This is a little off-topic, but it interests me at the moment. You’ve probably heard that Virginia governor Bob McDonnell has declared April Confederate History Month. It’s not the first time Virginia has had this, er, celebration, but it is the first time since 2002. Some people think this is not a problem, and that they should be allowed to commemorate the history of the South in this way. Others think it’s not appropriate to celebrate a society that both practiced slavery and committed treason by rebelling against the United States of America.
I’d never thought about it much before, but Confederate history is part of my family’s history, too. My maternal grandfather’s family originated from the southern states. My aunt recently forwarded to me a history (written by a cousin) of my great-great-great grandfather’s Civil War service — in the Confederate army. And he’s not the only ancestor who served on that side.
I’m always interested in family history, but this case is a little different. Is it something to be proud of, or should I be ashamed? I have no idea. I don’t think I can even frame it in those terms. For one thing, I didn’t know the man, and I don’t know anyone who did (he died in 1909). So I know nothing of his motivation for fighting in the war.
Great-Great-Great Grandpa Russell served in the 42nd Regiment of the Mississippi Volunteers. In his pre- and post-war life, he was a farmer with a wife and children (14 children with two different wives!). He never rose above the rank of Private; he was probably just one of many ordinary men in Mississippi.
No doubt Russell thought he was doing the right thing by serving in the army, whatever his reasons were. But thinking it’s so doesn’t necessarily make it right, no matter how sincere you are.
My cousin included the text of a letter Russell wrote to his wife. He wrote with obvious affection, which is good to see:
My dear Melvina I will have to close as I havnt time to rite more I will have a chance to send this by hand by one of the 17 Miss. I wante you to write if you pleas for I havent recvd a letter from you sence in June…
But he also says this:
I am so vary tierd of the way we have to liv lying in brest works I haven’t had but 2 clean shirts in 2 months I am vary black and dirty and stink as bad as a negrow…
Ouch. So he clearly also shared the prejudices of his time and place in history.
And that leaves me with mixed feelings. While I certainly recognize that Russell was wrong in saying things like that (believe me, I winced while reading it), and that the Confederacy was wrong in defending slavery, I don’t hate or condemn my ancestor for it, either. And while finding out more about family history is fascinating, I don’t feel like celebrating this part of it, either.
I do have to agree with the view that it’s a good idea to know history, though. Not just so that we won’t repeat it, but so that we understand who we are as a society, and how we got to be this way.
On that note, fellow blogger Gunfighter will be taking a look at some incidents in Confederate history in a decidedly non-celebratory way. I’m interested in seeing what he has to say. You might want to take a look as well.