The Confederates Loved America, and They’re Still Defining What Patriotism MeansRoundup
tags: Civil War, Confederacy, historical memory, White Supremacy
Richard Kreitner is the author of Break It Up: Secession, Division, and the Secret History of America’s Imperfect Union, which will be published by Little, Brown in August.
In a seeming paradox, it is often the most flamboyantly patriotic Americans who appoint themselves guardians of a discredited rebel flag. A century and a half after the Union and Confederate flags were flown by armies at war, a certain kind of conservative thinks nothing of celebrating both symbols, sometimes even on the same hoodie. This strikes some as comically contradictory. “Nothing says ‘America First’ quite like Trump’s unadulterated support for the Confederacy,” the Lincoln Project, a band of Never Trump Republicans, sarcastically tweeted earlier this month after the president announced that he would “not even consider the renaming of...Magnificent and Fabled Military Installations” bearing the names of Confederate generals. The Lincoln Project evidently thinks the two ideologies are incompatible. Yet for most of U.S. history, patriotism and white supremacy, the values supposedly embodied by the two flags, have hardly been at odds. Rather, they have been mutually constitutive and disturbingly aligned.
For the four years of the Civil War, the advocates of racial oppression and political reaction endeavored to destroy the United States; for fourscore years before that, however, they were the country’s most stalwart friends. In the period only later dubbed the antebellum era, white Southerners weren’t aching to leave the Union. Instead, they sought to strengthen it, expand it, and further solidify their control of its most powerful and least representative institutions: the Senate, the presidency, and the Supreme Court.
Until Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860, many Southern whites, including slaveholders, considered themselves loyal Americans—even, they incessantly boasted, the most loyal. After their states moved to secede and form a rival Southern nation, Confederates believed they were the ones holding true, if not to the flag they had always revered, at least to what it had always stood for: slavery, states’ rights, and white supremacy. Southern slaveholders, nearly to a man, loved and cherished the Union and were sorry to depart it. They seceded only to remain loyal to the country and the Constitution as they understood it. “If we cannot save the Union, we may save the blessings it enshrines,” one reverend preached in New Orleans in November 1860. “If we cannot preserve the vase, we will preserve the precious liquor it contains.”
The Confederates worshipped the American revolutionaries, especially fellow slave-holding rebels like George Washington (the “first rebel president,” they called him), and saw themselves as continuing his work, not repudiating it. The first flag they adopted, in 1861, so resembled the familiar old standard it confused soldiers on the battlefield and had to be replaced.