My roots are Southern. There are both Confederates and Unionists on my family tree. The Unionists are the ones I’ve spent five years trying to write a book about—complicated in more ways than I can express. They were a bunch of Northern Alabamans who wanted no part of Secession. Their county delegate to the January 1861 Alabama Secession Convention, a schoolteacher named Christopher Sheats, was beaten and jailed for refusing to sign the ordinance of secession.
These Winston County folks—led by my direct ancestors, the Curtis brothers—passed a resolution saying that if Alabama could secede from the Union, Winston County could secede from Alabama. Many Winston County men joined the Union army, including my 4th-great-grandfather, John Curtis. Others were killed in various gruesome ways by members of the Confederate Home Guard—their own neighbors. Another of my 4th-greats, one Wiley Tyler, died of starvation and infection in a Confederate prison camp. He’s where my pen name comes from.
I wish I could say that these devoted Unionist ancestors of mine—who fought and died because they refused to be traitors to their nation—had been passionate abolitionists. They weren’t. But they did know that the reason behind the War was slavery. Frank discussion of that reality is everywhere in their letters—just as it is in the letters written by the leaders of the Secession movement. In 1860 and early 1861, a number of men were appointed by various Southern states to be secession commissioners. These men traveled far and wide, speaking and writing in favor of Secession. You can read their letters. I have. They don’t beat around the bush. They believed that Lincoln was going to destroy the institution of slavery. You can read these letters—this primary source material—in a book called Apostles of Disunion.
When we get our information second-, third-, tenth-hand—when it comes to us filtered and packaged by people with something to sell—it can be difficult to get at the truth. The myth of the Lost Cause is one of those packages. The Confederate monuments, most of which were put up in the 20th century, long after the War—including many that were built in the 60s during the Civil Rights movement—are part of that mythology, that package. And it’s a package that was designed for and marketed explicitly to white people.
Those monuments celebrate men who went to war against the United States of America. Men who went to war because the Republic was finally moving to end the practice of enslaving other human beings.
Enslaving. Other. Human. Beings.
My friend Lydia Netzer wrote,
A statue of General Lee is NOT the same thing as a concentration camp turned into a museum.
A concentration camp turned into a museum would be like a slave market turned into a museum, or a slave plantation turned into a museum.
A statue of General Lee would be like if you tore down a concentration camp and left up a statue of Hermann Göring on a pedestal.
Removing these statues—moving them, perhaps, to a museum where these men’s own words could provide context on their intentions in declaring war against their own country—is in no way “erasing history.” We must not let pat phrases like that cheapen the way we talk about and think about these grave matters.
We must go deeper than the talking points. If you are bothered by the idea of history being “erased,” then READ that history—the primary source materials that clearly, directly, unequivocally laid out the reasons for the war in the first place.
Such as this address made by William Harris, a sitting Mississippi Supreme Court justice, to the Georgia state legislature, in his role as a secession commissioner:
“They [Lincoln’s Republicans and the North] have demanded, and now demand, equality between the white and negro races…equality in representation, equality in the right of suffrage, equality in the honors and emoluments of office, equality in the social circle, equality in the rights of matrimony…
“Our fathers made this a government for the white man, rejecting the negro, as an ignorant, inferior, barbarian race, incapable of self-government, and not, therefore, entitled to be associated with the white man upon terms of civil, political, or social equality…[Mississippi] had rather see the last of her race, men, women, and children, immolated in one common funeral pile [pyre], than see them subjected to the degradation of civil, political, and social equality with the negro race.”
The push to remove Confederate monuments isn’t an attempt to “erase” history. Quite the opposite. It’s an effort to expose the truth that has been papered over for far too long.
Glad You Asked
From the Archives: Life on the Trail
1809: Quite a Year