Furl that Banner, for ’tis weary;
Round its staff ’tis drooping dreary;
Furl it, fold it, it is best;
For there’s not a man to wave it,
And there’s not a sword to save it,
And there’s no one left to lave it
In the blood that heroes gave it;
And its foes now scorn and brave it;
Furl it, hide it–let it rest!
So wrote Father Abram Joseph Ryan (1838-1886), the “Poet-Priest of the Confederacy” in 1865.
Southerners should have listened to him then. Over time, the unfurled Confederate battle flag would come to stand, at worst, for white supremacy and segregation and, at best, for an extravagantly romanticized and wildly inaccurate view of the Confederacy.
Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone With the Wind, which a 2014 Harris poll found to be second only to the Bible in popularity with American readers, is one of the best examples of this mythologizing. Yet even here, after nearly 200 pages of moonlight and magnolias, a note of stark reality breaks in. Ashley Wilkes, a serving Confederate officer, writes a letter home from the front to his wife Melanie. He tells her that no matter what the outcome of the war, the South will have lost. It will have lost because from the moment the war began, the way of life that Southerners were fighting for was doomed.
“If we win this war” he writes, “and have the Cotton Kingdom of our dreams, we still have lost, for we will become a different people and the old quiet ways will go. The world will be at our doors clamoring for cotton and we can command our own price. Then, I fear, we will become like the Yankees, at whose money-making activities, acquisitiveness and commercialism we now sneer. And if we lose, Melanie, if we lose!”
This is fiction, yes, but it compresses a great deal of fact. The Confederacy betrayed itself. The Lost Cause was not lost at Vicksburg, or Gettysburg, or Chattanooga or at any of the other locales that today claim to be the site of “the” decisive battle of the Civil War. It was lost when the first Charleston battery opened fire on Ft. Sumter.
For proof, one can do no better than to read Georgia historian Emory Thomas’s short and most enlightening 1971 book, The Confederacy as a Revolutionary Experience.
“In the name of independence,” says Professor Thomas, “the Southerners reversed or severely undermined virtually every tenet of the way of life they were supposedly defending.” And he proves his point with page after page of meticulous detail.
Just what did Southerners go to war to defend in 1861?
Was it states’ rights? The exigencies of war soon produced a government in Richmond that was more centralized, more nationalized and, we may add, more despotic than the one from which they had seceded. State militias were absorbed into the Confederate army. The Confederate Congress voted for conscription nearly a year before the U.S. Congress. Confederate president Jefferson Davis placed an embargo on the export of Southern cotton in the vain hope that idling the textile mills of Britain and France would force those countries to aid or, at least, to recognize the Confederacy. To cap it all, the Confederate War Department was given broad power to requisition whatever it needed to sustain the war effort: horses, crops, farm animals and slaves.
Was it the agrarian ideal—the dream of a homeland made up of aristocratic plantation owners and sturdy yeoman farmers, virtuously earning their living from the soil, rather than from sooty factories and crass commercialism like the vulgar Yankees? The Union blockade forced the agricultural South to accept industrialization. To make good their new independence, Southerners needed to produce not only their own guns and ammunition, but also railroad tracks, locomotives, warships, uniforms, hats, shoes and other war materials. Often, it was the Confederate government that built the necessary factories and foundries. And with industrialization came urbanization.
Was it Thomas Jefferson’s ideal of limited government—“the government governs best that governs least”? In 1861, the Confederate states had a population of just over nine million, of whom about 3.5 million were slaves. The population of the Union was about 22 million. Yet by 1863, the government in Richmond had 70,000 civil servants—a bigger bureaucracy than the government in Washington. The reason was that with all the meddling that Richmond did in the affairs of the states by nationalizing the militias, requisitioning materials and manufacturing armaments, it took an army of clerks to handle the paperwork.
Was it the culture of the South—the “old quiet ways” for which Ashley Wilkes waxed nostalgic? The courtly southern gentlemen who went off to fight soon learned that modern war was not a tournament, and the demure southern belles that they left behind were forced to do men’s work in the fields, the workshops and the hospitals. Meanwhile, the South’s new industrialists were acquiring sufficient wealth and power to challenge the leadership of the old plantation aristocracy.
And, finally, was it the right to own slaves for which Southerners went to war? At the last ditch, they were willing to yield even that. In 1865, Gen. Robert E. Lee was so desperate for fresh troops that he endorsed a proposal to enlist black soldiers—offering them freedom after the war as an inducement to serve. A month before Appomattox, the Confederate Congress authorized the recruitment of 300,000 blacks for the army. Shortly afterwards, Jefferson Davis sent a personal emissary to Britain and France, offering to emancipate all the slaves in exchange for diplomatic recognition.
In short, as Professor Thomas concludes, “In four years the Southern nation had given up that which called it into being. Independence at the last was no longer the means but the end … The Confederate experience had cut the heart out of the Southern way of life.”
British historian John Prebble, in his book on Bonnie Prince Charlie’s crushing final defeat at Culloden, says that “A lost cause will always win a last victory in men’s imaginations.”
So it was with Charlie, and so it was with the Confederacy. But perhaps after 150 years we can finally furl the conquered banner—and lay some mischievous myths to rest in the process.
Hal Gordon, who wrote speeches for the Reagan White House and Gen. Colin Powell, is currently a freelance speechwriter in Houston. Web site: www.ringingwords.com.