Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Confederate Memorial Day

Confederate Memorial Day (CMD) is observed on April 26 each year here in the state of Georgia because that was the date in 1865 on which Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston, who was charged with the defense of Georgia, surrendered to Union General William T. Sherman. The “holiday” isn’t much of one; it doesn’t get a lot of attention among the population at large and it certainly doesn’t get much attention in the media. Georgia state offices were closed on Monday in recognition of the day.

I remember one observance of CMD. I was a student at Gordon Grammar School in Barnesville, Georgia; the school was named for Confederate General John B. Gordon. The teachers marched us outside one day so we could watch the Confederate Memorial Day parade. I’m sure that I was glad to be outside on a nice spring day; other than that I recall nothing of the event.

One observance of CMD this year did make the news. Former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes, who was voted out of office after he removed the Confederate battle flag emblem from the Georgia state flag in 2001 (I’m sure that wasn’t the only reason but I’m also sure it didn’t help him any), spoke at an observance at Oakland Cemetery in downtown Atlanta, where some 3000 Confederate dead, including five generals, are buried. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution story on the event quoted Gov. Barnes as explaining his flag decision by saying, "I didn't think a flag that had been appropriated by some groups for the wrong purposes should be the symbol of our state.”

I agree with Gov. Barnes’ reasoning. Given that the Confederate battle flag has such negative connotations associated with it and given that it evokes such painful images for so many in our state’s population, removing that emblem was the right thing to do.

Besides, I feel no particular allegiance to the Confederacy.

A few years ago a very fine lady of our acquaintance paid to have a new headstone placed on the grave of her grandfather, a Confederate veteran. She arranged for a very nice ceremony featuring some re-enactors from the Sons of Confederate Veterans. We were handed a program when we arrived for the ceremony. The program said that we would recite the pledge to the flag of the Confederate States of America as well as the pledge to the flag of the United States of America. Debra asked me if I was going to say the pledge to the CSA flag. “No,” I replied, “because I am not now nor have I ever been a citizen of the Confederate States of America.” To my way of thinking, pledging allegiance to that flag made even less sense than pledging allegiance to the flag of an existing country of which I am not a citizen; the CSA doesn’t even exist any more.

Someone might respond, “Yes, but that flag once flew over Georgia.” True, but as I learned from going to Six Flags Over Georgia in the early days of that park when they still emphasized what the term “Six Flags” referred to, so did the flags of Great Britain, France, and Spain. I won’t pledge allegiance to those, either, because I have no national allegiance to them. I respect and appreciate the heritage of those great nations, but I have no allegiance to pledge to their flags.

I say all of this as someone who has some pretty serious Confederate credentials. According to tradition, one of my ancestors, Edmund Ruffin, fired the first shot on Fort Sumter. Now, I admit that some revisionist historians dispute that claim, but, being a Ruffin, I’ll go with the tradition. Besides, why let “facts” ruin a good story?

Still, there is another side to all of this, namely, the fact that the Confederacy is a part of our state and national history.

Is it possible to celebrate Southern heritage—warts and all—without inappropriately giving vent to prejudice? I realize that an idealization of the antebellum South is dangerous and misguided. Things aren’t like they used to be—and they never were. The holding of human beings as property was a blight on our society as is the continued prejudice and bigotry that is practiced in our nation. And it is true that many people who idolize the Confederacy and who fly the Stars and Bars have a hateful agenda that Christians and all people of good will should repudiate.

But that is not universally so. There are those who acknowledge the wrongness of the cause that was championed by the Confederacy and the wrongness of those who use the symbols of the Confederacy to promote a racist agenda but who nonetheless desire to accept Confederate heritage and to honor those who in good conscience and with strong commitment gave their lives in defense of a misguided cause.

Is that not how we should deal with American heritage, as well—that is, should we not celebrate it, warts and all, without inappropriately giving vent to a narrow-minded nationalism? Should not we be mature enough to celebrate America without closing our eyes to our imperfections and failures? We have made mistakes. We do make mistakes. We do not always live up to our highest ideals. We love America but we love America as it really is, not as we would like it to be and not as we pretend that it is.

When we celebrate Memorial Day, we should not differentiate between those who fought as members of our Armed Forces for “just” causes and those who fought for “unjust” causes. There are those among us who would say that all wars are unjust. There are those among us who would say that no American war has ever been unjust. There are those among us who would say that our involvement in the present Iraq War will prove to be an unjust cause and there are those hold a different position. But, when it comes to appreciating and honoring our veterans and particularly those who have given their lives in service to our country, what we appreciate and celebrate is their loyalty and devotion and honor.

Perhaps honoring our Confederate dead can serve the purpose of reminding us of that. The cause was unjust, but that does not make their service dishonorable.

For what it’s worth, here’s my opinion on Confederate Memorial Day: I think that it should no longer be observed. Why? Because we are one country and we only need one Memorial Day. But I also think that when we celebrate our national Memorial Day, it should be made clear that all American service people who died in all American Armed Forces—including the Confederate army—are being honored.

That’s what this descendant of Edmund Ruffin thinks.