Silencing Sam

The headline on the front page of the Monday edition of The News & Observer was “New perspectives mark Civil War anniversary.” The story described how North Carolina wants to tell us about the war by including everyone and every issue that was involved during the 150th anniversary events planned for the next several years.

Some organizations, such as the N.C. War Between the States Sesquicentennial Commission cited in the N&O story, just want to focus on personalities (read: noble Southern freedom-loving white males) and gloss over the root causes.

The commission’s website states its purpose as “to advance a clear, unbiased history of North Carolina’s role during America’s War Between the States, 1861-1865. Avoiding a social and class perspective and concentrating on the leaders, people, politics, heroic sacrifices and wartime suffering, this website will provide a more telling story of why North Carolinians were ‘forced out of the Union,’ and pursued self-determination and political independence for a second time in 85 years.”

Now, anybody who uses “forced out of the Union” and “unbiased” in the same declaration is either kidding or hasn’t developed a very good sense of irony. Just as someone saying it was treason for former slaves in North Carolina to take up arms against the state while proclaiming that the Confederacy was justified to do the same. But that is exactly what Bernhard Thuersam, an amateur historian from Wilmington and head of the N.C. War Between the States Sesquicentennial Commission, said in the N&O article: “They [freed slaves who joined the Union army] were committing treason against the legal government of the state and killing North Carolinians.”

Thuersam believes planned state observances, symposia and state websites lean too much to revisionist thinking about the war and the South. He obviously is of the stripe that believes the conflict doesn’t sound so bad when people refer to it as a “war between the states” instead of a “civil war.”

On the group’s website at ncwbts150.com, you’ll find an introduction written by Clyde N. Wilson, a professor emeritus of history at the University of South Carolina and an ideologue of the neo-Confederate movement. According to the Southern Poverty Review, Wilson told Gentleman’s Quarterly in 1998 that “we don’t want the federal government telling us what to do, pushing integration down our throats. … We’re tired of carpetbagging professionals coming to our campuses and teaching that the South is a cultural wasteland.”

And, yes, that’s the same Clyde N. Wilson who referred to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as “the second Reconstruction of the South.”

Neo-Confederates believe in honoring the Confederacy, its veterans and Southern cultural identity. While they are careful not to defend slavery, they deny it as the primary cause of the war. Many support public displays of Christian symbols and unabashedly oppose illegal immigration. Some support a re-secession of the South, but while they don’t advocate a violent secession, they would like to see something along the lines of the breakup of the Soviet empire and its states.

They especially don’t want anyone interpreting history in a way that would blame the South for the death, destruction and upheaval the region brought upon the nation by its obduracy and recklessness. They are opposed to what they call “revisionist” history that would place slavery as a root cause of the war.

Of course, for Chapel Hillians these things always come around to the statue on campus that celebrates the Confederate dead who were students at UNC. I see no reason why Silent Sam shouldn’t be moved or even abolished. It is a monument to UNC graduates who were traitors to the nation. It is a monument to a segment of those who fought and does not acknowledge the sacrifice of all participants in the fight. Why not observe the sesquicentennial by celebrating its removal?

If folks want to dress up in gray uniforms and antebellum dresses and parade around as if it were 1860 all over again, they can do that. But when they start traveling down the path advocated by the neo-Confederates, they do a disservice to all of us.
–Don Evans

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13 Comments

  1. Thank you for writing about this.

    I only disagree on one point: Silent Sam should remain, but as some of our young people told us on Sept 1st, we should talk about what the statue truly represents. If the statue goes, so goes important memory.

  2. Nancy Oates

     /  January 8, 2012

    I agreed with you, George, until Don pointed out that the statue was erected in 1912, a time when the KKK was in resurgence and many racial issues were coming to a boil. In the mid-1890s, for instance, separate but equal was the law of the land. Learning that made me reconsider: maybe the appearance of Silent Sam was not as altruistic as it seems.

  3. T. A. Davenport

     /  January 9, 2012

    It wasn’t until many years after the CW that many of these monuments were erected. Initially they were placed in cemetaries, etc. by families of the fallen, but began to appear in earnest when well-funded groups, some with political agendas, raised them in much more public spaces–like University property, town centers, etc. And while that may seem suspect by many today, it is still a part of our collective history. It is dangerous and short sighted to erase our landscape of historical landmarks–no matter how offensive they may be by today’s standards. Note to Don: please be aware that while many CW re-enactors have neo conservative agendas, not all do. Many weekend-re-enactors who don the grey wool are just as ready to put on the blue when needed so as to give a complete re-telling.
    The neo-cons give those who wish to bring history alive at historical sites across the south a very distorted name.

