the Georgia Sons of Confederate Veterans to designate a day to honor her.
The myth of the Lincoln movie is that Abraham Lincoln wanted to free the slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation, when in fact, all he really wanted to do was win the Civil War.
Tom Watson was a post-Civil War politician in Georgia. According to the SCV, he was a populist, a champion of the poor and an opponent of socialism and communism. They were offended when current Governor Nathan Deal removed a statue of Watson from the state capitol grounds.
The SCV Web site tells us about these things, but it fails to tell us more of the story, and in that failure, tells us more about the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
First, William Tecumseh Sherman apparently did arrest and remove about 400 mostly women mill workers, and apparently few are known to have returned home after the war. The Web site civilwartalk tells a somewhat different story from the SCV Web site. According to the civilwartalk account, the workers were allowed to take what they could from the company store before it and the mill were burned, and were then taken to a temporary camp in Marietta (where, the story goes, a Union officer ordered a Union soldier to return a family Bible that he had taken from one of the female workers.) The workers were then taken to Kentucky where they were given the chance to swear an oath of allegiance to the United States and then to work at factories in the North. Many apparently accepted this offer and never returned home. Perhaps not quite up to modern standards of military behavior, but not quite the atrocity portrayed by the SCV.
The story of Mary Phagan is notable mainly because of the fact that Leo Frank, a northern Jew who was a superintendent at the plant, was convicted and sentenced to death for the crime amid a great deal of publicity both in the North as well as the South. His sentence was commuted by the governor at the time because of grave doubts about his guilt, thereby ending his political career, and apparently his residency in Georgia for 10 years. Some of the most notable citizens of Marietta objected to that miscarriage of justice by forcibly removing Frank from the state prison, taking him back to Marietta and hanging him. In some quarters, Leo Frank’s most serious crime was that he was a Northerner Jew who was a superintendent at a Southern factory.
In the SCV account of what they call the myth of the Lincoln movie, they argue that Lincoln felt basically the same about slaves as everyone in the South, and only issued the Emancipation Proclamation as a way to further the war against the Confederacy. They quote an 1862 letter in which Lincoln says his main goal was to save the Union, and he would free slaves if that helped, or not free slaves if that helped.
The SCV might have made a more convincing argument if they had left it at that, but they didn’t. They continued to advance their story by saying that slavery had nothing to do with southern secession and the Civil War. The words of the secessionists themselves contradict that claim. One of two documents issued to justify the secession of South Carolina was titled, “The Address of the people of South Carolina, assembled in Convention, to the people of the Slaveholding States of the United States.” Why do they call themselves that? Well, in addition to objecting to the United States becoming a democracy, and objecting to majority rule, and objecting to having to pay taxes, they also fear that the non-slave-holding states will end slavery. The paper says that “the most civilized and prosperous communities, have been impoverished and ruined by anti-slavery fanaticism.” The paper also says, “In spite of all disclaimers and professions, there can be but one end by the submission of the South, to the rule of a sectional anti-slavery government at Washington; and that end, directly or indirectly, must be–the emancipation of the slaves of the South.” It seems pretty clear that the Southerners feared that they would lose their slaves, so they had to secede. So, there is a myth here, but it’s the myth that the Civil War was not about slavery.
The Tom Watson story is also a little more complicated than the SCV would have it. He started as a populist, but he ended up as a supporter of a renewal of the KKK. He originally advocated for letting blacks vote, but ended up advocating the disenfranchisement of blacks. He also agitated for the lynching of Leo Frank and celebrated it in his newspaper after the fact. He wrote anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish articles for his newspaper. So he’s not quite the hero the SVC says he is.
When I was young, I had a Confederate battle flag hanging in my window. I played with a set of blue and gray plastic Civil War soldiers (gray always won after desperate battles). I laughed when people talked about “The War of Northern Aggression.” And then I learned a few things about the Civil War and it wasn’t so funny after that. But the SCV isn’t talking about fun. My opinion is that the Sons of Confederate Veterans want a Confederate battle flag on their car tags because they’re unreconstructed. They consider the old days of the South better than today, and they would love to go back, not just to the romantic, mythical Old South, but to the real Old South.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to make a habit of this.