One Southerner’s search for truth about his Southern Heritage and Hate
The aftermath of the Charleston Massacre has caused me to examine one of the very cornerstones of my life – my Southern heritage as it relates to “War of the Rebellion.” Born on an Easter Sunday (April 9, 1950) a mere eighty-five years to the day the most revered man in the South, General Robert E. Lee, surrendered at Appomattox Court House, I grew up re-fighting “The War of Northern Aggression.” As a child I really did not understand any of the dynamics of our Civil War and, at one time, could not understand “why” North Carolina had invaded South Carolina and “why” much of the fighting had taken place in far away Virginia or “out west.” I thought that it might have been something like the Gillette fight of the week and held in a neutral ring. This was in 1957 and I know it was this year because my favorite TV series – the one year wonder “The Gray Ghost” – aired only in 1957. This program is what caused the “why” questions to first be asked as it chronicled the exploits of Confederate cavalry commander John Singleton Mosby and his men who rode rings around the foolish “Damn Yankees” located in distant Virginia.
A year or so later, after the worst decision since James Buchanan sent the “Star of the West” to provision Fort Sumter, “The Gray Ghost” was cancelled. By this time I had had a geography lesson or five and my program of choice became “The Rebel” staring Nick Adams as a former Confederate soldier and aspiring journalist named Johnny Yuma. Complete with Rebel kepi, army Colt and sawed-off shotgun, Yuma traveled the Texas countryside righting wrongs and defending the weak while making amends and trying to come to grips with what he had experienced during the “War of the Rebellion.” He would then write about his travels and adventures in a journal that had been given him by a friend. I too wore my kepi and packed my cap pistols proudly as I defended the chickens and hogs around my grandparent’s old barn.
Both Mosby and Yuma were heroic figures, Mosby in real life, although maligned for choosing to serve in Grant’s “Yankee government” after the war, and Yuma as a knightly character in a black and white television. They were portrayed as chivalrous characters like all of the men who wore gray or butternut and who fought to preserve the Southern way of life against the invading blue-clad Yankee hordes. They were as knightly as the character Ivanhoe in Walter Scott’s book by the same title. For some reason Ivanhoe seemed to be a required reading in order to become a true Southern gentleman. I am unsure if I am a gentleman but I have read the book and saw the Robert Taylor version of the movie repeatedly. I confess that I still watch it to lust after a young Elizabeth Taylor whose character Rebecca is the Jewish object of Norman Knight Brian De Bois-Guilbert’s desire as played by a way-too-old George Sanders.
I was too enamored by Elizabeth Taylor’s green eyes to recognize the parallels between the Civil War and the movie at the time but realize now that there were many. The story and movie are about Ivanhoe’s quest to ransom King Richard’s return to the English throne. He led an outmanned and ill-equipped army that featured Robin of Loxley and his “merry men.” The movie emphasized the cultural strife between the Normans and the Saxons and their class inequalities and also displayed the racism anti-Semitism shown to Rebecca and her father Isaac. All could be metaphors for the United States during the period leading up to and including the war. During the climactic “wager of battle,” Rebecca sits stoically awaiting her fate as Sir Brian De Bois-Guibert, who is willing to destroy what he loves rather than allow her to love another, seems to have the upper hand until Ivanhoe prevails and mortally wounds the Yankee at the end. Did I say Yankee? I really meant Norman knight. To the point, Ivanhoe was just like our chivalrous young men who rallied to the flag to defend their states. It was always assumed that they would find a way to prevail in the end against the more numerous and better equipped Yankee invaders. Instead the best the South had to offer spilled their blood and the blood of their enemy and the South was destroyed in the attempt.
A great yarn but it became much more than a story for those chivalrous young men who rallied to the flag. Two of those young men were John R. and Marion DeKalb Rogers, my great, great, great and great, great grandfathers. Both enlisted in what would be Company H, Twelfth Regiment of the South Carolina Volunteer Infantry in August of 1861. John, according to family tradition, died of typhoid fever less than six months into his service but died under the flag NONE-THE-LESS. Marion would go on to fight in twenty-five battles including Gettysburg. Most of these battles were fought under the standard that we know as the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia and were led by the famed Confederate commander General Robert E. Lee. Unfortunately for the South, it would be the Yankee flag and Sherman’s “bummers” who would have the last say in South Carolina and Grant’s Army of the Potomac in Virginia. According to my great, great grandfather’s military records, despite fighting gallantly in a rear guard action to allow Lee’s Army to escape Petersburg, he and a thousand other confederate soldiers would be overwhelmed and captured at a Virginia village named Sutherland (Southerland?) Station on April 3. (According to actual historical records the battle took place on the 2nd.) He was lucky as over five hundred were killed in that action. This was less than a week before Lee would surrender but not have to hand over his sword to Grant at the McLean House at Appomattox. After my grandfather’s capture he would be held at Hart’s Island in New York until his release in July. Of the original one hundred and thirty-seven recruits in Company H, only seventeen made it home alive. M. D. Rogers was one of those lucky seventeen, which for my particular lineage was fortuitous.
