Is It Proper To Honor The Confederate Dead?

Another Memorial Day has come and gone and I suspect few people paused to honor or think about the 260,000 Confederate soldiers who died during the Civil War.

No surprise. It wouldn’t be politically correct to do so, right? After all, Johnny Reb wasn’t doing battle on behalf of the United States of America. And if the modern perception of the Civil War is to be believed, he certainly wasn’t fighting for freedom.

Of course some in the South would say that’s okay because we have our own separate day — Confederate Memorial Day — set aside to remember the boys and young men who lost their lives fighting for the Confederate States of America.

But what kind of message are we sending by honoring the Confederate dead? Will we be accused of being racist and having a twisted moral compass? It’s an awkward and complicated predicament for Southerners, to say the least.

I would argue that it’s proper to remember fallen soldiers of the Confederacy.

Call me a naïve, revisionist redneck if you like, but I refuse to believe the common soldier was motivated to sacrifice his life on behalf of some deep, heart-felt belief in slavery.

And I think the evidence makes a strong case for this argument.

I watched CNN political contributor Roland Martin once describe all Southern Confederates as “terrorists.” If I think Mr. Martin’s comments to be grossly unfair, as well as a mangling of historical context, what do I offer to support my position?

Simple. Human nature. Like all creatures, we are innately territorial.

I believe Confederate soldiers felt — above all else — they were fighting to protect their home state, their communities, their farms, their land, their families. Robert E. Lee turned down Lincoln’s offer to lead the Union Army against the Confederates because of his loyalty to the state of Virginia. Stonewall Jackson fought for the Confederacy for the same reason.

In their hearts and minds, these causes were honorable.

Are they not?

The notion that the average Confederate waged war to preserve slavery is a tenuous one at best. Only 6 percent of Southerners owned slaves, and 3 percent of that 6 percent owned the majority. Recruits themselves referred to the war as “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.”

Consider these facts:

Historians note that “conscription” service (commonly referred to as the “draft”) was directly or indirectly responsible for putting most men into service after the first year of the war. Records show some soldiers refused to pledge an oath of allegiance to the CSA, but enlisted anyway because they were “willing to fight.” And an estimated 100,000 or so Confederates deserted before 1865.

The reasons behind most desertions, I suspect, had little to do with cowardice.

Case in point …

William Dickey was a company commander in Georgia’s State Militia. On July 13, 1864, he wrote to his wife from his post on the outskirts of Atlanta about the many “Tennesseans and Georgians” who were deserting the army to return to their homes. Sherman’s army was advancing on Atlanta at the time.

“They know their families are left behind at the mercy of the yankies and it is hard to bear … I tell you it is enough to make any man desert. If the Yankees were to drive our army through our country & we were to pass on by you and the children, I could not say that I would not desert and try to get to you.”

All of these factors reinforce my conclusion that most were not in this war to uphold or protect the institution of slavery.

Few soldiers — Union or Confederate — had any prior battlefield experience. Like their Northern counterparts, my guess is the common Confederate soldier also went to war over patriotism, steady pay or what they naively perceived as the chance for adventure.

On the other hand, they were not ignorant of the causes of war; and slavery, sadly, was chief among them.

And with that in mind, I ask myself, “what would I have done?” given the same choices these men faced in 1861?

One of the most memorable moments in Ken Burn’s Civil War documentary comes when Southern historian Shelby Foote paraphrases from one of his favorite writers to make a point. Foote says:

… William Faulkner, in “Intruder in the Dust,” said that for every southern boy, it’s always within his reach to imagine it being one o’clock on an early July day in 1863, the guns are laid, the troops are lined up, the flags are out of their cases and ready to be unfurled, but it hasn’t happened yet. And he can go back in his mind to the time before the war was going to be lost and he can always have that moment for himself.

I’ve often imagined what my life would have been like had I lived and been of “fighting age” between 1861 and 1865. It’s very unsettling to think of myself as someone who might have willingly volunteered to go to war to uphold and preserve a state’s right to enslave its people. And though I’m interpreting history through a prism, with 150 years separating my lens from the actual events, I don’t think slavery motivated the heart of the average Confederate soldier. That’s why, as a Southerner, I remember those who wore gray and lost their lives in the war.

And I do so on Memorial Day.

71 Responses to “Is It Proper To Honor The Confederate Dead?”

  1. I appreciate this a lot, Kris. You’ve asked a great question, and the saddest thing to me about the whole issue is that we don’t even ask. We don’t talkp about this war. The shame of the South still haunts us.

