Shelby, Archie and me: Framing the flag issue

Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 7, 2001

Heritage or hate? What does the Confederate battle banner on the Mississippi state flag mean to you? Before you answer, let me make something plain. That was &uot;my land&uot; that the Yankees invaded in 1861 — I am Mississippi born, bred and educated, and a property owning, tax paying resident still.

And those were &uot;my people&uot; who fought the Civil War — ancestors on both sides of my family served in Confederate armies, all in Mississippi regiments. For his trouble, one languished in a northern prison for over a year. A great, great, great uncle was killed at Shiloh. A great, great, grandfather rode with Nathan Bedford Forrest. They sacrificed greatly under that banner which is today part of the Mississippi state flag. I say they fought bravely and well — and I’ll fight anybody who says differently.

And, I also say that they, my ancestors, were wrong. The Confederate cause for which they fought so well, and the flag they followed so bravely, existed principally for the purpose of defending the South’s system of racial enslavement. So, I say they were wrong — and I’ll argue with anybody who says differently. Wait, I think I hear the rumblings of an opposition mobilizing already. Fine, let’s get started.

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On November, 21, 1859, the newly elected governor of Mississippi, John J. Pettus, gave his inaugural address. He spent nearly all his time blasting the federal government, which he charged, &uot;seems to be unwilling or unable to guard the rights or redress the wrongs of slaveholders.&uot; And so, in the face of ascendant anti-slavery &uot;Black Republicanism&uot; in the North, he called for the South to be prepared to secede from the Union, and in so doing to unfurl a banner &uot;inscribed Superiority and Supremacy of the White Race&uot; (Robert W. Dubay, John Jones Pettus: Mississippi Fire Eater: His Life and Times, 1813-67, University Press of Mississippi, 1975, pp. 34-35). Despite this advice, no such unfurling followed. Not in 1859, that is.

Almost exactly one year later, on November 26, 1860, and only a couple of weeks after the &uot;Black Republican,&uot; Abraham Lincoln, had been elected President (without even having been on the ballot in the Deep South), Governor Pettus sent a formal message to the state legislature calling on it to call a state convention for the purpose of considering secession. He reasoned that, &uot;the Northern states had disregarded the Constitution of the United States in the matter of slavery, which plainly foretold an utter contempt in future of that sacred compact between the states. Such proceedings would inevitably bring about separation, and the North had only to decide whether it should be a peaceable separation or otherwise,&uot; i.e., northern insults to slavery necessitated secession. This according to Dunbar Rowland, Director of the Mississippi State Department of Archives and History in the 1920s and 30s (Dunbar Rowland, History of Mississippi: The Heart of the South, vol. 1, Reprint of the 1925 edition, originally published by S. J. Clarke, p. 776).

This time, in short order Pettus’ words were heeded, and the convention was called into session. In January, 1861, its majority voted to secede. But in taking its action, its members also drafted &uot;A Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union.&uot; In the opening paragraph, it stated forthrightly, &uot;Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world.&uot;

Therefore, it was concluded, with the federal government now in anti-slavery hands, only secession could save the South from &uot;degradation&uot; and a monumental loss of slave property. As to the other issues that supposedly had prompted secession, apparently none were important enough to warrant comment. &uot;The entire Declaration of Causes deals with slavery. Not one word of it talks about state rights or economic differences&uot; (John Ray Skates, Mississippi: A History, Norton, 1979, p. 103-04; see also, Glover Moore, &uot;Separation From the Union,&uot; in A History of Mississippi, vol. 1, Richard Aubrey McLemore, ed., University and College Press of Mississippi, 1973, p. 446).

In this action, Mississippi was soon joined by six other southern states, with delegates from each to meet in Montgomery, Ala., in February 1861, to form a new nation, and a government for that nation. If we wish to understand these rebellious southerners as they understood themselves, then we must know that they insisted that in their &uot;revolution&uot; they were emulating the thirteen colonies’ &uot;secession&uot; of 1776. On a fundamental level, the secessionists claimed that it was they, not the Union men, who were upholding the traditions of Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, each, after all, a southern slave owner. And so, as southerners had long emphasized (and as Pettus also had done in his call for a secession convention), their problem was not with the Constitution of the Union, but with the North’s unwillingness to abide by the Constitution &uot;in the matter of slavery,&uot; and to grant southerners their equal rights under its supreme law.

