I was surprised by the debate in Congress over whether Confederate flags could be placed on graves in national cemeteries, as reported in the New York Times. I didn’t think Confederates would be buried in national cemeteries, almost by definition, but it turns out that they are. There is even a Confederate section in Arlington Cemetery, which ironically used to be Robert E. Lee’s home, but was turned into a cemetery by the Union so that Lee could never go home to Arlington. The Arlington Cemetery history of the section says that there were few or no Confederates in the cemetery until about 50 years after the war, when tempers had cooled and reconciliation was taking place. It is sad that 100 years later, tempers are flaring again, and old hatreds are being stirred up. The people stirring up these hatreds have even less idea what slavery was like than their grandfathers who were reconciling 100 years ago. I suppose the blacks would argue that they were not part of the reconciliation 100 years ago, and can only get their revenge today when they have more political power.
That position highlights the fact that black slaves did not free themselves. They were freed by Northern white men. It’s interesting that in hundreds of years of slavery in the South, including plantations with hundreds of slaves, there doesn’t seem to have been a serious slave uprising or revolt. Certainly there were small ones, and there were many slaves who escaped to the North, but the slaves did not rise up and defeat their masters. This is sort of the reverse side of the argument that the Civil War was all about slavery. It was about slavery, but it was also about politics. The South was an agrarian economy based heavily on slavery; the North was an industrializing economy, in many cases based on immigrant labor. In many cases the immigrants were treated little better than slaves, although there were clear legal and moral differences between economic oppression, which still exists today, and slavery. Nevertheless, these differences affected laws across the board. How do you regulate or tax land versus labor? In foreign trade, which is more important, cotton or iron? As the US expanded westward, it was clear that if slavery did not expand, the industrial Congressional delegations would soon control the Congress, to the detriment of everything that benefited the South. Therefore, the South felt that there had to be new slave states, if only to protect the political interests of the old slave states. It was this impasse that led to the Civil War. It was not started to free the slaves; it was started because the South believed that the only way it could protect its economic and political interests was to form its own country before it fell totally under the control of the North in the US Congress. It was only after we were deep into the war, which turned out to be much bloodier and more costly than most people had expected, that Lincoln decided to free the slaves in the Emancipation Proclamation, issued in 1863, well after the war started in 1861. In any case, the slaves were freed almost entirely due to the efforts of white people, not due to the slaves themselves. Even after the war, there does not seem to have been a significant uprising by the former slaves against their masters. To hear the black community today, you would think that all of the former slaves should have slit the throats of their former masters as soon as the South surrendered to the North. By and large that did not happen, which is to a large extent a tribute to the decency of the former slaves, but also to some extent due to the fact that there were personal bonds between master and slave which meant that not all of the slaves hated their masters. Of course there were attacks on whites, and there was also a white response, which led to the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, among other ways of protecting white interests. In any case, race warfare did not break out in the South after the war, despite its defeat by the North. Reconstruction was supposed to give blacks political power, but by and large that was a failure. It took about 100 years for the black community to really rise in rebellion and gain political power in the 1960s.
One of the most striking images from the recent discussions about the Confederate flag in South Carolina was this one from the New York Times, which shows a black South Carolina legislator in a suit and tie, meeting with two good-old white boys in blue jeans carrying Confederate flags. Who has the power in this image? Who represents the future?
On the cemetery issue, I first learned that there had been a reconciliation for Confederate soldiers when the United Daughters of the Confederacy asked if they could put a tombstone provided by the federal government on my great-grandfather’s grave. My great-grandfather’s grave is in a local cemetery just a few blocks from where I grew up. The plot never had any headstones, although there are about ten people buried there. I don’t know why. My grandfather knew this, and it did not seem to bother him. Perhaps my great-grandfather had some personal object to tombstones. In any case, at this late date, I agreed to allow the UDC to place the marker, which apparently cost them nothing since it was provided by the government. In this local cemetery, Magnolia Cemetery in Mobile, Alabama, there is a Confederate cemetery that is not a US national cemetery. I always heard that my great-grandfather won a prize for suggesting the inscription on the monument in the Confederate section, “The Confederate dead.”
In any case, it seems to me that descendants of Confederate veterans should be able to put Confederate flags on the graves of their ancestors if they want to, wherever they are buried, in private cemeteries, or in national cemeteries. If there are no Confederates in a cemetery, I see no reason to have some law allowing the flag. In fact I see no reason for a law of any kind on the subject. People should be free to respect their ancestors however they want to. It would not be appropriate to put Confederate flags on the graves of Union soldiers, or on the graves of black people, but it seems like common decency is enough to prevent that, and the cemeteries could control that like they do other things like defacing graves, or leaving improper memorials.