Winning Isn't Everything 

Civil War Re-enactors Fight On

October in Maury County is unpredictable. Nevertheless, 7,500 ersatz Civil War soldiers had chosen to brave the elements so that they could re-enact the 1864 “Nashville Campaign” of the Civil War. Most of the re-enactors portrayed Confederates—the Southern side has always been the more popular at these events—and they were attempting, at least visually, to be authentic—they wore tattered wool jackets, ripped shirts and, sometimes, no shoes. There were no gas heaters or Coleman lanterns, not even any quartz wristwatches. For a long, uncomfortable weekend, bankers, computer specialists, lawyers and insurance brokers were transformed into the dregs of the Army of Tennessee. It didn’t matter. They lost anyway.

The authentic tents were there; so were the muzzle-loading rifles and the “surgeons” ready to simulate the standard remedy for a bullet wound in 1864—amputation. And the flag was there. Several hundred of the different versions of it. The Confederate Battle Flag, symbol, for some, of racism, symbol, for others, of a proud heritage.

Re-enacting the Civil War has become even more popular than it was during the Centennial years of 1961-65. At Spring Hill, the “soldiers” came from every state in the Union and from Europe. The most famous re-enactment group in America, the all-black 54th Massachusetts Infantry, made famous by the movie , was on hand.

The re-enactors at Spring Hill didn’t want to talk politics, at least not the politics of the 1990s. The favorite bumper sticker of the day displayed the Confederate flag in one corner and words “Heritage, Not Hate” in another.

“To us the flag means history. Period. We resent the kooks in the Ku Klux Klan using it as much as the kooks in the groups who want us to hide it in the closet,” says Ronny Mangrum, president of the Tod Carter Camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, based in Franklin.

Maybe. But the flag certainly means other things to black people. Slavery, for instance. And in the aftermath of the O.J. verdict, it seems unlikely that blacks and whites will ever agree about it. But the Confederate flag does stand for one thing that both blacks and whites can agree on. For both groups, it symbolizes resistance.

To white Southerners, the flag emerged as the symbol of resistance to the United States government during the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Civil Rights movement, all of which many whites saw as evil. To blacks, of course, those events meant progress, and thus resistance to them was evil. No matter how hard they try, white Southerners will never be able make the Confederate flag stand merely for heritage.

The Confederate flag has crossed the national boundary. A famous photograph taken in Moscow’s Red Square in 1990 shows Boris Yeltsin standing on a tank facing down the Soviet Army. In the crowd around him, way in the back, a pro-democracy protester is waving a Confederate battle flag. The Confederate flag has also crossed cultural boundaries. After John Belushi’s death by drug overdose, his former “Blues Brothers” partner, Dan Aykroyd, arrived at the funeral wearing a Confederate Battle Flag draped around his neck as a scarf. “John always was a rebel,” Aykroyd explained.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans and other historical groups will never live long enough to see the Confederate flag lose its controversial edge. It will always mean resistance and rebellion against something: the federal government, equal rights for blacks, the Soviet Army. With last November’s election results and the resurgence of talk about “states’ rights,” the South may finally be on its way to winning the Civil War—at least in theory.

Those 7,500 re-enactors in Spring Hill, especially the 5,000 who played Confederates, may have seemed like a bunch of good old boys out for a weekend lark, but merely by being there—and waving that flag—they demonstrated, once again, that Appomattox did not solve every issue related the “Late Unpleasantness.”

One is the issue of secession itself. It’s true that the Union forces whipped the seceded states back into line, but Tom McCoy, professor of constitutional law at Vanderbilt University, argues that “You will look in vain in the Constitution or any of its amendments since 1865 for any wording forbidding secession. The Constitution is absolutely silent, which meant both sides interpreted it as they wanted to, which further meant the only way to resolve it was by an extra-legal action, i.e. war.”

In 1861, when Jefferson Davis resigned from the U.S. Senate, he lingered around Washington for a week, hoping that he would be arrested so that the question of secession would reach the courts. He was not detained.

“I don’t believe the Supreme Court would have touched secession,” says McCoy. “They would have said it was not dealt with in the Constitution and therefore was a political matter to be resolved in other ways.”

