We live with a complicated heritage

Published 3:47 am Friday, May 12, 2017

“Our new government is founded upon … the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.” So said Alexander Stephens in April 1861. The “new government” he referred to was the Confederate States of America, for which he was vice president.

Slavery as an institution was not unique to, nor created in, the American South. Neither was racism. However, Stephens here claims a different distinction for the Confederacy. Many countries in the world were home to slavery and racial prejudice, but the Confederacy was, he said, the first to make a system of slavery based explicitly on white supremacy its founding “great truth,” its defining principle, its literal reason for being. This, he proudly asserted, was unprecedented in the history of mankind. In this, the Confederacy was genuinely unique.

In this, Stephens was correct.

Email newsletter signup

Though seldom with such startling clarity, other southern statesmen said essentially the same thing countless times, particularly in the early months of 1861 as the individual states seceded and formed the Confederacy. Yes, states-rights were also an issue, but it was made extraordinarily plain by these statesmen that states-rights generally, secession specifically, and ultimately southern independence were means to an end. They were tools employed to realize the Confederacy’s supreme ambition, which was always, always the preservation of racialized slavery.

And yet, in April, the state of Mississippi observed Confederate Heritage Month. In explaining the commemoration, Governor Phil Bryant’s proclamation stated that our history “deserves study and reflection, no matter how unpleasant or complicated the matter may be.” A worthy sentiment, but why then only “Confederate heritage” rather than Civil War Era heritage? For the Governor, is Confederate defeat the only “unpleasant” aspect of “the late unpleasantness”? If not, why no mention of the “heritage” of white supremacist slavery upon which that Confederate heritage was founded?

Clearly, we should not celebrate the Confederacy as an institution, but as to its common foot soldiers, it truly is “complicated.” While it is all too apparent that some rank-and-file Rebels were wholeheartedly committed to the pro-slavery, racist bilge Confederate “statesmen” were disgorging, not every man and boy who fought for the Confederacy necessarily agreed with these sentiments. Most came from non-slaveholding families. Many were draftees, and even volunteers enlisted for a variety of reasons. And, in the fire of battle, loyalty to “the cause” was often reduced to a fierce loyalty to one’s frontline brothers-in-arms, may the politicians and generals be damned. Surely, since our war in Vietnam we have learned as a nation that we can condemn a war without condemning the common soldiers sent to fight it; that we can respect the warrior without sanctifying the war, much less its purpose.

The Confederacy cannot be our ideal, but we should not, cannot, bury and forget it either. We simply need to put its story into a larger story. And there is no better place to tell that entire complex story of the South and America than Natchez.

Let’s lead the way, and remake Confederate Heritage Month into a Slavery/Civil War/Reconstruction Era History Month. Maybe in conjunction with Pilgrimage. Emphatically, not to replace or diminish the Tour of Homes, but to add depth to it. Memorials to the Confederate dead, like in Natchez’s Memorial Park, should remain in place, but to honor the dead, not to hallow “the Lost Cause.” New information panels need to be added to provide that context. Also, as others have already suggested, these memorials should be joined by other memorials, ones for those who suffered under slavery, and for those who escaped from slavery to fight for abolition and for the preservation of the United States of America.   

Then, we will have a heritage for everyone to study and reflect upon. With Natchez, in all its multifaceted glory, right at its center.

Jim Wiggins is a retired history instructor and a Natchez resident.