    • Thanks Lee… sadly, you’re right. I think the bullying of political correctness has altered perceptions over the years to the point where we either run from the issue or turn away from the truth for fear of the repercussions/judgment.

    • Of course it is proper to honor the Confederate Dead; see, for example, the videos, The Confederate Dead at Petersburg and Bragg’s Invasion of Kentucky 1862, viewed at JoeRyanCivilWar YouTube channel. The important thing is to understand what really was the cause of the war.

    • “Every man should endeavor to understand the meaning of subjugation before it is too late. It means the history of this heroic struggle will be written by the enemy; that our youth will be trained by Northern school teachers; will learn from Northern school books their version of the war; will be impressed by the influences of history and education to regard our gallant dead as traitors, and our maimed veterans as fit objects for derision Major General Patrick Cleburne

      So, I guess the removal of the flag from its memorial site is a good thing. This means that hence forth, I will not have to endure African Americanism, or references to slavery and how oppressed the black man is due to his heritage, since it has been so emphatically demonstrated on this date, that such things are unimportant, and must be removed and erased from the very fabric of our history.

      • I lost my job 26sep1973 affirmative action because of my racist skin(flesh)which is outlawed to referrance, they, we know who, took away the flesh colored crayons, it’s screwy

  2. as a history teacher, I believe that you have accurately presented the case that we southern men with confederate lineage find ourselves.this is a great article!

  3. I have to admit, I have NO shame for what my ancestors did to defend their homes. I too honour them on Memorial Day… and all year long. The “Shame of the South” does not haunt me, for there is no shame.

    Thanks for the insightful essay.

    Deo Vindice.

    • … thanks for visiting the site, Jim. Glad you enjoyed the story. How did you hear about us?

    • Virginia McPhaul Reply May 27, 2019 at 11:00 am

      Thank you for these comments. I have no shame remembering my several great grandfathers and uncles who fought and the one who died in Franklin TN. None of them owned slaves.

  4. Of course it is proper to honor our Confederate Dead!!! I do not believe this is a question that needs to be asked. As to “The shame of the South,” I ask what shame???? My ancestors and the men they fought with did nothing to be ashamed of…….. Did Lee, Jackson, Cleburne, Forrest or many other honorable generals do anything to feel “shame” for???? No they did not!!! Compare them to Sherman, Sheridan and Turchin and then talk to me about “shame.”

    • Thanks for taking the time to read this story Johnnie … and thanks for visiting RSM.

      • Johnnie McEwen Parker June 22, 2011 at 6:11 pm

        Thank you, Kris. One additional comment if I may; Not only do they deserve the right to be remembered and honored….. They Earned That Right!

      • Johnnie Is a proud southern lady who believes that our southern dead must be honored. They gave their lives for what was their belief and duty . Their is no “shame” and that word should not even be used in the same breath with “Confederate Soldier”

    • I am so proud of all the responses for honoring our men in gray. I am Southern, will forever be and never will I mingle with the Yankees.

  5. The writer of this article says: “Call me a naïve, revisionist redneck if you like, but I refuse to believe the common soldier was motivated to sacrifice his life on behalf of some deep, heart-felt belief in slavery.” I have never heard anyone seriously make such a claim. If any southerners really think that is the considered opinion in the north, or elsewhere, then their paranoia is far deeper than I ever expected! Of course the “Confederate dead” should be honored — but NOT the Confederacy.

    • Thanks for your feedback John. In the article I make a case that it’s proper to remember fallen soldiers of the Confederacy (I make no argument to defend the existence of the Confederacy).

      You write that you’ve “never heard anyone seriously” express the belief/opinion that most Confederate soldiers fought (willing to sacrifice their lives) to defend the practice/institution of slavery. I wish I could say that has been my experience, but it hasn’t. Over my 50 years of living in the South, sadly, I’ve been subjected to these misinformed assertions all of my life … primarily from those living outside the South.

      If this were not a common-held belief among many, what’s behind the countless articles and the books that have been written on this particular subject? A quick Google search will confirm/reveal the popularity of this topic.

      As an example, I referenced CNN’s political contributor Roland Martin, who once describe all Confederate Soldiers as “terrorists” … fighting to defend the institution of slavery.

      Martin’s opinion, unfortunately, is shared by many.

      No “paranoia” here … Simply writing from first-hand experience.

  6. I dont think its a big deal for the south to honor their dead. After all Germany has plenty of WWII memorials and one of the biggest memorials in the world honors the dead from the Soviet Unions red revolution.