    The CW will be remembered with historical accuracy by many reputable organizations between now and 2015 because it is important that we do so as a society. Check out the full slate of programs, exhibits, and community outreach activities by NC Dept. of Cultural Resources, to start with. And while CH shows no interest in the role that CH played in that important chapter of American history, many other regional orgs will be doing a great job reminding us of a past that is both unpleasant and fundamental to who we are as a nation today.

  4. Mitchell Flinchum

     /  February 5, 2012

    Mr Evans is confused on several points. I am sure that I will not be able to convince him that his argument is flawed, but I feel it is important to point out items that are incorrect or incomplete in order that readers be able to make educated and unbaised decisions about exactly what they believe.

    1. Priior to 1865 there was no such thing as a citizen of the United States. The reconstruction amendments changed the residence of soveriegnty from the states to the federal government. Prior to that the states were sovereign. A citizen of a state would have shown loyalty to said state by siding with the national government that state viewed as legitimate in the conflict of 1861 to 1865.

    2. This conflict was not a civil war. By definition a civli war is when two or more factions fight for control of one government. The Southern states did not wish to overthrow the existing federal government. They simply wished to end THEIR association with it.

    3. What does being unashamed of Christian symbols and supporting the rule of law as applied to immigration have to do with this article? Are you sir stating that by implication Southerners that take a view supporting the position that the South may have had the right to end their association with the existing federal government are necessarily intolerant and bigoted as well? I believe that the characteristics of race, religion, political ideology, regional and national origin are mutually exclusive.

    4. Since when is holding any government to its constitutional mandate unpatriotic?

    5. Explain how the South is responsible for the death of 620,000 soldiers and untold civilian deaths when it was Mr. Lincoln that invaded the Southern states. This act was unconstitutional in and of itself. Lest you cite the incident at Fort Sumter, this was the property of the sovereign state of South Carolina. Entire volumns have been written about why this “reprovisioning” by the federal government was illegal and I will not try to recap it here for brevity’s sake.

    6. Chapel Hill students that fought on the side of the South were patriots to their state and not traitors for the same reason I have stated above. I suppose that England still sees her revolting colonists as traitors, but we see them as patriots for winning their and our freedom. In that revolution we fought for government by consent of the governed. If you believe the revolution was a just war, then by extension our so called civil war was also a just war. Remember also that the victor writes the history.

    7. Painting anyone that wishes to tell the whole truth about that conflict with the slur of neoconfederate does nothing to encourage dialogue and honest discourse. Again, those wishing to hold any government to it’s constitutional mandates and limits does not automatically make that person some type of racist. In addition, anyone that is racist does not automatically become an advocate for small, constitutional government. You paint with a broad brush in an attempt to change the focus of the issues.

    Sir, I could also bring up to you Lincoln’s own words regarding slavery and people of color, his disregard of the constitution, the financial situation of the federal government, war crimes comitted by union soldiers on white and black alike, and many other items. I will not because I know that you do not really care to know, underatand, or to make a reasoned factual argument. If you care to sharpen your skills, the material is readily available I suggest you read some of the content on web site you mentioned.

  5. Don Evans

     /  February 5, 2012

    Well, Mitch, it took a civil war to get the nation to the point where we decided it might be a good idea to define citizenship. The 14th Amendment did that. But everyone who participated in a town meeting and decided about how a community would be run was a de facto “citizen.” Your argument here is sophistry.

    As far as definitions go, my Webster’s defines “civil war” as “a war between different sections or parties of the same country or nation.” Not sure what dictionary you are using, but you might want to update.

    As for the law, the South interpreted the law in a different way than the North did. There are certainly different views of law, but in this case the nation’s “trial” ascertained what the law would be thenceforward and the South lost its case.

    Actually, the history of the civil war was written more by Southerners than anyone else. That’s because there was a lot of self-justification that needed to be done by the South for its disastrous folly and incredible waste. Dabney Maury and the Southern Historical Society did their best to define the conflict and their moral failure to their advantage. And plenty of folks, mostly Southerners, have been revisiting that self-justification ever since.

    The best result of the civil war was it took care of unfinished business, such as defining what a citizen is and making it clear that the states stand together in a union. Lincoln’s insight into that necessity led to his crowning accomplishment of keeping the states together and preserving the Constitution as well as setting us on a course to make it more inclusive.

    As for the statue on the UNC campus, I can’t see that it does any good. It was raised at a time of resurgent racism and it was one result of that need by some in the South to justify a very bad ancestral decision, not to honor some students who died in a pointless rebellion. I say it’s an embarrassment and we should get rid of it.

    Yeah, Mitch, you’re probably not going to sway me to your way of thinking because that way could be seen by some as self-deluded. I have plenty of other delusions that get me through the day, but that ain’t one of them. And don’t forget that Northerners were not the only ones who committed war crimes — I’m thinking Andersonville and Fort Pillow here, just for starters. But the biggest war crime all is to continue to try to justify and glorify an evil system that was quite deservedly brought down.

