Small World: A flag of heritage or oppression?

Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

I might be coming a bit late to the loud debate over official display of the flag of the Confederacy, but I am moved to do so after reading Christopher Dickey’s Our Man in Charleston. Dickey describes the work of the British Consul in Charleston in the years before and after the outbreak of the Civil War.

As attentive readers will know, the flag debate pitted opponents who argued that it stood for slavery and racial oppression against those who wanted to flaunt the flag. The latter asserted that the flag stood for the heritage and struggle of the South against a northern oppressor intent on denying their freedoms.

Before getting to Dickey’s reporting, let me give my personal impression as one who grew up during years of racial segregation in a city even deeper in the South than Charleston. As youth in those years, we viewed the few “Yankees” we encountered in an unfriendly light, an inherited perspective but not one stirred up by symbols or celebrations of the defeated Confederacy. I don’t recall any particular attention paid to the flag or even studying the Civil War until a junior in college. The flag of the South came into focus when the region mobilized to resist the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Thus, the flag was the rallying banner for a modern, retrograde effort to hold on to the fast-eroding policies of the past.

The fatal flaw in the flag wavers’ heritage argument is that the Civil War was not waged primarily to protect states’ rights and economic freedom. As the day-to-day developments depicted by Dickey demonstrate, the cause was — pure and simple — slavery. Every southern declaration made that plain in the several related elements of the dispute.

Perhaps most prominent of these was the slave trade, a business banned and policed by the British in the years before the U.S. Civil War. Pardon my ignorance, but I did not know that our founding fathers also banned the trade and U.S. warships actively sought to combat it on the high seas. Dickey’s descriptions of slave ship conditions are horrible and disgusting. Once landed in a southern port, the chances of punishment for owners or captains and crews by Southern authorities were almost nonexistent, however.

For hard-line Southerners, an expansion of slavery westward into unorganized territory was necessary for two reasons: first, over-planting of cotton was exhausting old soils and, second, an expansion of slave-holding states would give the South the margin it needed to impede interference by the U.S. Congress. In the minds of extremists, a large slave workforce would also enable the South to seize and expand southward — taking Cuba and Central American territories.

For all their calculations of the present and possibly future benefits of slavery, its proponents were haunted by the possibility of a slave uprising that would overwhelm white society. The slaves, who drove the French from Haiti, were a real presence in many Southern minds. Fearful of slave rebellion, Southerners proclaimed they were “civilizing” a primitive people. They were trapped: should anyone think of freeing slaves they could be fueling slave-led turmoil.

So desperate did Southern leadership become that secession from the Union became a reality. Harsh rhetoric defending the right to hold slaves was followed by South Carolina’s attack on the Union garrison on Fort Sumter, its surrender and the onset of war. Of course, a lot of Southerners went into battle without caring much about the cause of slavery, but feeling the social pressure of standing with their friends and relatives. Their leaders, however, certainly knew the essential cause they were fighting for and it wasn’t a vague concept of freedom and rights. It was slavery.

Could the Confederacy have succeeded in erecting a slave-holding independent nation with a thriving cotton-based economy? For a while, perhaps, but eventually the moral and political pressure from Europe and the Northern states would have been too much and responsible leaders would have had to yield — as they did after the bloody Civil War was waged and Reconstruction was imposed.

A failure to adjust to changing times in timely fashion took its heavy toll. Yet another lesson for our 21st century “leaders.”

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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