From the President
NMLHA was founded to support and further the efforts of its member units to portray the naval aspect of America’s past. As such, no political role was ever envisioned for the organization. However, the increasing controversy over the display of the Confederate flag moved me to feel that some form of policy statement is required. While Confederate Civil War reenactors suffer the greatest burden in this argument, the issue touches each and every one of us within NMLHA and across the country.
The question does not come down to "that flag", which is a symbol of differing and strong emotions to various people. Instead, I believe the issue is our inability as a nation to allow the wounds of the Civil War to heal.
I wrote the following letter to "American Heritage" magazine in response to an article in their July/August issue, entitled "That Flag". There was nothing inflammatory about the piece; it was just another in a long line of well-researched, highly detailed discussions of the causes of the War and what the flag meant (and means) to Americans. The article settled no issue, laid forth no realistic plan for resolution, and left me wondering why it had been written.
When I submitted my letter to American Heritage, I did so as a private individual with no mention of NMLHA. In consultation with the other executive officers of NMLHA, it was decided that the sentiments -- and solutions -- expressed in the letter merit wider distribution and accreditation to our organization. It has since been submitted to a number of reenacting monthlies and forums. Please read the letter carefully and share your reactions with me; I value your opinions. Thank you.
President, Navy & Marine Living History Association
The current controversy over display of the Confederate battle flag in public forums and at reenactments represents only a symptom of a larger issue. Discussing this specific argument sidesteps the underlying conflict and ensures a return to some other facet of the battle in future. We are all missing the forest for the trees; it is time that we addressed the larger problem and stop haggling over sideshows.
As is typical of almost all research that tries to explain "that flag", slavery, the Civil War or our modern perceptions thereof, great detail is lavished upon the "why's & wherefore's" of period politics, falling prey to the fallacy that, if we could just explain everything all at once, then everyone would understand and agree. This is a black hole formed in 1865 from which there has been no escape since.
The root issue is not the use of the Confederate battle flag as an emblem representative of all the citizens of South Carolina. Similarly, discussion of whether the war was fought over slavery or "States' Rights" is as futile today as it was in the antebellum period. Southerners most certainly did go to war over "States' Rights" -- which included the right to own slaves. "States' Rights" were cited in Southerners' complaints against Northerners trying to dictate treatment of the Cherokee people in Georgia -- which had nothing to do with slavery. Many fought simply because they did not like a distant Federal government telling them what to do. The sad truth few people want to admit is that, while the destruction of slavery became a war aim, "Free the Slaves!" was not the rallying cry that drew Yankee boys to the colors in 1861. The vast majority of white Northerners, although shocked by tales such as "Uncle Tom's Cabin", never doubted their superiority to blacks, and joined to preserve the Union. This sentiment crops up in countless diaries and letters home. Only in abolitionist circles was the war perceived from its start as battle to emancipate the slaves. I think that we have trouble accepting this part of our history when nowadays we send our troops overseas to prevent racial genocide.
Coming to terms with such uncomfortable truths is difficult, and there are a number of cold hard facts about slavery and the Civil War that we deny or try to explain away. One such reality is best explained by author Robert Penn Warren in his Pulitzer Prize winning work, "The Legacy of the Civil War." Warren suggested that Northerners brought home what he terms the "Treasury of Virtue" as a result of their victory -- a perception of history that turned the conflict into a holy crusade and the boys in blue to knights errant who had preserved the Union and freed a people in bondage. The glory that accrued to the North served to mask the dark role they and their ancestors had played in the slave trade -- and the fact that the only reason it died out in the North was that the practice wasn't profitable. The "Treasury of Virtue" has allowed Northerners for over a century to remind Southerners that "we" were right and "they" were wrong. I suggest instead that the blame cannot be laid on the doorstep of "the South" alone. Recall that the institution of slavery was practiced much longer under the stars and stripes than under the bonny blue flag.
Another such reality is the true nature of the war itself. Our perceptions of the Civil War are formed by reports of the great battles, the grand armies, and strategies of generals. But the reality for people of the time included bloody internecine guerilla warfare, surprise raids by Rebel cavalry or Union gunboats or the bands of lawless marauders that sprung up between the lines, and, at the time of the draft riots in New York City, lynchings and shooting of deserters in the streets. A favorite photograph that graced many a Northern parlor showed, not the serried ranks of valiant Union troops, but the figure of a dead Rebel boy, his body shattered by an artillery shell, blood congealed as it ran down his cheek. There is nothing romantic about the Civil War and the humorous-sounding phrase used by Sherman to describe his plan to "make Georgia howl" hides the reality of "total war" that shocked European observers. Because the war was fought almost entirely in the South, Southern Americans suffered its ravages far more than Northerners. Both at the time and ever since, it is undeniable that most people believed "they got what they deserved" and we have never let our countrymen in the South forget it. By doing so, we have burdened a segment of our own population with the blame for an evil which the entire country fostered and profited by.