  6. Talbot

     /  February 5, 2012

    Interesting topic and comments. Regarding citizenship, we are citizens of the State we reside in and voting qualifications are regulated by each State. This is as the Founders established it no matter what we want to believe today.
    The 14th Amendment is mentioned above though it was not constitutionally ratified by the requisite number of States — look at its origins and see that it was illegally enacted, not ratified, and is a nullity.
    On the term “civil war,” it is waged for control of the government in one country — the South departed and formed its own. The American Revolution was a “civil war.” And Buchanan admitted that though he didnt recognize State secession, he was powerless to stop a State from withdrawing from the fraternal Union. He wouldnt kill his own people.
    On treason, look at the Constitution to see that it is committed against “them,” the States, not “it,” the United States. Those that fought against the State of North Carolina committed treason, those that fought in her defense were patriots.
    As for war crimes, Andersonville and Fort Pillow would not have occured had the North let Americans in the South go in peace, and a million lives would not have perished. The South then would have been free to work for slavery’s end, just as the North had done without a war.

  7. Don Evans

     /  February 6, 2012

    All this factual niggling and wriggling just to support a morally bankrupt political movement! The Confederacy had its day, and thankfully that was short. But people sure go to great lengths to come up with all sorts of justifications for the lapses or immoral actions of their ancestors. That’s what we have here.

    Before you know it, we’ll have some modern-day neo-confederates extolling, as some secessionists in 1860 did, the “moral, social and political blessing” of slavery.

    Check out the Articles of Secession issues by Georgia and Alabama. Those states decided that the ultimate goal of secession was to protect the institution of slavery. States rights was a bit farther down the list and really didn’t some up until it was politically expedient to try to convince France and Great Britain to recognize the Confederacy (which they never did, by the way, because of the slavery issue).

    Even the debate over slavery in the Southern states as they argued the details of a Confederate constitution was split between those who wanted to maintain slavery as it was and those who would open the South to renewed slave imports. And some folks still maintain a worshipful look back at the Southern lifestyle, manners and political system? Spare me.

    And I won’t even go into the acts of North Carolina “citizens” storming federal arsenals and taking over federal military sites such as the Fayetteville Arsenal. So that was not treason?

    You can whitewash the true cause of the war — slavery — all you want if it makes your conscience go a little easier. But all this after-the-fact rationalization doesn’t obscure the fact that we are better off disavowing the Southern Experiment and what it stood for.

  8. Talbot

     /  February 6, 2012

    The niggling and wriggling helps us understand the what’s and why’s of then — and how we arrived at where we are today — and how we should view the past.
    If you are going to claim that the existence of African slavery made the pursuit of independence by the South “morally bankrupt,” then you have to hold the same about the revolutionists in 1776 as they arrived at independence with slavery intact. It doesnt matter what the reason for States withdrawing from the Union then or today, it is the essence of Jefferson’s Declaration that a State may choose to depart it is wishes — if you cannot leave then you are not free.
    With respect to Silent Sam and the brave Chapel Hill students he represents, remember that NC did not withdraw until after a sitting president had blockaded our coast on April 27, an act of war, and in response to that president seeking NC troops to invade South Carolina.
    On treason and what constitutes it, see the Constitution. The Fayetteville Arsenal existed for the purpose of defending North Carolina, and like the coastal forts was built for the protection of our State.
    Treason was blockading our coast and a president demanding troops to wage war upon South Carolina — another act of treason as defined by the Constitution.
    The Constitution gives a president no such power to wage war upon his own people, and hat’s off to Chapel Hill students who recognized a despotic president when they saw one. We must hope that today’s Chapel Hill students and residents will respond in like manner.

  9. Mitch Flinchum

     /  February 6, 2012

    Sir:

    I grant that man of the deep South states cited the protection of slavery as reason for secession. North Carolina took a vote on that question and rejected secession, but after Lincoln called for her to provide troops to quell South Carolina, she decided to leave. It was her right as a sovereign state. State was synonymous with nation at the time. She joined the union freely. The Constitution was ratified by delegates elected by the citizens of the state. The secession vote was conducted in the same way. The citizens elected delegates that voted to repeal the ratification. This was about as legal as you could get. North Carolina was never property of the United States, and the federal government was never a party to the constitution. The federal government was an agent of the states with limited enumerated powers.

    Mr. Lincoln stated several years prior to becoming president that any people anywhere desiring to do so could throw off the bonds and establish one that suited them better, and take with them all such property as they should inhabit. Later he changed his mind on this.

