President Obama and the Confederacy

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By Kirk Savage
Saturday, May 23, 2009

In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson dedicated a large bronze memorial to the Confederate dead in a special section of Arlington National Cemetery, the foremost shrine to the Union armed forces. Wilson exulted that only in a democracy could a people once so bitterly divided come together again so proudly. U.S. presidents since then have continued to pay tribute to this narrative of "sectional reconciliation" by sending a wreath of flowers to Arlington's Confederate Memorial once a year.

The question for this upcoming Memorial Day is whether Barack Obama will continue the traditional offering or put a stop to it. Will the first African American to occupy our highest office honor the soldiers of a short-lived, breakaway nation formed for the express purpose of preserving the institution of black slavery on this continent?

First, it is important to put to rest the old debate about whether the Confederacy had other, more fundamental motives besides the defense of slavery. The resolutions of secession in 1860-61 make plain the states' overriding concern for slavery. The historical evidence is so overwhelming that, on this point, revisionism should no longer be possible.

Nonetheless, the myth that the Confederacy somehow had higher, more abstract motives ("state sovereignty," or, more ironically, "liberty") entered history in its own right. Through the mid-20th century, this myth reigned supreme, and it made possible the "reconciliation" of Northern and Southern whites symbolized by the Confederate memorial at Arlington. Whites on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line minimized the historical impact of slavery even as they resurrected the idea of white supremacy that undergirded it. They sentimentalized their racism with images such as the faithful "mammy" on the Arlington memorial, who holds out a baby to her master returning from the battlefield. Woodrow Wilson and the men and women who erected these tributes to the Confederacy were steeped in this brew of denial and self-justification.

Many of my colleagues in academia are urging President Obama to pull the plug on this tradition. I doubt that he will, for the simple reason that the men buried around the Confederate memorial sacrificed, suffered and died just as the black and white soldiers of the Union did. Most of the descendants of those Confederates, whatever their political stripe today, would be loath to deny their ancestors a simple gesture of recognition.

Some argue that we cannot honor the soldiers of every cause, that we have to draw a line somewhere. Many agree that Ronald Reagan stepped over that line when he visited Bitburg in 1985 and laid a wreath at a German military cemetery near the graves of Nazi SS soldiers. But the Confederacy and the Third Reich are not, in the end, comparable. The Nazi genocide of Europe's Jews (implemented largely by the SS) was a crime unique to the Third Reich, while the crime of slavery was interwoven not only into the Confederacy but into the fabric of the American nation, into the Constitution, our economic system and wars of territorial expansion across the continent. To single out the ordinary soldiers of the Confederacy as beyond the moral pale does not help us come to grips with slavery's more profound role in American history.

President Obama, why not send two wreaths? One to the Confederate Memorial in Arlington Cemetery and another to the African American Civil War Memorial in the District, which commemorates the 200,000 black soldiers who fought for liberation from slavery in the Union armed forces. Here is an opportunity to remind us what real reconciliation, in this day and age, would mean. Send two wreaths with one common message: that the descendants of slaves and the descendants of slaveholders should recognize each other's humanity, and do the hard work of reckoning with the racial divide that is slavery's cruelest and most enduring legacy.

Kirk Savage is a professor of art history at the University of Pittsburgh and the author of "Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America."


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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