On April 3, 1865, Richmond, Virginia, fell to Union soldiers as Confederate troops retreated to the West, exhausted, weak, and low on supplies. The end would come soon thereafter. On April 5, Generals Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant started an exchange of notes that would lead to Lee's surrender at Appomattox on April 9. As we approach this important anniversary, the time is upon us to consider, and ultimately reject, the sterilized myths of the Confederacy.
Southerners who claim a deep national pride celebrate their ancestors' efforts to dissolve the very union of states whose flag they now so proudly fly. They honor a campaign to destroy our country but claim the mantle of patriot. That makes no sense. The contradiction is always swept under the rug, but that must stop. Next year will mark the 150th anniversary of the war's first battle; that is a good time to close this chapter of hypocrisy and inconsistency. A southern loyalist cannot be a patriot; the two ideals are mutually incompatible. You cannot simultaneously love the United States and love the idea of destroying the United States. To claim both is insane, the equivalent of declaring that you love all Mexican food but hate enchiladas. The claims are each exclusive of the other and therefore by definition both cannot be true.
Let us take one issue off the table immediately. Certainly one can rightly honor the bravery of fallen soldiers no matter whether they wore blue or grey. We can appreciate the rare military genius of Robert E. Lee, and the loyalty and dedication of Stonewall Jackson, George Pickett and Nathan Forrest. These generals and the men they led fought valiantly, with integrity, with honor, for a cause in which they believed passionately. For this we owe them our deepest respect.
But honoring the man is not equivalent to honoring the cause for which he fought. The cause championed by the South should cover every American with shame. Have no doubt that the South was at war to dismantle our nation, to destroy our Constitution. For this goal of secession, of which nobody should be proud, more than 630,000 soldiers (some claim up to 700,000) were killed or wounded in four years of hellish war. To put this in perspective consider that the entire population of the United States at war's end was 35 million, putting war casualties at nearly 2% of the total populace. Equivalent rates of casualties today would result in 5 million dead or wounded, dwarfing our losses in World War II, or any other war.
Why did 2% of our population suffer death or maiming? Over the issue of state sovereignty and the interpretation of the Tenth Amendment (ratified in 1791). The text is simple enough: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." But we also have the Supremacy Clause of Article VI of the Constitution, which say, "This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding."
Simply put, 11 southern states seceded from the Union in protest against federal legislation that limited the expansion of slavery claiming that such legislation violated the tenth amendment, which they argued trumped the Supremacy Clause. The war was indeed about protecting the institution of slavery, but only as a specific case of a state's right to declare a federal law null and void.
The inherent tension between Article VI and the Tenth Amendment of the Constitution has kept lawyers busy and wealthy since our founding, and the argument goes on today. But the South went a significant step further than arguing a case. In seceding from the Union those states declared the U.S. Constitution dead. The president of the United States, sworn to uphold the Constitution, had no choice but to take whatever measures were necessary to fulfill his commitment. So war came.
So what exactly about that history would lead one to fly a Confederate flag over a state capitol building, or paste one on a F150 bumper or wear one on a T-shirt? Is the South proud of its efforts to protect slavery? Or attempting to destroy the United States through dissolution? For starting a war in which 2% of the population died? For losing the war? These are odd banners to carry around for nearly 150 years.
Perhaps the pride comes from the fact that the South stood up to a greater power, at least checking or slowing the pace of an expanding federalism. But even that does not pass the smell test; by starting but then losing the war the South created the exact opposite effect, solidifying federal power like never before.
But damn if the South does not hold on to the war as if they never actually lost, fighting incongruously for a hopeless cause of questionable value while simultaneously wrapping themselves in the American flag! So we get oddities like Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell proclaiming April "Confederate History Month" without ever mentioning slavery. When questioned about this curious oversight, McDonnell lamely explained that "there were any number of aspects to that conflict between the states. Obviously, it involved slavery. It involved other issues. But I focused on the ones I thought were most significant for Virginia." Really? If slavery was not among the most "significant" issues for Virginia, exactly what other state right was being violated by federal law leading to the Civil War? Does McDonnell even know the history of the war? Sadly, McDonnell is the not the first governor of his state to explicitly omit slavery from lofty declarations. Former Republican Virginia Governor Republican George Allen also failed to recognize slavery when making a similar proclamation. Seems to be a disease of Republican governors, a historic irony given the role of the young Republican Party in the war.
The South started and lost a war that nearly destroyed the United States in pursuit of a terrible cause. Let it go. Let. It. Go. You fought well but lost decisively. Your cause was unjust. Your actions were treasonous. There is no part of the Confederate cause of which to be proud. There is no moral high ground here. Waving the American flag while fiercely defending the effort to tear that flag down is untenable. Make a choice; be a proud American or a proud Confederate. You cannot possibly be both.