The battle over the Confederate Battle Flag goes on. The latest skirmish is taking place at Oxford, Miss., where the football coach of Ole Miss asked students and alumni to stop waving the flag at football games. It offends many people, he said, and it also makes it difficult to recruit black football players.
Many blacks and not a few whites hate the flag. They say it is a symbol of the slavery the Confederate States of America were created to defend and perpetuate. Many of those critics seem unaware that the men who fought, suffered, died under that flag were fighting for many reasons. The least of these reviews, for most, was slavery.
In the best-selling, critically acclaimed new novel "Cold Mountain" (by Charles Frazier. Atlantic Monthly Press. 356 pages. $24), a Confederate soldier named Inman has had enough late in the war and leaves the battlefields for home. In North Carolina he meets an old mountain woman who asks him: ""Did you own any [slaves]?" ""No. Not hardly anybody I knew did." ""Then what stirred you up enough for fighting and dying?"
"Four years ago I maybe could have told you. Now I don't know. I guess many of us fought to drive off invaders."
Frazier's Inman is not alone in having expressed that thought. In ""The Civil War," the 1990 companion book to Ken Burns' PBS television series, Shelby Foote, the novelist-turned-historian, is asked the question the mountain woman asked Inman. He replies with this anecdote:
"Early on in the war, a Union squad closed in on a single ragged Confederate. He didn't own any slaves, and he obviously didn't have much interest in the Constitution or anything else. And they asked him, What are you fighting for? And he said, 'I'm fighting because you're down here.' ""
Such examples are more than 1990s guesses (or wishes) about Confederate thoughts in the 1860s. The best evidence gathered and studied by the best historians bears out the contention that defense of slavery was not what the war was all about to the Southern yeomanry who actually fought it. That evidence is the letters and diaries of the soldiers. The recently published "For Cause and Comrade: Why Men Fought in the Civil War" by James M. McPherson (Oxford University Press. 327 pages. $25), is based on the reading of some 25,000 letters and 249 diaries written by Union and Confederate soldiers. McPherson found no opposition to slavery in the Southerners' writings, but only 20 percent of them even mention slavery at all. Only 12 percent from non-slave-owning families did.
McPherson found Southern hatred of Northerners was a far stronger motivation to fight. Many young Southerners viewed Yankees in the same light as their ancestors viewed the British of 1776 and 1812. They wanted to be left alone. They wanted to be their own nation, with their own idea of liberty and justice. They considered themselves patriots for fighting back, slavery or no slavery.
Toward the end of the war, when the Confederates considered emancipation in order to draft black soldiers, many soldiers expressed the view in letters and diaries that they preferred a slaveless Confederacy to re-joining the Union with slavery there intact.
Symbol of patriotism
For that matter, as Gary W. Gallagher reminds in his new book, "The Confederate War" (Harvard University Press. 218 pages. $24.95), Gen. Robert E. Lee urged Jefferson Davis to consider emancipation early in the war. To no avail. The Confederate Constitution legitimized slavery, and so did Southern public opinion.
Gallagher also studied his subject through letters and diaries - and the newspapers of the day. He concludes, somewhat tentatively, that while the Confederacy was truly a nation united in purpose and sense of identity, the reason for that was not the elected government and political institutions as much as it was the public perception of Lee and his soldiers.
They were ""the critical agents that engendered unity and hope." They were by mid-war "the preeminent symbol of the Confederate struggle for independence and liberty."
That brings up another reason unrelated to slavery as to why Southerners went into battle. Many young men of that time and place had a very gallant idea of war. As a classic book on the Southern soldier begins: ""The man who was to be Johnny Reb was rarin' for a fight in the spring of 1861." That book is the "The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy" by Bell I. Wiley (Louisiana State University Press. 444 pages. 29.95). It pioneered the use of letters and diaries in studying its subjects. It was first published in 1943.
"The dominant urge of many volunteers was the desire for adventure," Wiley wrote. "War, with its offering to travel to far places, of intimate association with large numbers of other men, of the glory and excitement of battle, was an alluring prospect to farmers who in peace spent long lonely hours between plow handles, to mechanics who worked day in and day out at cluttered benches, to storekeepers who through endless months measured jeans cloth or weighed sowbelly, to teachers who labored year after year with indifferent success to drill the rudiments of knowledge into unwilling heads, and to sons of planters who dallied with the classics in the halls of learning."
Fierce Southern pride
The amazing thing about those soldiers is that long after they learned that war was, well, hell, they for the most part stayed with it. There were not that many Inmans who left their comrades. The overwhelming majority kept fighting under that now controversial banner with more courage than contemporary Americans can even imagine. (Union soldiers were also brave and patriotic. McPherson quotes an Army chief of staff on a 1980s visit to Antietam's Bloody Lane, site of a Union assault, marveling, ""You couldn't get American soldiers today to make an attack like that.")
McPherson leans to "cause" more than other factors in explaining the patriotism of Johnny Rebs and Billy Yanks alike. He thinks they were motivated in large part by ideology. Bell Wiley thought they were ""little concerned with ideological issues." Both would agree, I believe, that Johnny Reb was not fighting for the continuation of slavery, except in an indirect way.
Bell Wiley summed up the individuals who fought under this flag this way: ""The common soldiers and the sturdy yeomanry has its sprinkling of rogues, villains, croakers and cowards. But in the great crisis of the 1860s the lowly people gave a better account of themselves than did the more privileged members of Southern society. They bore their hardship, which exceeded that of any other group, North or South, with less complaint than the bigwigs. The overwhelming majority were generous in their impulses, wholesome in the reactions, and stalwart in their adversity. . . .
"On the battlefield [the Southern soldier] rose to supreme heights of soldierhood. He was not immune to panic, nor even to cowardice, but few if any soldiers have more than he of elan, of determination, or perseverance and of the sheer courage which it takes to stand in the face of withering fire."
Such men deserve more respect than those who would ban the battle flag pay them. They also deserve more respect than paid them by those who for racist reasons flaunt and exploit their battle flag.
Theo Lippman Jr. is a former editorial writer and columnist for The Sun and the author of a book about Franklin D. Roosevelt's life in the South. He was a student of Bell Wileys at Emory University.
Pub Date: 11/02/97