The Refractive Index of Time

The Confederate flag represents evil. That’s why we can’t hide it away completely.


Here’s a fun little experiment.

On a piece of paper, draw a line with an arrow pointing to the left. Tape this to the backsplash of a kitchen counter. Fill a clear, smooth glass with water and set it on the counter. Now look through the glass of water at your arrow. It will be pointing to the right.

Much of the discussion over the removal of the Confederate battle flag from state houses – and, apparently, everywhere else – is an excellent example of how time refracts and distorts the events and beliefs of the past just as the water in the glass gives those arrows you a completely different meaning.

The removal of what most of us know, incorrectly, as “the Confederate flag” or “the stars and bars” from the South Carolina state house is a good thing, as will be its furling at other state government facilities – and its removal from state flags – throughout the South. To the State of South Carolina, there was one reason and one reason only for seceding from the U.S., and it’s best expressed in its declaration of cause:

[The] ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assumed the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery …

It bears noting here that the “domestic institution” here is slavery, and “property” it refers to is other human beings. While we can pretend that the casus belli of the Civil War was “states’ rights,” it’s crystal clear from that declaration – and that of the other Confederate states – that the only right the states were concerned with was slavery.

The Myth of the Lost Cause

The fiction of a higher cause arose quickly after the war. It was, as Nolan Finley notes in the Detroit News, enabled, if not directly advanced, by the US government. Lincoln and his successor, Andrew Johnson, understood the ancient strategy of allowing a vanquished opponent to save face; the myth of the “lost cause” over states’ rights helped pave the way for reconstruction.

As we have grown more distant, though, the refractive index of time has given the “lost cause” a luster that outshines the dark reality of human bondage beneath it. The fact that the long-retired “stars and bars” were unfurled above southern state capitals in reaction to the civil rights movement a century after the Civil War reminds us that the darkness was never very far away.

But we must also consider how the refraction of time has changed our perception of other aspects of that war – most significantly, the men who fought it, and their reasons for fighting.

Only 20 percent of the CSA’s troops were conscripted. Most were there for reasons that are difficult for us, today, to understand.

The United States: Plural

Before the Civil War, and its unprecedented rise of federalism, the “United States” were a group of individual states in the classical sense of the word: sovereign nations, banded together like NATO or the European Union. As Shelby Foote notes in Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary, before the war, people said “the United States are.” After the war, they said “the United States is.

A century and a half later, it’s hard for us to understand how generals in the U.S. Army would resign their commissions to fight for Virginia, or how an average citizen would put his loyalty to South Carolina above his loyalty to the nation. But at the time, nearly everyone did. It was, in large part, Lincoln’s gift for oratory that drew the northern states around the cause of “union.” After all, only 30 years earlier, the State of Ohio and the Territory of Michigan declared war on each other.

A related concept that’s also difficult for us to understand today is the premodern concept of “duty.” To us, today, it’s a rarity, something we see in the “few good men” of the Marine Corps and in a select occupations and situations. Society has changed enough that most of us cannot imagine marching shoulder-to-shoulder into a storm of flying lead. But at that time – and, really, up through World War One – men could not only imagine it and romanticize it. They did it.

The common Confederate soldier did not own slaves, nor did most of his officers. In fact, only six percent of all the people in the South owned slaves. The South’s economy depended on slavery, so all had some financial skin in the game. But was still, as are most wars, a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.

Most of the 1.6 million Confederate solders who fought, the 80,000 or so who died and the 137,000 who were wounded were there because their sense of duty compelled them to fight for their home states. “My country, right or wrong,” and at the time, one’s state was as much – or more – one’s country than the US.

Racism was Not a Southern Monopoly

Secession was driven by a desire to perpetuate slavery. That slavery was based on the premise that the Negro was a subhuman class of animal; it is inherently racist.

But also lost in the refraction of time: Racism was not exclusive to the South.

The abolition movement was most emphatically not an anti-racism movement. Many white abolitionists believed the Negro was morally and intellectually inferior to the Caucasian – as did Lincoln. This belief was at the time, in fact, the subject of what we now call scientific consensus, and it was an article of faith for many mainline Christian denominations.

At a political level, the Civil War was over slavery. At the personal level of the infantry solider, it was over duty to his sovereign state. But neither Confederacy nor Union was innocent of the stain of racism. If we cast ourselves back to 1861, the stars and stripes are almost as racist as the stars and bars; they just don’t stand for slavery. Racism didn’t magically disappear in the North after the emancipation proclamation or the 14th amendment; it has not yet disappeared to this day.

The Confederate Navy Jack is an ugly remnant of a nation founded by acts of treason over the right to own other people. This is why it should not be flown over state houses.

But one thing contemporary Americans do well is take a good thing too far. And that’s what we’re  doing with the wholesale removal of the flag from everywhere – not to mention the attendant madness such as the exhumation of Confederate generals, even one as loathsome as Nathan Bedford Forrest. That flag is an important part of the family histories of millions of Americans whose ancestors bravely followed a sense of duty to their government – misguided as that government may have been. This nuance – the first amendment aside – is why it should not be banned outright, and why people should be free to display it on their property as they choose.

Most importantly, though, that flag is also an important part of the history of the United States of America. It should not be purged and hidden away as an embarrassing secret from our past.

Because it serves as an important reminder of the cruelty, inhumanity and evil we are all capable of hiding under a cloak of tradition, custom, economic expediency or political demagoguery. This is a time when we need that reminder more than ever.