BY RACHEL ANDERS
What if I told you most of what you learned about the Civil War was incorrect? What if I told you it was written by the victors, and that the true stories of Southern families weren’t exactly what we’d been taught in school?
For me, that was the hardest thing to really understand. In one of my history classes in college, I had a professor who, in the process of introducing himself, said, “Everything you believe you know about history, forget. Today we will no longer use secondary books for learning; instead we will learn from the people themselves. As a nation, we are extremely fortunate that we have families that preserved their family histories, from genealogies found in their family Bibles, letters written home to family and loved ones, and many times diaries written by soldiers themselves. Neglecting our primary sources of information for secondary truth does not make history correct.”
Greg Kimball at the Library of Virginia said, “History isn’t what actually happened. History is the story we tell about what happened. And the story we tell … can change based on new evidence. You know we don’t interpret the Vietnam War the same way we understood it when I was in the military. We see it through the prism of the present, and we always do. That’s just the way it is.”
While no one I know says that slavery wasn’t an issue in the Civil War, at least one former soldier told his children that slavery wasn’t the primary reason over which the war was fought. In his memoir, Richmond, Va., resident Howard Walthall (Co. D, 1st VA) stated, “I was in my teens then and with crude ideas of what going to war meant…The younger people of this age generally think it was to save our slave property that we resisted, but that was not the question at all. The older heads knew by the tendency of legislation the disposition of the manufacturing and most densely populated section was to oppress our Southern people and make them tributary, by furnishing raw goods to their mills at ruinous rates to us.”
Even now we hear the men of the Confederacy being called traitors, but we ignore the traitors in our own ancestry and the fact that slavery still exists today. If the soldiers of the Confederacy were traitors, they were traitors only in the sense the men who founded our nation were traitors. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence:
“The unanimous declaration of the thirteen united States of America, When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation…it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
The South took the Declaration of Independence seriously. It was a document borne in the heart of one of their own and written to abolish ties to a government over tariffs and taxes!
Equally, today’s protesters ignore the fact that the Confederate monuments in towns around our country don’t just represent “white men that went off to battle for states’ rights and slavery.” They represent all men, whether black, white, native, Christian, Jew, etc. This is proven by documentation in archives around the nation — some 2,000 Jewish soldiers fought for their homes. Over 20,000 Native Americans were soldiers on either side of the war. Predominately on the Confederate side, the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Seminole, Catawba and Creek Nations were represented. Despite widespread claims that modern historians have conspired to conceal knowledge of black Confederates, the late archivist Arthur W. Bergeron Jr. noted there is substantial literature on the subject, dating as far back at least as a chapter in Joseph T. Wilson’s “The Black Phalanx” (1887), and extending through accounts such as Bell Irvin Wiley’s “Southern Negroes, 1861- 1865” (1938) and James H. Brewer’s “The Confederate Negro: Virginia’s Craftsmen and Military Laborers, 1861-65” (1969), to Bruce Levine’s “Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves During the Civil War” (2007). These scholarly studies, however—some of which have made use of National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) records—have had little impact on public perception of the issue.
All of this protesting over monuments has put other monuments on hold indefinitely. According to WRAL in Raleigh, the removal of the Confederate monuments has caused the N.C. House to put on hold $4 million allocated for new monuments dedicated to the memory of famous African Americans in North Carolina. The reason, according to several House representatives: “They weren’t sure if the state should spend money on new statues if monuments are going to be torn down.”
If this anger was truly about Confederate monuments and slavery, then surely statues of famous abolitionists and Christopher Columbus wouldn’t have been defaced or toppled, and World War II monuments and cemeteries wouldn’t have been targeted. Nor would statues of Ulysses S. Grant, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and a memorial to African-American Union Soldiers in Boston … and the list goes on.
As Thomas Paine wrote in Common Sense: “This is not inflaming or exaggerating matters … I mean not to exhibit horror for the purpose of provoking revenge, but to awaken us from fatal and unmanly slumbers, that we may pursue determinately some fixed object.” We are at a time currently when we need to have open dialogue; we need to push aside the “them vs. us” mentality. It will take open and often heart-wrenching dialogue to bring about change. Not the removal of monuments, not the looting of businesses, not the riots.
I encourage you to spend time this week meeting with people with whom you disagree, and with open hearts and minds look towards finding some common ground. Recently, I engaged in this exercise over the statue in Salisbury, and I walked away with a new friend with whom I am working to find solidarity and common ground. More importantly, I have someone who, though I may not agree 100 percent with her beliefs, has no problem challenging me—and that keeps our door of dialogue open.
Rachel Anders is a native of Statesville. She is her family’s historian and counts in her lineage several Confederate soldiers, pioneers, princes and rogues. She writes a religious blog at the1witness.blogspot.com. She is a graduate of Liberty University and Theological School. You may contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.