I love the South.
I also hate the South.
I am descended from at least thirteen ancestors who fought for the Confederacy during the American Civil War.
Many Americans outside the South, or recent transplants to the South, must be bewildered by the hold that the mythology of the Civil War seems to have on the white residents of “Dixie.”
It must seem strange that a demographic so often typified by fierce nationalism and (American) flag waving would also be enamored with a violent schism and assault upon that same flag.
For generations, white men across the South have been immersed in the legacy of the short-lived Confederate States of America. I was one of them.
I’m still immersed. It’s inescapable. As Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” It’s not as folksy as it sounds. By this he meant two things:
- Our lives do not exist in a context-less vacuum. All that we are is informed by all that we were. Our modern lives are lived in channels cut long ago by people long forgotten.
- We look to the past and re-imagine the past, to give meaning and direction to our present lives.
So it is with the Civil War.
Oh boy, this is going to be long.
North Carolina’s Reticence
North Carolina has long had an east/west divide, and this was also the case after Lincoln’s election, where “the population of North Carolinians living in the east was primarily in favor of secession and the population of North Carolinians in the west was primarily opposed, central North Carolinians were perhaps the most evenly divided” (“Civil War Era”).
South Carolina seceded from the union on 20 December 1860 and other states followed. By the time North Carolina decided to hold a vote on whether or not to have a convention to discuss secession, six more states had seceded. Only Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee remained loyal to the United States.
The vote on whether or not to hold a convention came and “when the February 28th  votes were tallied, the margin was razor thin, 47,323 to 46,672, but in the end, it was a victory for North Carolina’s Unionists” (“Civil War Era”). North Carolina narrowly refused to even hold a convention to debate secession.
The Fayetteville Observer ran this on 28 January 1861:
Primary source documents are consistent in showing that President Lincoln was dogged in his avowal that he was not out to abolish slavery. His inaugural address from 4 March 1861 is extremely conciliatory.
It was only after South Carolina began shelling federal positions at Fort Sumter in April 1861, and President Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to suppress the violent rebellion, that North Carolina decided to hold a convention on secession. It’s always seemed strange to me though that what pushed North Carolina into the war was abhorrence of the idea of fighting fellow southerners when those southerners, especially South Carolina, dragged the South into the fight.
By this time Virginia and Arkansas had seceded. At the convention and after some wrangling, “delegates then voted to join the Confederate States of America (CSA). They also voted, at the request of Governor Ellis, not to put the secession ordinance to a popular vote” (“Secession”). North Carolina seceded on 20 May 1861.
Unionist Resistance in North Carolina
Secession did not settle the matter for many North Carolinians. A robust resistance to the Confederacy continued throughout the conflict. The Confederate government approved conscription in 1862 and, for the first time in American history, men were forced from their homes into military service.
Resistance to the Confederacy took many forms.
According to the North Carolina Civil War and Reconstruction History Center, “Opposition during the War was so strong in Randolph [County] that Raleigh had to send troops to quell the unrest.” Actually, Randolph County has an interesting story worth reproducing here in full:
“On April 23rd, 1864, a posse of civilians and Confederate soldiers under the command of Colonel Alfred Pike of the Randolph County Home Guard accosted Mary [Owens] at a spring near her family’s farm on the Moore/Randolph line. Pike was looking for Mary’s husband William, who’d turned ‘outlier,’ or pro-Union guerilla. Incensed by the Confederate Government’s draconian conscription laws, ‘Captain’ Bill Owens took the hatred that so many small farmers felt towards the plantation gentry to a militant extreme, and for two years his outliers challenged the governments in Raleigh and Richmond for control of Randolph County.
Pike suspected that Owens, recently wounded in a skirmish with the ‘Secesh’ (as Unionists called Confederate loyalists) was recuperating in a hideout nearby. When Mary refused to tell him where, he slapped her baby out of her arms. Then his men beat her, dragged her across a rocky clearing, and hung her by her thumbs from a tree. When this failed to make her talk, they smashed her fingers between fence posts.
Sobbing in agony and threatened with rape, she revealed her injured husband’s hiding place and he was quickly captured and taken to the Asheboro jail. On September 29th, the Greensboro Patriot reported that he was transferred from the Randolph County jail to await trial in Pittsboro. It never happened. The presiding judge, like so many in the Piedmont, had Union sympathies and delayed the case. On April 15, 1865, a mob dragged Owens from the jail and lynched him” (“The Triad”).
Organized resistance came in the form of the “Heroes of America,” an underground guerrilla organization that was “composed mainly of deserters, draft dodgers, and Unionists as well as some slaves and free blacks” (HoA). The HoA worked to undermine Confederate authority as well as provide intelligence to federal forces.