I do not mean this as an apologia for the Old South. My point is simply that this most terrible of wars was not the "glorious" event we like to make of it nowadays, and that racial prejudices in the antebellum period were evenly distributed across the country. No American -- North or South -- should feel pride that our nation freed the slaves in the 1863; instead we should feel ashamed that we allowed the institution to take root in the first place. When we "glory" in the bravery of Pickett's men or read of Chamberlain's "heroic" stand on Little Round Top, it should be with an overwhelming sadness that matters came to this. The only people who can justifiably lay claim to a heroism untainted by slavery are the colored soldiers and sailors who fought to free themselves and their families.
Humanity has struggled with the problem of prejudice since the dawn of time, and in our own country the issue has been intensified by race -- and by the occurrence of the Civil War. For 135 years we have dissected and analyzed that war and the years before it in hopes of explaining the insanity, the injustice, and the results in a way that will resolve such a dark past to the satisfaction of everyone. It is time to admit that it cannot be done by this means.
Instead I would suggest an evolution in our perception. This is not revisionist history -- which I find anathema -- but a conscious decision to divorce ourselves from the entanglements of our history. In remembering and constantly citing the evils of the past, are we not falling prey to one of the very things that drove so many of our ancestors to come to these shores -- the inability to escape the weight of their national or tribal histories? Shall we allow ourselves to be so similarly burdened that scenes of Kosovo or Congo, with ethnic cleansing and racial genocide, foreshadow our own future? Are we so bound by history that we cannot choose to escape it?
What can we do on a practical level? In general, we should see the war in the largest context possible rather than focusing on it specifically, and admit where we as a nation made mistakes. For starters, we can acknowledge that, in lieu of a peaceful solution, the war was a necessary evil that rid our country of a greater evil, but that it punished the entire country -- it would take ten Vietnam Wall-sized memorials to list the slain from both sides. The only good that came out of the war was the destruction of slavery -- and as a nation we dropped the ball on that great advance when we allowed Jim Crow style laws to repress our black countrymen back into practical slavery. These laws were promulgated in the South, but were allowed to stay on the books without interference from the Federal government. While admitting this, we in the North can also try to understand why Southerners refer to the conflict as "The War of Northern Aggression": the destruction visited upon the cities of the South would be unrivaled until WWII, and many sections of the South did not recover their lost infrastructure for over a century. Of course they're bitter about the war -- it was their homes and families who suffered directly; Northerners have trouble understanding this because, while we lost family members in battle, our cities and towns, wives and mothers, were never seriously threatened.
We Northerners can also own up to our own role in the development of slavery and stop placing the entire blame upon the Old South -- there's plenty to go around. Southerners, for their part, can stop painting the "Old South" as such a wonderful place to live and pining for "the good old days" -- the lifestyle of the Southern aristocracy was based on slavery and if plantation life was "romantic", it was so for only a few individuals. The "South" as it was is not going to rise again -- it is a part of history. The majority of Southerners did not own slaves -- many disagreed vehemently with the practice -- and "States' Rights" is claimed as the cassus belli for all of Dixie; if this is so, then understand that the "Old South" represents something radically different (slavery) for large numbers of modern Americans who bridle at the notion of its return. If you get past the surface romanticism and the myths that have grown up since 1865, research will probably convince you that you don't want it back either. Modern African-Americans have an equally difficult challenge, but one that may have the simplest practical solution: learn your history. Learn about slavery, but also learn about the thousands of men who served in the colored regiments during the war, who fought prejudice on both sides and nonetheless rose to free their race. Why are there not more African-American Civil War reenactors? If the goal of reenacting is to portray historical reality, then fully one third of any Union Army should be black, yet is unusual to see more than a handful of African-Americans taking part. The Civil War represents the darkest part of American history for modern African-Americans -- but in that heart of darkness is this incredibly bright spot that is almost totally ignored. You are letting other people demonstrate history and, by your absence, removing yourselves from it. Learn and take part. Learn about the USCT regiments, the contributions of African-Americans to Union intelligence, the raids led by Harriet Tubman -- and learn that there were episodes when Americans black and white worked together: Yankee Navy crews were integrated before and during the war, with some ships crewed mostly or totally by African-Americans, and the Army-Navy units that Tubman led to free slaves were comprised of blacks and whites -- both in blue. Learn also about the black soldiers, sailors, and Marines who fought for the Confederacy, and appreciate the fact that this most confusing of periods, that shaped us an American people, can only be understood by studying all of the details and sharing all of the pain. This is the forest that we miss by studying the trees in such detail: admitting and understanding that we as a nation and as a people suffered.