    I also know that Lincoln was not a friend of the black man. He offered the Southern states the original 13th amendment explicitly preserving slavery if only they would come back into the union. He offered the emancipation proclamation solely to keep France and England from recognizing and aiding the Confederacy. Here again, you have realize that even the most rabid abolitionist in 1860 may have hated slavery, but was no champion of equality. Free blacks had many more rights in North Carolina and Virginia than the had any where else. If you want examples I can cite the northern states where black folks were not allowed to vote, own property, reside, accuse a white person in court, etc.

    But I digress. That war was about money. The export of cotton and the tariffs produced by trade funded the federal government. Without the South the industry of the North would have been crippled. There are excellent books written on this subject by several prominent Northern professors of economics so I will not attempt to go into more detail here. I will say that for all the money the federal government borrowed at the time to beat the South into submission, it could have purchased every slave in the country several times over.

    I really don’t enjoy the niggling and wriggling so much as you put it, but none of the arguments put up by either side of this issue are ever complete in a forum such as this. You have to write way too much to counter all the arguments and then you sound like a sour grapes whiner.

    I’ve read quite a bit on the debates of the ratification of the constitution, the federalist and anti-federalist papers, history, and politics from the 1600’s to the present. The conclusions that I draw are that secession is legal, whatever the issue may be, that politics and politicians are the same regardless of the era, and that governments and men will go to any length to justify war.

    On the question of war crimes, President Davis never gave his approval for the regular army to make war on civilians in order to demoralize the enemy and shorten the war. Burning homes, stealing, raping women of all races…these seem to have happened at the hands of the union soldiers, with Lincoln’s approval.

    If you will notice, I have not tried to justify slavery. I don’t believe that is a system we should return to either. I also do not believe that slavery would exist today if we had never had a “civil war”. A war was not necessary to end it. It was dying around the world. It only goes to show that the federal government, indeed all governments, will go to any length to exert its authority. If we were truly free, then we should have been free to leave, and the north would have been free to institute a more centralized federal government free from all opposition.

  10. Talbot

     /  February 6, 2012

    Per Mr. Evans last paragraph, there is nothing in the foregoing that whitewahes slavery — it is true that many in the American South depised it but as Jefferson acknowledged, they had the wolf by the ears. Suffice it to blame the avarice of the British and the New Enlgand slave merchants of the 1700’s with populating the North and the South with African labor, but it makes no sense to blame it on the South. Per the “unfinished business,” the path of Constitutional amendment was always open and the abolitionists could have presented a practical and peaceful method of eradicating slavery, and without destroying the economic basis of the South, and one million precious lives. This is a question to ask today when as we are far from the emotions of that era. Yes slavery was gone after the war, but the slaves acquired new masters and used as political pawns by the victors against the people they had to live with daily. Look at the residue of that today.
    The secession ordinances (not NC) repsonded to the incessant agitation over slavery, and the fear of slave uprisings like John Brown’s being incited by the North. Self preservation and independence from a fanatical North was their goal, and the ability to deal with slavery in their own time. They would have stayed in the Union had this been peacefully addressed.

  11. Don Evans

     /  February 6, 2012

    Good to know that all the fanatics were either abolitionists or New England slave merchants or lazy Constitution writers or maybe those rascally British, damn their eyes! The South is without blemish in this whole affair, according to the Confederate apologists.

    This saintly South with its Edenic landscapes, wise secessionists, manly men and happy negroes was not responsible for anything but was rather pushed into all this destructive and amoral behavior by them bad Nawtheners. Very fetching.

  12. Mitch Flinchum

     /  February 6, 2012

    No the South is not without its share of warts. It would just be nice of you to acknowledge that the whole blame does not lie at her feet.

    The sarcasm is not appreciated. We would just like a fair debate without being dismissed as nothing short of flaming racists from the very start. As this was prompted by the lovely article from the News and Observer, let’s tell all sides of the story.

  13. Talbot

     /  February 6, 2012

    I know of the bad Northerners as I am from way up there, we of that era were not angels and the money spent to pay enlistment bounties, hire substitutes and mercenaries was simply astounding. I am no Confederate apologist, but slaves spirited away from the South could not linger in New York, and DuBois Niagara soiree had to be moved to Canada due to the rampant racism on this side of river.

    Again the question is begged: If the North was willing to cough up $8 billion to finance the war, bounties, pensions and the like, why didnt they buy the freedom of the 3.5 million slaves and end the disagreement peacefully? Why? Mr. Evans does not answer this query.

    To flail against those long dead and their views long ago because they are not like us today is insane. Think of future generations flailing against us for driving vehicles with internal combustion engines, not to mention murdering our unborn with impunity and sending women to their death in combat.
    How Edenic will CH look to those of the future, and will they see us as manly men?

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