However, the Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney had, in 1857, taken a giant leap into judicial activism in the Dred Scott decision, which nullified the Missouri Compromise. Had the court taken a secession case, McCoy believes, there is a “good chance” it would have found secession constitutional. (When Taney died in 1864, researchers found among his papers two opinions he never lived to deliver: One overturned Lincoln’s suspension of the Writ of Habeas Corpus; the other overturned the Emancipation Proclamation.)

“The South had an excellent legal case—if it could have found a court willing to hear it,” McCoy says.

Those legal niceties encourage many re-enactors to become even more belligerent in their defense of the Southern position in the Civil War. The South did nothing dishonorable, they argue. In fact, the South was legally right. It’s the federal government that is all encompassing and pervasive—and, well, malignant—as a result of victory in the war. Some groups, including the academic Southern League in Mobile, argue that, even today, secession might still be a good idea.

McCoy believes any such move today would be regarded as treason, but he admits that, if a state such as Georgia were suddenly to declare itself a republic and seize a federal base filled with nuclear-tipped Polaris missiles, legal arguments, again, wouldn’t matter much. The weapons would.

If such rhetoric suggests the Michigan Militia, it’s not coincidental. Most of the re-enactors are openly conservative and consider last November’s congressional elections a chance to accomplish what the war didn’t—reduce the federal government to pre-1865, or at least pre-1932, levels.

Unreconstructed Southerners, many of whom are re-enactors, see vindication in Washington’s new conservatism. But they’re also the ones most in denial about the causes of the Civil War. The Southern view has always minimized slavery as a cause of the war, preferring instead to insist that the issue in dispute was self-determination, the right to secede, local government versus Big Brother. In short, everything but the question of race.

These Southerners are right when they insist that slavery was not the only cause of the war. South Carolina had come within a hairsbreadth of seceding in 1836, when slavery was never mentioned.

Nevertheless, as professor James McPherson, author of Battle Cry of Freedom, has pointed out, you will not find in any of the speeches of the Southern fire-eaters of the 1850s and 1860s phrases such as “states’ rights” or “big government.” In fact, it was the Southerners in Congress who, in 1850, enacted the most egregious extension of federal power over the states, the Fugitive Slave Law, which gave federal troops the power—and obligation—to hunt down escaped slaves north of the Mason-Dixon Line.

What you will hear in the Southern speeches leading up to Fort Sumter is the steady drumbeat of race and the muffled fear of miscegenation. Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens made it clear what the conflict was all about:

“Our new government is founded upon the opposite idea of the equality of the races.... Its cornerstone rests upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man. This government is the first in the history of the world based upon this great physical and moral truth.”

No Southerner can read such statements today and feel comfortable with the stand his ancestors took. Those who do so are in denial. That does not, however, mean that Southerners must repudiate their past. It means—if you’re truly unreconstructed—that you honor your ancestors for their legal stand and forgive them for the moral one. Their legal stand was at worst ambiguous. Their moral stand was not. The results—America’s bloodiest war, with casualties that exceeded the totals in all other American wars put together—gives the lie to the argument that self-righteous politicians make even today: that we are a nation of laws, not men.

Those re-enactors in Spring Hill remind us—as did those two great Americans, William Henry Seward and Fawn Hall—that the laws of a nation mean nothing without a consensus on the part of its citizens, not only to obey them but to define them. And sometimes it takes “extra-legal” means to do that.

Is there any hope, then, of ever reconciling North and South, black and white, of finding a compromise between the Gallant Flag with the Racist Flag? Of making peace between legal rights with moral obligations? Probably not. But sometimes cooler heads—and hearts—can prevail.

Three years ago, the principal at Franklin High School, which is 25 percent black, tried to ban the Confederate flag from campus. As could have been expected, the outcry was instantaneous. Suddenly, more kids than ever before were wearing the flag on shirts and jeans. They had seized upon the flag as a symbol of resistance. Tensions rose. Behind the scenes, band director Wayne Simpson and other teachers attempted some quiet persuasion.

“We simply asked the students—and a lot of the parents—why they would want to deliberately hurt one-quarter of their classmates,” Simpson explains. “Of course, it’s their legal right to wear the flag, but why deliberately hurt somebody, rub their face in it?”

The principal rescinded his ban. Today, although it makes occasional appearances at football games, sightings of the Confederate flag are rare on the Franklin High campus. At least sometimes, the students at Franklin High suggest, the goodness of the human heart can prevail. Sometimes.

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