So, it should come as no surprise that the authors of the Confederate Constitution of February 1861, intended for it to mirror the U.S. Constitution of 1787. And largely, it did. But, notably, with certain additions. Almost without exception, these additions concerned the institution of slavery. Where the Founding Fathers’ document had avoided specific mention of the somewhat embarrassing institution, the Founding Sons of 1861 displayed no such reticence. A mere blanket protection for slavery under the guise of &uot;property rights&uot; (as had been so in the 1787 document) would not be enough. Now, a veritable &uot;iron curtain&uot; of explicit legalities was to make racial bondage secure for all time.

Article 1, Section 9, Clause 4 of the Constitution of the Confederate States of America stated, &uot;No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in Negro slaves shall be passed.&uot; In Article 4, Section 2, Clause 1, Confederate citizens’ &uot;right of transit and sojourn in any State of this Confederacy, with their slaves&uot; was guaranteed. In Section 3, Clause 3 of the same Article, assurances were given that in any territories that the Confederacy might subsequently acquire, &uot;the institution of Negro slaveryshall be recognized and protected by Congress.&uot;

And in Article 4, Section 2, Clause 3, it was stated that should any slave escape from one Confederate state into another, his status would not change, and he would not &uot;be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such slave belongs.&uot; With their rights in slave property only vaguely protected by the Federal Constitution within the Union, southerners had been vexed by the radical abolitionism of those like Frederick Douglass, by the only apparently more moderate &uot;free soil&uot; doctrine of those like Lincoln, and by the &uot;theft&uot; practiced by Sojourner Truth’s Underground Railroad for runaways. In four sentences, the &uot;new and improved&uot; Confederate version had rendered each definitively unconstitutional, a violation of the supreme law of the new land. (The entire text of the Confederate Constitution can be found in Emory M. Thomas’ The Confederate Nation: 1861-1865, Harper Colophon, 1979, pp. 307-322.)

With the Confederacy formed, war soon followed. But regarding slavery, what had been true before was also true once that war was over. After Appomattox, &uot;most [southerners] continued to see slavery as central to the cause. A majority of applications for pardon that southerners filed after the war termed slavery ‘the paramount issue of the war&uot; (Gaines M. Foster, Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South, Oxford, p. 23 — Foster was educated at Wofford in South Carolina, the University of North Carolina, and now teaches at LSU).

Here we have, a year before actual secession, Mississippi’s governor calling for separation from the Union — couched in terms of a defense of slavery and white supremacy; and we have his later formal call for a secession convention—couched in terms of a defense of slavery; and we have that secession convention’s justification for its action — couched in terms of a defense of slavery; and we have the seceding states’ new Constitution &uot;improving upon&uot; the 1787 Constitution — primarily by going to great lengths to delineate defenses for slavery, racial slavery to be exact; and we have most of the pardon applications of Confederate soldiers after the war saying that slavery was the principal reason there had been a war. Might we notice a pattern here?

I hear the screams of protest already. Many of you are even now pointing out, accurately, that at the time of the Civil War, only about 25 percent of all white southern families owned slaves (even in Mississippi, the deepest South, it was only a little over 40 percent), and only about a third of Confederate soldiers’ families owned slaves.

Some are also remarking that in fact many of the largest slaveholders in the South strenuously opposed secession, and a significant number never did support the Confederacy. And legitimately, the cry is raised that in 1860, most northerners, Lincoln included, were racists, and seemingly were not abolitionists (defined as advocating the immediate, unconditional emancipation of those in bondage), evidenced by the fact that, in 1861, Lincoln himself said that the war’s purpose was to preserve the Union, NOT to end slavery. Any and every historian in the country will agree with the points just made.

There, the battle is joined. And that battle, I assert, is one of historical interpretation, one best phrased, what DID the Confederate banner mean when it flew over Confederate armies? One might think, therefore, that early and often in our flag debate, we would have turned to those masters of musty tomes, the historians specializing in the antebellum South and the Civil War era. Think again. Instead, we have much more commonly been regaled with the historical judgments of everyone except such historians. In an article in the Clarion-Ledger on February 14th (&uot;Noteworthy Mississippians split over flag&uot;), we heard from Archie Manning — a gentleman and a quarterback, but no scholar, from several novelists, including Shelby Foote — a &uot;narrator&uot; of Civil War times, but neither a quarterback nor (despite popular perceptions) a historian, from Stephen Ambrose — a respected historian, but one whose primary area of proficiency is World War II, and from a few actors, an internet entrepreneur, and from the Once and Future Miss America, Mary Ann Mobley. (For your information, Archie says, change it; Shelby says, keep it; Mary Ann’s undecided.)