  7. Northener married to a Southerner Reply May 26, 2013 at 5:13 pm

    As a “Northerner,” I admit I was also surprised that this question even needed to be asked. The Civil War was a tragic episode in our country’s history for all concerned, where only the people of our country bled…everyone who suffered whether they were a slave, a confederate soldier, or a union soldier, or the families who were split apart by slavery or war…everyone who suffered was an American. I honor them all and mourn them all their passing.

    • I love your response. Is anyone aware that George Washington had slaves? A quite a few of the slaves shipped to America were in slavery in their homeland? And once freed, many slaves chose to stay with their owners and worked for wages from their masters?While many of those who were scorned by the Northern soldiers neglected them? If Roland Martin doesn’t like the South, no one is keeping him nor wanting his type here.

  8. I honor them everyday. My ancestors amd my heritage. my great great grandfather you was a Catholic man living in Charleston South Carolina. He was a graduate of The Citadel and a lieutenant with the Richmond rifles of the South Carolina militia. The Richmond rifles became company a of the first South Carolina Volunteer Infantry. Maxxy Greggs regiment. he did not believe in slavery being Catholic and all but he did believe in the right to defend your home even if it is from your own government. and I appreciate what he fought and died for

  9. if we dont who will ? !

  10. I am proud to have family members serve in the confederate army

  11. I am not a US citizen. To Southerners I see nothing wrong in remembering the bravery of the soldiers who fought in the grey uniform. But It was a different time, with different attitudes and the war was lost. From the perspective of the 21st Century it is not the most noble of causes, especially as it’s legacy still endures to this day. But surely there can be a separation that honours the bravery of of the Confederate soldiers, whilst repudiating the cause they fought for?

  12. I’m a proud White Southerner from SC who is letting go of celebrating the White boys in gray. I guess I was easily conditioned by my environment to do that no matter the actual history of one’s ancestors in the war. Some may have indeed fought for the South because armies from elsewhere were invading, yadda, yadda, yadda. But at the end of the day, had the South won slavery would have existed, and would have been promoted and spread westward. That was the system they were fighting for: one man owning another man. That was anything but freedom. Only if I can stand side by side with a fellow Black Southerner and a fellow Latino Southerner and a fellow Asian Southerner and all of us celebrate and honor the same thing or idea or whatever, then will I.

    That being said, one of my White German Texan ancestors enlisted in a Rebel militia in Texas. That was in spite of most German Texans being anti-slavery and anti-secession. Among their friends and neighbors that may have just been what the Whites did in that location. Another ancestor was a White Kentuckian from a valley in which all White men joined the Union militia. In the next valley over all White men joined the Rebel militia. Union valleys and Rebel valleys as far as you could see. That was common throughout the mountains of Virginia and Kentucky, which my genealogical research has proven.

    • Rick C You think that “at the end of the day, had the South won slavery would have existed, and would have been promoted and spread westward. That was the system they were fighting for: one man owning another man. That was anything but freedom. Only if I can stand side by side with a fellow Black Southerner and a fellow Latino Southerner and a fellow Asian Southerner and all of us celebrate and honor the same thing or idea or whatever, then will I.” Well hate to break it to ya but Slavery has never been abolished its been redistributed the 13th Amendment allows the Government to enslave people as punishment for crime. As for Legal Private Chattel Slavery that was outlawed, but yet Slavery persists by other means in the United States. As far as racial amalgamation the facts are this, A great portion of united States citizens are descendants of racial amalgamation because of Colonial Slavery. This includes Anglo-Africans, Hispanics and Asians. The Civil War was not caused by Slavery, Confederates did not fight for Slavery but against it from being Slaves to the US Government as they viewed their rights were being ripped from them. Robert E. Lee said the latter.

    • Rock C, did those valleys hold folks from different ancestories? ie, Scots vs English?

  13. Obama thinks we should!

  14. Amen. I couldn’t agree more. The war wasn’t about slavery, it was about states wanted to govern themselves. Yes slavery was a issue, but the men and boys who fought in the war didn’t own slaves they fought for there freedom and honor of family and country. Yes they should be remembered also on Memorial Day

  15. Robert J. Sciascia Reply May 26, 2019 at 11:19 am

    Would you give your Life? No Internet Cable News, Just being told the North is comming South,take your Home, Farm,Kill your Family YOU don’t Have SLAVES you can’t Read, Just being told Do or Die YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND, WHAT WOULD YOU DO…??? MAYBE NOT HERO’S BUT A FATHER OF YOUR HOME. WHAT TO DO.

