AT A CHARITABLE event recently a fellow asked: "Foster, what are we gonna do to get the flag back?"
Before I had a chance to answer he articulated my "Fergit Hell!" credentials - nine generations Southern, a student of and commentator on Southern history and proud of my four great-grandfathers who fought under the Confederate Battle Flag. It was that flag, at least the Georgia version of it, my friend was trumpeting.
I didn't answer quickly enough so the question became a challenge. "You are in favor of changing the flag back, aren't you?"
I shook my head and said no.
He was taken aback. "I can't believe that. Why wouldn't you be for changing the flag back?"
HERE IS THE answer I gave him:
The glory of the Confederacy, as honored by many modern white Southerners, was a myth. If ever there was a rich man's war and a poor man's fight, the Civil War was it. Confederate soldiers more than once complained that they were fighting for another man's slave. The literature often suggests that the soldiers were not happy with their well-born company and regimental officers, and toward the end of the war desertions were more than common.
Many people believe the caste system of the South was black and white. That's the most mistaken myth to come from the era. The South was rife with class and caste distinctions, black and white just the most visible tip of the cultural iceberg. Every Southerner was stuck to some degree in his place. Poor whites were poor whites, slaves were slaves, yeoman farmers were yeoman farmers, merchants were merchants and so on. At the top of the cultural pile was the plantation aristocracy, who owned most of the slaves, controlled most of the wealth and wielded virtually all of the power. Ironically, the second most powerful cultural position was held by slaves. They controlled (through their white masters) most of the jobs, and that in many ways created the poor-white class.
When you read contemporary writings from the time, the only people writing regularly of the great Southern society as some kind of Utopia were the planters. Had the South "won" the war, they would have saddled all other Southerners with some extension of the old caste system and that, in turn, would most likely have impeded Southern progress much longer than the century it took for the "defeated" region to get completely back on its economic feet.
Worse, that same culture would have continued to practice apartheid (I doubt slavery would have lasted much longer than the invention of the mechanical cotton picker) until world opinion finally drove us to outlaw it, most likely after economic sanctions, such as those brought against South Africa.
BECAUSE OUR leaders would have been determined to continue the status quo in a region ruined by war, economic revitalization could have been completely retarded for at least 30 years as the planter society would have continued to fight industrialization and the upward mobility of non-aristocratic whites as base enemies of their own power base. That, in turn, would have only hurt the very people who fought the war in the first place, the yeoman farmer and white Southern working class.
The argument could be easily made that from the ruins of the victorious South, hundreds of thousands of small landowners would have lost their farms, creating an even larger number of poor whites.
And the poor whites? These were not genetically inferior white people. They were just poor, ignorant and without opportunity in a land where many of the best jobs were held by slaves. The Civil War actually gave many their first opportunities to do something other than live in abject poverty, a kind of poverty that many slaves considered horrific compared to their own circumstances.
Even in defeat, it took almost a century to cast off most of the South's caste system, a remarkably long time considering the United States has always supported upward mobility of its citizens, an upward mobility based on a free economic system that most likely would not have been supported by an independent Confederacy. Had the Confederacy won that independence, many of the working class people who hold the Battle Flag so dear today might instead be plotting revolution against the very government their forefathers fought for.
My father's family sharecropped and were poor as dirt until the 1950s; my mother's family came from minor aristocracy but lost most of their wealth during the war and the rest of it during the Depression. Even during the 1960s young people growing up in the South who weren't from "station" felt the oppression of knowing their place. To make progress they had to get out, if not out of the region, at least out of their hometown. I am one of those people.
SO LET'S MOVE past the Confederate Battle Flag. It is a relic of the Old South, a place - at least for the average person - of economic stagnation, little opportunity and huge aristocratic arrogance. It's well past time we faced forward with a view of an ever more democratic and opportunity-driven South. The symbols of the Old South are fine in abstract, as in the pre-1956 Georgia flag, but even then not so much to remind of us of the glory of a misplaced social system but instead to remind us just how far back we really don't want to go.
(Editor's note: The writer is a local journalist and businessman. He writes a history commentary for Augusta magazine.)
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