Last December I wrote about former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s failure to unequivocally denounce the Confederate flag. Her badly botched attempt to condemn-without-actually-condemning that flag is symptomatic of the social and political schizophrenia that has bewitched the “United” States since the Confederacy was defeated — nominally — in 1865.
What transpired when Ulysses S. Grant joined Robert E. Lee at Appomattox is nearly beyond comprehension. For starters, Grant had allowed Lee to select the venue. Disturbingly, it was Lee, not Grant, who raised the subject of surrender. (Grant later admitted that he was embarrassed to bring it up.) Further, Lee said that Grant’s generous terms of surrender would “have a very happy effect on (his) army.” And Lee’s mindset was clear as he spoke not so much about having lost the war as he did about not having enough men to win it.
For his part, Gen. Grant’s eagerness to ensure a smooth transition from war to reunification caused him to order his troops not to jeer at the men who had been intent on killing them just a short time earlier. The future president was much more interested in reconciliation with his erstwhile enemy than he was at humiliating them. (This is unlike, for example, the surrender of the Japanese to the U.S. during World War II.)
Grant’s magnanimity was contagious. His terms of surrender were handwritten by his adjutant, Ely S. Parker, who was from the Seneca tribe. When Lee (who owned other human beings) learned that Parker was a Native American, he stated, “It is good to have one real American here.” Parker replied to Lee, “Sir, we are all Americans.”
I raise these historical points to give context to what we’re experiencing in America today regarding the Confederacy — flags, monuments, et al. Morning Consult and Politico recently conducted a poll of registered voters regarding their views about that flag. Overall, 44% see it as a symbol of “Southern pride,” whereas a mere 36% see it as “racist.” Older whites, Southerners and those who support Donald Trump see the flag as the former; people of color, people under 40, northerners and liberals see the flag as the latter. Most telling is the fact that Black Southerners are nearly unanimous in their disdain for that flag. (So much for the argument about “Southern pride.”)
There is no way around the fact that the Confederate flag represents traitors who fought and died to perpetuate white supremacy — even if they were too poor to own enslaved people. They caused more than 600,000 deaths in the process, which is still more than any other war in which Americans have fought. Yet, as Ta-Nehisi Coates and others have pointed out, the U.S. government never treated Confederates as traitors.
First, they were not prosecuted as such. Second, they were given pensions! Moreover, Grant allowed Confederate soldiers to keep their horses, mules and (most importantly) guns. There is little wonder as to why the South has never really considered itself to have lost the war — other than during the few years of Reconstruction that President Grant oversaw.
Apologists for the Confederacy point out — accurately — that slavery existed far longer under the “stars and stripes” than it did under the various iterations of the Confederate flag. That is absolutely true. However, the fact remains that the maintenance of slavery was the overwhelming reason for creating the Confederacy. (There are more than 80 references to slavery in the Confederate Constitution.) However, immediately following the war, Southerners quite literally began to rewrite the historical narrative, which is an honor that is generally reserved for the victors.
The racial tension that we are experiencing today is, in large part, a direct result of white Americans’ failure simply to let the Confederacy die. Fortunately, it appears that this anachronism is finally on its way to the dustbin of history. NASCAR has informed its fans that the Confederate flag will no longer be allowed at its events. Similarly, the NCAA, Conference USA and the Southeastern Conference (SEC) have all threatened to pull events from Mississippi unless that state changes its flag, which includes a Confederate symbol.
Our nation’s history is replete with lost opportunities. I’m hopeful that we have now come to a place at which the symbols of “the lost cause” can be placed — as respectfully as necessary — in museums. I don’t want to “forget” Confederate history. I simply want it to be remembered for being one of our nation’s greatest sins.
Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.