  16. Mitchell S. Kant Reply May 26, 2019 at 12:21 pm

    To me, Memorial Day means, Honoring all of our American Fallen Soldiers (both Union, Confederate and all others)! They were all American Soldiers! I’ll continue to Honor all of them!!!

  17. One never thinks of the other side and it affected those individuals families. Anyone who dies for their country is a hero regardless on what side. I think they should put the statues back in their respective place.

  18. Of course, it’s honorable to recognize the Confederate dead… Why not? The idea for Memorial Day came from women in Columbus MS that would go to Friendship Cemetery and place flowers on the graves of Confederate and Union soldiers that were buried there.

    I have relatives that fought on both sides… some made it back home… some didn’t.

  19. I see no valid reason to even discuss this ridiculous question. To do so grants this question a scintilla of legitimacy of which it does not deserve. Any American may choose to honor ANYONE OR ANYTHING of their own doing if not infringing any other’s rights, NOT their feelings.. It’s not even open to discussion, permissions or questionings. Go pound sand those that think otherwise.

  20. Please look at Public Law 85-425 pdf

    It clearly states that the U.S. Government shall recognize all members of the Confederate Forces as U.S. veterans and they are entitled to all benefits as the same.

  21. For me, the real question is whether we should be honoring yankee invaders and occupiers? They burned my great-grandparents house and stole the family silver and livestock, despite the fact that they owned no slaves, nor fought in the war.

  22. Sir , A very good read . Well thought and written . I totally agree.

  23. Yrs

  24. Karl Burkhalter Reply May 26, 2019 at 4:56 pm

    If you can honor the murderous, barbaric Army of Conquest that instituted genocide against Native Americans, burned homes and crops, stole cotton and violated the Usages of War, them we can honor the Christian Soldiers who tried to stop them.

  25. Southern Soldiers as terrorists? How many northern states were invaded by Confederate soldiers? All the cities, towns, villages…. in the south were distroyed. How many northern women were raped and killed… how many were left homeless? The Yankees committed atrocities and war crimes against innocent women and children. If anything is done by me to honor northern soldiers, it will be to piss on their graves.

  26. Confederates were also STILL Americans. They need to be honored. They were soldiers and fought for what they believed in.

  27. My forebears fought for the CSA and were deemed deserters. West Virginia seceded from Virginia and was admitted to the Union on June 20, 1863. Many young Southern men left the CSA at that time!

  28. All deserve respect north.. south..all died for a cause they were told was justified.been to Gettysburg. Seen were picket charge was what kind of man walked across that field .knowing he had a 80. To 90% chance of getting killed. I say God bless all military .. From a Ohio Yankee married to a women from Savannah mother in law is part Indian…

  29. Phyllis Brunsman Reply May 26, 2019 at 8:08 pm

    Being a great great granddaughter of a Confederate soldier I’m not a bit ashamed of his service. What does bother is due to a war injury he ended in tha state run hell hole and then was buried as a pauper.And his wife was notified by mail almost a month later. Your article was very good.

  30. Thank you……I feel the same way.

  31. Duncan MacQueen Reply May 26, 2019 at 8:49 pm

    When the war was over, the Confederate veterans were recognised by the Federal Government as bonafide U.S. military veterans and those incapacitated were paid a pension.

    If they could accept southern veterans as brothers and fellow Americans while memories were fresh, who are we to re-think it some 150 years later?

    We were all brothers. As adolescent brothers, we had a major fight, then made up. Now 150+ years later, our great grand kids are reopening the wounds and making it something it wasn’t.

  32. Yes is ok to honor any of this country’s war dead no matter what side you were on or what War and anyone that served this great country

  33. Very well thought out. I agree 100%.

  34. Good article, thank you for posting it.
    I truly love our southern heritage, and deeply regret that so many in this generation are so misinformed about the truth .

  35. Memorial Day was set aside to honor soldiers who died in war. I have never heard of anyone sorting through the various “wars” deciding which were to be honored and which would not! they all were serving their country.

