A Question of Intellectual Honesty: Owning Up To The Truth About the Confederacy

By Mario Carter
Elm Columnist

Not long ago, The Elm published a disapproving response to my column, ‘Hollywood’s Confederate Obsession,” which included a number of very aggressive counterclaims. The rebuttal ranged from the always conventional criticisms of my historical interpretation of the Civil War to the use of trivial straw man arguments that I have already heard more times than I care to remember. And had the criticism solely stayed within those bounds, I would have most likely let the matter rest. However, the author of this response went a step beyond this and accused my employment of such arguments to be “spurious” which I naturally interpreted to be an attack on my integrity.

If the mere mention of my name conjures images of me wearing a black beret while I hold my fist in the air because I have the audacity to express my distaste for the deification of a people whose military success would have surely resulted in the enslavement of my race, then it is an unfortunate image that I will have to live with. But I cannot tolerate someone openly questioning my character and leaving the impression that their allegations may have some truth to them. I am writing my own response not simply to challenge the author’s assertions but to definitively challenge the all-too-pervasive myths that refuse to die.

The first issue that he addresses is my sarcastic treatment of the myth that 2 percent of the United States population went to war over the issue of tariffs and uses the historical comparison of the Boston Tea Party to buttress his argument. If viewed in a serious manner, one can easily see that this criticism is not simply misinformed, but it borders on being silly. While the South loathed the tariffs that had been levied against their manufacturers since the 1820s, this was never a stated or serious reason for leaving the nation. If it were a legitimate reason, why did the South wait almost four decades before finally declaring secession? Did the South just decide in 1861 that secession was the only choice because they could not bear yet another year of those unbearable tariffs? Or did the South secede a year after the election of Abraham Lincoln, because it became clear that their chattel slavery, their main source of economic revenue (which was estimated to be well over three and a half billion dollars) would eventually come to an end?

Furthermore, it becomes difficult to realistically imagine waves of poor white non-slaveholding Southerners taking up arms against their own brothers or willingly putting their own lives on the line because the federal government imposed unfair tariffs on some wealthy manufacturers. This is nothing to say of the author’s comparison with the Boston Tea Party, which actually had nothing to do with colonists protesting British taxes on tea imports, but more to do with the exclusion of being left out of the decision-making process on the institution of tax breaks.

The second issue concerns my double standard of glorifying all Union soldiers while failing to show the same kind of respect towards Confederate soldiers. This is another straw man argument and a rather pathetic one at that. Not once did I even imply that every soldier who wore a blue uniform represented all that was noble and virtuous. There were, of course, many white Union soldiers who had not a single concern for the livelihood of blacks regardless of the Civil War’s outcome and did not shy away from expressing their abhorrently racist beliefs. It would be an act of intellectual dishonesty to equate the legions of brave and righteous black and white soldiers who sacrificed their lives for the reunification of this country and for the destruction of slavery with those whose victory would have resulted in its preservation.

Keep in mind that many of these ‘noble defenders of state’s rights’ were responsible for committing the vilest acts of human atrocity imaginable. Think of the Union POWs at Andersonville who had been starved to the point of resembling skeletons. Think of the mass slaughter of black soldiers at Ft. Pillow by Confederate General and future founder of the KKK, Nathan Bedford Forrest. Think of Jefferson Davis ordering that all captured black soldiers be put to death. Think of the scores of ex-Confederate soldiers who would go on to be prosecuted by the Justice Department for committing acts of racial terrorism.

This is not to say that there were not equally horrific acts committed by Union soldiers (because there most certainly were), but when given a fair comparison it becomes clear which side epitomized the very worst in both human and moral depravity.
The last issue of contention (which I consider to be the most serious), goes to the very heart of my credibility: my alleged indulgence in deceit. Leaving aside the failure of the author to understand that Hollywood actually does encapsulate the small screen just as much as the big screen, he is on point in one respect. I did not provide enough evidence that Hollywood markets films that mythologize the Old South. But his claims of my arguments being “specious” because I used old movies to supposedly demonstrate current racism are specious in their own right.

Firstly, I never accused anyone of racism except the actual Confederates, which I implore anyone to prove otherwise. Secondly, I attempted to give just a brief overview of some of the more famous examples but in doing so, I did not offer an argument that was convincing enough.

It’s also worth mentioning that that many of these movies, with the exception of “Birth of A Nation,” are still highly popular, especially “Gone With The Wind,” which still holds a place as one of the most popular American movies of all time. In retrospect, I should have mentioned “The Little Colonel” (1935), “The Littlest Rebel” (1939), “The Outlaw Josey Wales” (1976), “Gettysburg” (1993), “Ride With The Devil” (1999), “Gods and Generals” (2003), “Cleburne” (2011), and “The Conspirator” (2011).
Even in other movies that were not directly about the Civil War, Union soldiers have been vilified to the point of resembling caricatures. I should have made my column more authoritative, but hopefully this may have strengthened my case among those who may have doubted my validity.

Lastly, it bears repeating that I am not attempting to change the minds of those who wish to continue honoring their false idols. I merely request from those who believe in this whole premise of Confederates fighting for some vague, confusing notion of states’ rights to show just a fraction of intellectual courage and admit what we all know to be true. It is beyond dispute that no other issue was more central to the Civil War than slavery. Arguing that the Confederacy fought for something other than the perpetual enslavement of people who share my skin color is tantamount to arguing that Sept. 11 had nothing to do with terrorism. Indeed, every Confederate was fully aware of why they chose to secede and they readily embraced this much easier than the sympathizers do today. The Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens once declared in his famous “Cornerstone” speech, “Our new Government is founded…upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man… that slavery, subordination to the superior race is his natural and normative condition.”

Secessionist Robert Rhett once argued for South Carolina, “To be one of a great slaveholding confederacy, stretching its arms over a territory larger than any Power in Europe possesses…with common institutions to defend and common dangers to encounter.”
The state of Mississippi certainly knew this when they declared in their secession declaration, “Our position is thoroughly identified with slavery, the greatest material in the world.” And Texas could not have been any clearer in their proclamation when it was declared that “the servitude of the African race as existing is mutually beneficial to both bond and free…while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding states.”

I understand why they keep perpetuating the myth that the Civil War had nary a whit to do with slavery. It allows them the comfort of positively remembering their ancestors and heroes as valiantly standing tall for an important cause. If they were to learn that their great great great great grandfathers actually did not fight for all Southerners but fought for a side that was so strongly identified with a universally condemned evil, it might dim their long-held romanticized notions. Hopefully, some of them will be able to come to terms with this.

Volume LXXXI Issue

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