Everybody has an opinion about whether the Confederate flag is good or bad. They’re all dug in. Some are certain it’s racist and the very signature of evil. Others say it’s purely an expression of Southern pride and reverence for ancestors who fought and died a long time ago. Some of them have devoted careers and personal reputations to these propositions. A newspaper column is not going to change any minds.
The Civil War is a big bagful of ironies and paradoxes, and not a recommended study for folks who like to keep things simple. It would be a particular challenge for anyone to survive the 1860s in Knoxville and either idealize one side or demonize the other. It took a later generation, one that didn’t remember the war, to glorify it.
I do want to point out something provable. Whether the Confederate flag is an irredeemably racist and oppressive symbol or not, the Confederacy is not “the South.” It is not “the South now,” certainly. It was not even “the South” in 1861. The conflation of the Confederacy with “the South” began, I suspect, as some tired editor’s attempt to make a headline fit.
People of European and African ancestry have been living in the South for 400 years. The Confederacy lasted for four years, about 1 percent of that time. And even during that 1 percent, a large proportion of the people who lived in the South—perhaps even a majority—were skeptical of the Confederacy.
The Confederacy was a brief experiment in a cobbled-together government offering more power to the states than the U.S. Constitution allowed, to judge by its Constitution, and with much firmer protection for the perpetuation of slavery. The Confederacy existed only during a desperate and costly war. You would not expect it to be a very efficient organization, and it was not.
The Confederacy was not universally popular, even in the South. It would be difficult to prove that as much as half the people who lived in the South in 1861 were fond of the Confederacy. Sam Houston, who grew up in East Tennessee and spent his entire life in the South—except when he was in D.C., representing Southern states in Congress—despised the Confederacy and denounced it publicly. David Glasgow Farragut and Gen. William Sanders—whose last names survive in multiple institutions in Knox County—both grew up in the South and fought against the Confederacy. Sanders, who’d spent most of his life in Kentucky and Mississippi, was killed by Confederate bullets. Several of Knoxville’s fiercest Unionists, Parson W.G. Brownlow, William Rule, and Thomas Humes, were lifelong Southerners.
It might take years to do a thorough study on the subject, but judging by what we know of those who favored secessionism or the Union, here in East Tennessee at least, Confederate sympathies didn’t necessarily suggest Southern roots. Many of Knoxville’s notable Confederates were immigrants from Switzerland, Germany, or Ireland. John Mitchel, probably Knoxville’s most nationally famous secessionist—editor of The Southern Citizen, which advocated slavery—was an Irish revolutionary Unitarian who’d spent several years in prison in Tasmania and never laid eyes on the South until 1853. J.G.M. Ramsey, the secessionist most influential locally, was from a Pennsylvania family. Father Abram Ryan, Knoxville’s “Poet-Priest of the Confederacy,” grew up in Maryland and Missouri, son of Irish immigrants. Thousands of New Yorkers, many of whom had never seen the South, were Confederate sympathizers.
Meanwhile, many of Knoxville’s Unionists grew up in multi-generational Tennessee families. Did Southern heritage even play a role in affiliation with the Confederacy? Here in Knoxville, a demographic study might even prove the opposite. Maybe it was the people with the deepest roots here who were most skeptical of the noisy rebel bandwagon.
In any case, in 1861 more than 30 percent of Tennessee’s Southerners voted against secession, against joining the Confederacy. Well over 30,000 Tennesseans took up arms against the Confederacy.
Those were the white males, of course. They’re the ones who could vote and enlist. In fact, all the people I’ve discussed so far were white males. We don’t often know what women thought. They weren’t allowed to vote, here or in the North. Some women were fierce believers, there’s no question. Locally, Ellen Renshaw House, a 19-year-old Knoxvillian, left a scathing diary about Union occupation, published as A Very Violent Rebel. And I do know of some cases here in which the husband was a Unionist but the wife was a Confederate. But a lot of the rhetoric of 1861 was about manliness, and it’s hard to know how much of that motive translated to those Southerners lacking a Y chromosome. We know from letters that a lot of other women were tired of the whole foolishness and praying the war would be over soon.
And we can’t assume that most slaves and free blacks, who made up about 40 percent of the South, thought of themselves as Confederates. South Carolina, for example, was the white-hot core of the secessionist movement, the nucleus of the Confederacy. More than half of South Carolinians in 1860 were African-American. They were Southerners, but they did not get to vote.
If all Southerners had been allowed to vote in 1860, would we ever have heard of the Confederacy? Considering its existence was bitterly controversial even among white Southern males, I’m thinking not.
There’s something the opposite poles in the flag debate have in common. When they talk about the South, exalting and glorifying the South or ridiculing and berating the South, they’re talking about “the South” as if it’s only white people.
The South is everybody who lives here. And considering its African-American population, it may be a more cosmopolitan region than any other. African-American culture has pervaded and energized and inspired the South, its music, its cuisine, its literature, more thoroughly than that of any other region on the continent. Blacks may be the largest part of what makes the South the South, and different from all other places. Any symbol that does not acknowledge that fact can’t say much about the South that’s true.