The banditry of the Home Guard was not unknown to other parts of the state. A story from Surry County tells of one of my great-granduncles, who’d aged out of Confederate service, leading his guard to the home of a farmer who’d refused conscription. When the farmer tried to flee he was shot dead in front of his family.
There’s really so much to explore in North Carolina’s resistance to the Confederate cause: peace movements, the efforts of the Quakers, the bravery of men who decided to fight for the United States instead of for the South.
Toward the end of the war, Governor Vance wrote that “the great popular heart is not now and never has been in this war. It was a revolution of the politicians, not the people” (“The Triad”).
The Lost Cause Mythology
Our Southern memory of the Civil War was manufactured decades after the end of the conflict. Veterans returned to their farms and the families they’d often been forced to abandon. Federal troops occupied the South until 1877 when the Republicans and Democrats struck a deal to end Reconstruction.
For a new generation of Southerners, the children, and grandchildren of veterans, the South began to recover economically. An influx of capital from the north began to spin the wheels of industry once more.
Up until the 1880s, most Confederate memorials were on cemetery grounds. According to historian John Wineberry, a Southerner himself:
“The early twentieth century saw a number of political decisions that sought to stymie the potential political cooperation of poor white and poor black. I would argue that we could interpret the Confederate monument as a symbol that served these ends; the sentiments inscribed on it brought all whites together, rich or poor, for theirs was a common heritage. The memorial, therefore, symbolically drove a wedge between white and black, because the latter did not share those sentiments. Almost simultaneous with the raising of these monuments was the passage of measures denying the right to vote to blacks and later the ‘Jim Crow’ laws that officially segregated black and white. The landscape became littered with the symbols of segregation and of the political system that dominated the South for so long.”
After Reconstruction blacks still maintained some political power in the South due to the relative weakness of the Democratic Party. The monopoly that white landowners had on the farmland of the South also drove poor white and poor blacks toward a tenuous political union in the form of the Populist Party/Republican Party. Take a look at this chart: Confederate Monuments over Time
The increase in monuments coincides pretty well with the reassertion of white supremacy (in the literal, political sense) in the South. Segregation really didn’t become a part of the law until the late 1890s and early 1900s. Race lynching in the South peaked in 1892 but didn’t drop below 100 per year until 1902. The 1890s were a period of economic depression in which poor blacks and whites came closer to political fusion while lynching also increased. The uptick in the establishment of these monuments along with the implementation of voter suppression and Jim Crow laws in the early 1900s seems to be an attempt at forever shutting the door on such racial cooperation in the South.
The rise of the white supremacist movement during this time was also overtly political. The re-establishment of “white supremacy” became a platform for politicians seeking to retake control from fusion governments:
This was most graphically represented in the overthrow of the city government of Wilmington on 10 November 1898. The black population of the city has never fully recovered its pre-coup proportions because of the mass exodus following the event and its attendant violence.
For me, Confederate monuments are not symbols of remembrance or memorial but symbols of reminder:
1) to remind Southern whites (rich and poor) of their common heritage
2) to remind Southern blacks of their place within the political, economic, and social structure
From the 1870s to the 1970s, the South as an entirely different place from the nation in which it existed. It was a place where white supremacy held sway first with the Democratic Party and, after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, with the Republican Party. The Ku Klux Klan adopted the Confederacy as its heritage and held blacks and their white allies in check for almost a century.
I rode to Raleigh in February on a bus with the Fayetteville NAACP for the Moral March. Much of the time was spent going over the itinerary, joking, making impromptu speeches, and singing. Yet as we moved up I-95 in Cumberland County I could feel my fellow passengers becoming tense. The roar of the engine became more obvious as an almost funereal grief settled on everyone.
“Here it comes,” one of them muttered.
A few people sighed and I remembered then what was coming.
On an almost empty lot of cleared land beside the interstate flies a massive Confederate battle flag atop an incredibly tall flagpole. It’s part of an initiative by the NC Sons of Confederate Veterans.
I was one of only a handful of white people on the bus, and one of only two white men. Descended from Confederate veterans. Riding a bus with descendants of slaves. Past a massive symbol of slavery. On the way to the capital city of North Carolina to protest, among other things, a state government that has recently worked to explicitly disenfranchise black voters.
Faulkner was right.
Other Works Cited
Leib, Jonathan and Gerald R. Webster. “On Remembering John Winberry and the Study of Confederate Monuments on the Southern Landscape.” Southeastern Geographer, no. 1, 2015, p. 9. EBSCOhost.
Wineberry, John. “‘Lest We Forget’: The Confederate Monument and the Southern Townscape.” Southeastern Geographer, no. 1, 2015, p. 19. EBSCOhost.