  36. Monuments are needed history is the arbiter of truth,
    The honorable dead sleep on no longer pursuing or being pursued
    He did not himself create the danger he sought to avoid, lincoln never ceased to engage in the prohibited conduct as soon as the danger passed, the union left the fort Sumner in the middle of the channel able to blockade several southern ports, the harm sought to avoid outweighs the prohibited conduct by our union of sovereign southern states, lincoln had reasonable alternatives and
    proper channels could have been found, the sovereign and moral people of America could always rely on guides and our southern culture is honorably represented and pledge a form of a just government as per our Declaration of Independence, our solemn pledge to our Lives, Fortunes and Sacred Honor, civil society is created by individuals in a social contract, a mutal pledge,
    but growth and prosperity and social progress of southern agricultural vs northern industrialization where capital loss predominate, thats a externality problem, the north subsided with heavy tariffs on the agriculture on the south trading with France and Great Britain, and the logic and proportion in dispersion of public good was not realized by sovereign citizens in the south, lincoln the emperor divine was a law giver, and the implication being he could exercise all three functions of government, delaware and new jersey and ohio…all had slavery, he didn’t invade any state in the north,
    The south never had a peaceful transfer of power then and what we are experiencing now, in becoming a culture desert in the pursuit of happiness

  37. They were all Americans who fought in the Civil War, they should all be remembered this day.

  38. Congress passed bill making ALL confederate soldiers a part of u.s military. Therefore to be honored as much as any other veteran

  39. Thank you, I’ve tried to make the same argument for years only to have it fall on deaf ears.

  40. I do NOT condone slavery, no more than I believe that Slavery was the deciding and sole reason for the Atrocity called the “Civil”?? war! There are and always will be debatable facts on the reasons behind this terrible conflict that claimed the lives of so many AMERICANS. Regrettable, to say the least!😢

  41. As a reenactor for the 97th Pennsyvania, Co. A, for 25 years I have an opinion. One of the things that brought me to reenact was the sharing of information both North and South. I developed friends in Confederate units. We talked and shared the things we had learned or were in the process of learning. It is important that we do this and study this pivotal time in our country’s history. This war between the states made us the country that we are today. A great man once said that “if we do not know our history , we are going to repeat it!” Our children are not learning the US history that I learned, if they are learning any history at all. They are learning a Politically Correct version. That is one of the many reasons we are in this mess we live in now. An example: I was at the Brooksville Raid in Florida. I was in full Union Uniform standing next to a period US flag. I was approached by a middle schooler and his parents. They asked me what side of the war I was on. Neither the student nor the parents knew because they had not been taught US history. Recently, my grand daughter’s boyfriend told me he would like to go to the Brooksville Raid in January. He said that he wanted to participate. I questioned him to see what he knew and did not know. I found that he knew very little. I told him that I would take him when he learned about the Civil War. I recommended “BATTLE CRY OF FREEDOM” by James McPherson an excellent overview of the war and the reasons for it. As of this date, he has not read it or made the effort. As a country we are in trouble if we do not study our past.

  42. Very well written, informative and factual. Remember those that fought for the Confederates were Americans too and need to be respected and remembered too.

  43. Very well written, informative and factual. Remember those that fought for the Confederates were Americans too and need to be respected and remembered too.

  44. Read the book. “The South Was Right” by John Kennedy. Eye opener.

  45. I believe it is right to honor them! We must remember this war was like no other. We were ALL Americans this war was an internal struggle amongst, to all intents and purposes with our family. It was dumb, to put it simply but like all family fights we each were passionate about our beliefs. If the “leaders” of our families had sat down as “adults” instead of “hot headed children” we might have been able to work things out without fighting and murderous devastation. Think about it! It is just like fighting with our siblings over a favorite toy!
    Why should one side be more right than the other. We both had our good sides and bad; we were both blatantly opinionated in our beliefs; with greed and prejudice in abundance on both sides for a variety of reasons.
    We just hadn’t been able to express it in an amicable way since there was no neutral party to negotiate and mend the dispute.

  46. It wasn’t as much about slavery as States ruling themselves and less federal government control. If only more people had paid attention in high school history classes, huh? The southern solders are now recognized as American solders. What was the question ????

  47. From a poor Southern boy transplanted to Illinois. May God bestow many of his blessings to my southern brethren. I do and will continue to fly my confederate flag along side the American and POW-MIA daily.
    Long live the south.!!!!!!!

  48. We spent Memorial Day at the D-Day Memorial. As we looked for the stones of our fathers we found names from the Civil War. I think they most assuredly should be remembered with the same respect as all who gave their life for this great country.

  49. Great commentary

  50. it is proper to honor all dead, especially soldiers

  51. Abraham Lincoln honored both Union and Confederate soldiers.

  52. Honoring CSA war dead is appropriate. We are admonished in the Good Book to “…honor our fathers…”
    All my 1812, WWI and Civil War Union Army ancestors came home.
    On Memorial Day I fly The Betsy Ross, The Blood-Stained Banner and the 48 Star American flags to honor those in my family who did not return from the Revolution, Civil and WWII wars.
    LTC, USA (Ret.)


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