Wednesday, January 05, 2011

The Mess of History

In 1811, Louisiana's river parishes experienced the largest slave revolt in United States history. I remember learning about this in school, but I've lived in New Orleans for 4 and a half years now. I've visited Destrehan Plantation and I've kept up with local historical reminders. Until this fantastic article was published in the Times-Picayune, I had forgotten the story.

How easy it is to forget.

Because it might be 200 years since this revolt took place, it is also 150 years since Southern states began seceding from the Union to form the Confederate States of America, and rose up against a government they believed would limit the right to enslave others.

Of those events, 150 years ago, there are plenty of rememberances. Every day I drive down Jefferson Davis Parkway, where his statue also stands. Riding downtown on a streetcar, I pass under the statued visage of General Robert E. Lee - who also has a street and a circle named for him. The streetcar line that terminates near my home does so at the foot of a horsebacked statue of General P.G.T. Beauregard - one of the creators of the Rebel Flag - and his former home is a historical site in the French Quarter. Several streetlights downtown include cast iron reminders of New Orleans "Confederate Domination" from 1861 - 1865 (even though New Orleans was surrendered to Union forces without a shot in 1863).

Across the Southern states, secession is being celebrated. Charleston hosted a Secession Ball. Montgomery is holding a parade, and a reenactment of Jefferson Davis' swearing-in as President of the CSA.

The folks are all awash in the idea of "Heritage Not Hate," an idea as noble as it is unserviceable. They want to look back at the past as if it were some better time for all, without entertaining the true meaning of the sins of the era. Doing so ironically cheapens the true blood-stained yet beautiful heritage, and only serves to keep fanning the smoldering embers of hatred between Southerners. If only we could look back on this sad history with honesty in our hearts, open eyes and open arms then maybe the Rebel Flag wouldn't be so frought with terrible meaning and the notes of Dixie wouldn't hold only her sad, exclusive memory. "Look away" is a phrase dependent on context, after all.

I'm proud to hear that New Orleans will be commemorating a slave revolt this year, as those 200 outnumbered and outgunned individuals fought for their freedom - a freedom that didn't include the right to enslave others. Such struggle gets to the heart of the Southern soul more significantly than any hoop skirt.

But it did remind me of something - something I never see. All of these activities, all of these monuments celebrating secession are billed as honoring the memory of the South. But there were thousands upon thousands of Southerners who also fought in Union Blue. Some, to be sure, were white or Native American, crossing the lines for their own conscience. But most of these thousands were former slaves - Southerners who fought under the Stars and Stripes, under penalty of reenslavement if captured during wartime, making up the United States Colored Troops.

I have lived in the South my entire life, and with the exception of the movie Glory, I have rarely seen a monument or a street or a celebration held to honor the heritage of these Southerners who fought in the Civil War. That is the greatest, most glaring omission from the "Heritage Not Hate" process of thought as it currently exists.


As an afterword, I have read that the NAACP will be protesting several of the Secession Celebrations. These demonstrations will, of course, play right into the hands of those who want to politicize these events, and use "history" to keep us divided as the South has always been. What if...

What if, instead of showing up with placards and signs and shouting, the demonstrators showed up as USCT reenactors? They could stand at attention during the proceedings, flags aloft, with only a sign nearby indicating how many Southerners did in fact fight for the Union.

I think that would make the point more beautifully than any shouted word, newspaper editorial, blog post, or television pundit.



Dante said...

I've always been pretty meh about the Civil War, but then again I'm from Texas originally. Yeah, they joined the Confederacy but they ousted one of their greatest war heroes from the governorship over it and that just doesn't sit well with a lot of us:

"Fellow-Citizens, in the name of your rights and liberties, which I believe have been trampled upon, I refuse to take this oath. In the name of the nationality of Texas, which has been betrayed by the Convention, I refuse to take this oath. In the name of the Constitution of Texas, I refuse to take this oath. In the name of my own conscience and manhood, which this Convention would degrade by dragging me before it, to pander to the malice of my enemies, I refuse to take this oath. I deny the power of this Convention to speak for Texas....I protest....against all the acts and doings of this convention and I declare them null and void." - Gov. Sam Houston

Editor B said...

Brilliant, and I esp. like the idea in the afterword.

Cousin Pat from Georgia said...

Thanks, Editor B.

Dante: That's strangely an opinion I've run into with a lot of Texans, thought I'm sure there are still lots of old families in East Texas who fly the Rebel Flag. But so much of the Texas mythos is wrapped up in things other than the Civil War, I can understand how you'd come to your conclusion.

I never knew that about Sam Houston, though it also makes sense. If "Heritage Not Hate" disinvites Southerners who fought for the Union, it would also include Southerners who refused to go along with secession - no matter their legendary credentials.

I'd wager that most Southerners are as ignorant of Houston's words as Americans are ignorant of Lee's decisions in the final days of the war.

Then again, Texas has always had a nationalist streak itself, and I rarely mentally include them when I speak of "The South." Even had the South held off the Union, it wouldn't have been long before Texas went its own way (probably taking the Indian Territories, Arkansas, and Louisiana with it).