After the massacre in Charleston there was a decision to remove from the SC Capitol Grounds the Battle Flag – the same flag that my grands times two and three fought under and the same one that many Southerners are now trying to keep flying. Their point has been that the South was not defending its peculiar institution of slavery as one of the reasons to go to war. According to supporters, slavery was a “side issue.” My great grandfathers were part of the eighty percent who shouldered arms but were not slave holders. So…they could not have fought to uphold slavery, could they? The war was about regional rivalries. It was about how the Northern economic interests desired to control the South, a “red-haired” stepchild, with illegal tariffs so as to insure that Southern cotton was cheap when it was acquired by the Northern factories. They wanted to steal Southern chattel and not honor laws that would return Southern property to us. It was an argument over State’s Rights and sovereignty. When we had had enough and seceded from the Union, the Federals broke a promise and took over an uncompleted fort in Charleston Harbor. Later, when an attempt was made to re-provision this fort, our gallant military opened fire to drive the ship away. Eventually we opened fire on Fort Sumter itself in order to force the Federal garrison to abandon our newly acquired property and the rest is history…or is it?
A teaching friend of mine and a true Son of the South often makes the argument that Civil War history has been victimized by “revisionists” who have attempted to defame the South with inaccurate and adjusted claims. Until a while ago, a dozen or so years before Charleston, I would have agreed with him. Unfortunately, I believe now that we both have been victimized by what became known as “The Lost Cause.” I also acknowledge that I will never be able to convince him or other diehard “Sons of the Confederacy” of that. The phrase Lost Cause was coined by Virginia writer Edward Pollard who wrote the book The Lost Cause in 1866.1 In an essay about Pollard’s book, “Origins of the Lost Cause,” Michael Speiser of the University of Virginia states, and I quote because he says it better than I ever could, “In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, a number of white southern writers and political leaders worked to construct a favorable history of the old South and the Confederacy. Seeking vindication of the white South in the wake of seemingly crushing defeat, they resurrected pro-white southern imagery and ideology of earlier years. In doing so, these advocates for the white South constructed a “Lost Cause” mythology and memory of the Civil War and white southern history and culture. Specifically, they celebrated the South’s natural beauty and idyllic plantations, supported a white supremacist racial hierarchy in southern society, claimed liberty as a southern principle and the American Revolution as southern heritage, wrapped their sectionalism in a constitutional theory of state sovereignty, and nostalgically glorified the southern past.” 2 One might want to think of “Gone with the Wind” or “Birth of a Nation” at this time.
The Lost Cause was what I was taught and in turn I repeated this same history when I taught it, at least in the beginning of my career. My indoctrination was so complete that I would not dig more deeply into my heritage until many years later. It wasn’t about slavery but about Southern rights with “Tara’s Theme” playing in the background. Most slaveholders held one or two slaves, not hundreds, and only twenty percent owned slaves at all. Most slave owners weren’t abusive. Why would you beat something as valuable as a slave? Would you beat a horse or is that a bad analogy? Scenes of happy slaves singing while toiling in the fields flitted through my mind again accompanied by more strains from “Tara’s Theme.” The North was attempting to commandeer Southern cotton and the profits made on the backs of these happy slaves for the sake of Northern industry. Dah, Dah, Daaaah, Da, Da, Daah …wait… that was the theme to the “High and the Mighty.”
The Lost Cause IS a part of our true heritage, but not our true history. So is the heritage of hate that racism, slavery, the Civil War and its aftermath have left to us…even today. So is the fear that it all fostered…for both races. It is the heritage of both SOUTHERN BLACKS AND WHITES. Our Southern heritage is not just a white heritage; it is also a black heritage like two sides of the same coin. We all have to recognize this fact and accept it. I believe that we can keep our heritage, both black and white, despite or, maybe, in spite of the hate and fear. Much like an abuser in a twelve-step program, we must be truthful and that starts with being truthful to ourselves. One place to start might be to recognize that our racism, both black and white, is not just a Southern phenomenon. Northerners, Westerners, African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians also display racist tendencies. After all, I have had it pointed out to me repeatedly that the North is just as racist as the South, if not more so. Okay… that makes me feel better.
Despite my heritage, I realize that the removal of the Battle Flag was right and a long time coming. I believe that much of what has been discussed about removing other parts of our Confederate history is not only hurting White Southerners but Black Southerners as well. Instead of tearing down monuments or removing the bones of our sometimes conflicted and dark history, whether black or white, why don’t we add to those monuments? In South Carolina, for every “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman or Strom Thurmond there is a Charles Townsend, a Harold Boulware, a Matilda Evans, a Pat Conroy or a former student like Phillip Boykin. Let us remember those folks who have worked hard to unite our state and to move our “multi-racial” society forward. We might also want to remember that like Strom Thurmond or Ben Tillman many of us have some secrets that we would like to hide and forget. The history that was—WAS… and can NOT be changed. Therefore, we have to accept that. Despite their racism both Tillman and Thurmond accomplished much good for our state. We should also admit that the flag represents two sides of heritage and unfortunately one of those sides is hate. To say that slavery was a side issue, despite all of the evidence otherwise, simply marginalizes a large percentage of our population. To me, our heritage of racism and white supremacy is not worth doing that.
1 Edward Albert Pollard, The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates (New York: E. B. Treat & Co., Publishers, 1866).