Most southerners my generation go back four or five generations to get to their ancestors who served in the Civil War. With a half century of genealogy as a hobby, I can say with some confidence that most Americans would be at a loss to name even a single great-great grandparent much less convey any knowledge of their involvement in the bloody conflict.
I would list seven of eight family lines in the service of the Confederate States of America. The eighth family was a transplanted Yankee who made a stop in Mississippi, didn’t like it, and settled in Georgia. My service-aged ancestor in the family was sent to school in New England where he rode out the war before returning to Georgia to marry the daughter of a CSA veteran which, I suppose, makes for a perfect average on such things. The death notice of the family patriarch who was born in Maine included the line, “He shared the views of his adopted region…” None of that qualifies me for anything except to be known as an southerner and as the acknowledged expert in my clan on family history, a title that comes with a dose of indulgence from younger relatives who wonder why anyone cares much about old cemeteries, lineage charts, and obscure historical records.
It would add some color to all this if I could launch into a series of Faulknerian family characters but my people were privates and sergeants rather than generals and statesmen. They were rather meager farmers, not planters, and were struggling rather than prosperous merchants. My best chance at generational wealth probably ended when my ancestor sold a huge farm in South Georgia but was paid in Confederate money.
Some of my people, half of the families from what I’ve been able to learn, owned, bought, sold, and bequeathed slaves. Records confirming this include wills (“I give to my daughter Adelaide my negro woman Sally…”) and census reports (owner John E listed six slaves, one named, five unnamed). In one case confirmation is found in the words of a former slave interviewed in the 1930s (“Massa Billy called us all up to the big house and a man told us we were free”).
I write all this as background for the most self-evident and salient of points on the matter: I chose not a single one of my ancestors. There isn’t a single fact, glorious or deplorable, that I can erase or alter in the slightest. I feel no need to apologize for them, neither do I feel compulsion to ignore or keep secret their lives. As an American who was born, not by my own choice, in the Deep South, I have never felt the need to expiate the sordid past. As a Christian I see neither the biblical command for nor the possibility of any vicarious repentance for the sins of my slave-owning ancestors.
Some use language in these discussions that make dialogue difficult. I don’t care for the term “heritage” partly because it has been soiled by excessive and inappropriate fondness for the past which conveniently ignores the vicious, unjust, and brutal systems that were part of the fabric of the age. The blithe reference to all remembrance of the antebellum south as celebration and reverence I reject as well. That some racists and supremacists have taken some of the people and symbols of the Confederacy for their own depraved use is regrettable and I reject them.
I see the technique used often where the practice seems to be to see who can string together the most horrific terminology about slavery, transfer all of that to any and all who fought or sympathized with the Confederacy, and demand the utter eradication of the memory of their existence on that basis. Honesty compels me to live with the understanding that most of my CSA veteran ancestors probably had attitudes consistent with their era. I am singularly untroubled if this is offensive to others. It’s a fact of my life. No more. No less.
That some see inappropriate and offensive celebration where I see history and family remembrance, I freely acknowledge. If some will spare me the smug condescension that I am using symbols, icons, and personages to sanitize the sordid past and make me feel better about it I will spare others the conclusion that they represent the 21st Century version of books burners and cheap moral scolds.
The public monuments present a complicated challenge which, it is my hope, Americans will handle in a decent, orderly, and measured manner. More later on that.
My closest CSA veteran ancestor, Robert, died about 110 years ago, four decades before I was born. Had I the family history interests I acquired later, I could have asked my grandmother, his daughter-in-law, about him. I suspect her answer would have been, “He never really said anything about the war.” Generally, they didn’t talk about it. Occasional unit reunions would be held. Small pensions for indigent veterans and widows were made available and they applied for those. Other than that, they scratched out a living.
Unrelated to anything current, I am ordering a grave marker for Robert. No one knew when he died or exactly where he is buried until a death notice was discovered recently. The marker will include “CSA 1862-1865” along with his unit. No room to say that he didn’t own slaves although his family did. No space to say that he spent two years in the malarial swamps of the Apalachicola River in Florida, a short time as a guard at the hellish Andersonville prison before being chased out of Georgia, through South Carolina to the final surrender in North Carolina after which I suppose he walked home and cobbled together another 44 years of a meager life.
There are groups that would come, dress up like Rebels of old, and do a CSA military ceremony when I place the marker. No thanks. It’s done. He’s long dead. I know enough to pass along the family history without them. If I can prevent it I’d respect his memory, including the war service, by preventing anyone from using him as a proxy for their current interests.
In Christ there is redemption. To Him and only Him be glory forever.