Elsewhere, we have heard from plumbers, preachers, soybean farmers, dental hygienists, and of course, politicians (our catatonically timid legislators excepted). Now, don’t misconstrue my point. Not for a second do I mean to disparage the mental abilities of these fine folks, each able, even expert in their field, and each worthy of being noted. (As for Archie, while I wouldn’t cross the street to meet Bush or Clinton, I’d walk barefoot across broken glass to shine his shoes.)

However, while I wouldn’t call a historian to analyze gingivitis, html, hot water heaters, or the Baltimore Ravens’ defense, I would prefer just such a consultation if I were looking for insights into the past. But then, you might say, why bother? Surely here in Mississippi, here in the &uot;land of cotton&uot; where &uot;old timesare not forgotten,&uot; where &uot;the past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past,&uot; where a much vaunted &uot;sense of the past&uot; hangs in the air like the scent of honeysuckle, HERE of all places we can trust the general public to know its history, or at least its Civil War history.

Why, even people who once prayed for D’s in world history in junior high school can yet manage fevered opinions on this particular historical subject, and, while hardly knowing a polling booth from a polecat, fully intend to cast a passionate vote in a few days. We may not know a 13th century Guelph from a 4th century Gupta, but we all know that Grant torched &uot;Chimneyville&uot; in ’63, and we ain’t forgettin’.

Well and good. So, just what do we well-informed Mississippians know about the origins of and meaning of the Confederate States of America and its battle banner? Based on what I’ve read and observed personally and on the results of a Clarion-Ledger survey of February 4, the great majority of whites at least will tell you that the Confederacy which gave birth to the flag was a virtuous enterprise in service to essentially noble goals. 73 percent of white Mississippians say that we should keep the flag as is, most commonly, because it represents &uot;history&uot; and &uot;heritage.&uot;

Of course, the ’27 Flood and Hurricane Camille and yellow fever are also part of our state’s history and heritage, and yet we’ve neglected to commemorate them on our flag, but for obvious reasons. One has to conclude that this whopping 73 percent rates the Confederacy to have been a positive part of our past. They say that the &uot;offense&uot; that the flag has come to represent for some is clearly the fault of just a few &uot;yahoos&uot; (as Shelby Foote has called them), meaning the Ku Klux Klan, the post-bellum organization that, it is alleged, has kidnapped the banner and distorted its noble heritage into a monstrous caricature of hate. We should defiantly ignore those despicable yahoos, they say, keep the flag as is, and reassert its fine Confederate pedigree. (The pro-flag opinions of the much abused, but full-throated &uot;yahoo bloc&uot; are well known and need no elaboration here.)

Needless to say, some other white Mississippians disagree. But the reasons given for the need to change the flag are particularly revealing. They say that we should face the fact that the banner has been hopelessly sullied by the Klan, and we should recognize that a substantial number of people (mainly, but not only blacks) are offended by it, that it sends the wrong message to the world, that keeping it will cause controversy, perhaps boycotts, and that it inhibits the state’s business prospects.

What is notably lacking, among either the &uot;keep it&uot; or the &uot;change it&uot; factions, is any criticism of what the Confederacy itself stood for. The conviction apparently reigns supreme, that, while its reasons for being were multifaceted, they assuredly did not include anything so Klannishly untrendy as a defense of white supremacy, and certainly not something as morally reprehensible as a defense of racially based chattel slavery. But this leads me to ask both Archie and Shelby (each a levelheaded Delta boy, like me) — if the avowedly racist Klan’s ideals were really so different from those of the Confederacy, why would it have adopted the Confederate banner as its own?

Rather, might the &uot;yahoos&uot; have noticed something congenial in Governor Pettus’ call for secession in the name of &uot;Superiority and Supremacy of the White Race,&uot; in the Mississippi secession convention’s trumpeting of slavery as &uot;the greatest material interest of the world,&uot; or in the Confederate Constitution’s codification of racial enslavement? Could it be that here where supposedly &uot;old timesare not forgotten&uot; we’ve forgotten, and willfully so, some aspect of the Confederacy’s legacy? Maybe we really should ask again why there was a Confederacy. And — a daffy notion, I confess — maybe this time we should permit belovedly noteworthy Miss America a recess, and try the novel approach of noting the findings of worthy historians.

Fear and loathing swells across the land. Heaven save us from such dotty, dry scholarship! Quick, let’s poll some more plumbers. Even better, bring back the Sage of Drew. Where have you gone Archie Manning?our sovereign state turns its lonely eyes to you. Uh oh, too late. I hear the heavy footfall of footnotes. The historians cometh, tomorrow.

James Wiggins is a history instructor at Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Natchez.