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.

25 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.

  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.

  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”

  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.

  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.


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