In the worst possible way — responding to an unspeakable act of racist barbarism — we have stumbled into one of our all-too-rare “Reconsider the Confederacy” weeks. This year’s week looks as though it will lead to the relegation of the Confederate battle flag to museums and history’s dung heap, where it belongs.
But once the flag is taken down, it will still be easy to avert our eyes, and moral sensibilities, from the grotesque reality that was the antebellum South and the Confederacy’s fight to preserve it. Fortunately, in just the past year, groundbreaking books on American slavery have been published, one of which — “The Half Has Never Been Told,” by Cornell University history professor Edward Baptist — documents in painful detail how slavery worked.
In the early decades of the 19th century, as the tobacco fields of Virginia and Maryland played out, and Native Americans were forcibly expelled from Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, more than 800,000 slaves, largely from the Mid-Atlantic region, were sold to the cotton planters who’d taken the Native Americans’ lands. Those relocated slaves — their families sundered — invariably spoke or wrote, when they were able to leave recollections behind, of how much harsher and more systemically violent was the regimen inflicted on them after they were forced to move to the Deep South cotton belt (most frequently on foot, in chained processions). Nor was the violence random: Lashings and beatings were characteristically inflicted on slaves who failed to meet their daily quotas of pounds of picked cotton.
Baptist buttresses those recollections with numbers. The cotton-harvesting productivity of the individual slave more than doubled between 1820 and 1860. In the first decade of this period, a strain of cotton that was easier to pick was introduced, but most of this productivity revolution occurred after it became commonplace — and in the absence of any technological innovation that would have made the cotton-picking easier or faster. Combining these numbers with the testimony of slaves and visitors to the pre-Civil War South, Baptist concludes that this productivity revolution was the result of the routinization of extreme physical violence on slaves. At the center of the antebellum economy, Baptist writes, was “the threat of torture.”
Baptist acknowledges that “torture” is not a word we usually associate with American slavery, but he makes a convincing case that we should. His other neologistic innovation is his substitution for the word “plantations.” He calls them “slave labor camps,” and on a moment’s reflection, it’s hard to see why his usage shouldn’t become ours as well. What’s a plantation, after all, but a slave labor camp with a big house built by slave labor?
Even as the Confederacy was formed to preserve a gulag archipelago of slave labor camps, so the way in which the Confederacy fought the Civil War reflected the violent racism at the heart of the Southern system. The problem with the reenactments of Civil War battles is that they’re sanitized of all such racism. Reenactments of Gettysburg — the Confederacy’s one campaign that reached into a Northern free state — omit reenactments of Lee’s army kidnapping African American Pennsylvania civilians, many of them free since birth, and taking them south to be enslaved. Reenactments of battles that took place between 1863 and 1865 — when 200,000 black soldiers served in the Union Army — don’t conclude with the Confederate side reenacting the execution or enslavement of black prisoners of war, which were common occurrences.
Indeed, an 1863 joint resolution of the Confederate Congress, signed by President Jefferson Davis, ordered the enslavement of black POWs (many of whom had never been slaves) and the trial of their white officers for inciting slave rebellions (though this happened less frequently). In the same year, Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon wrote that free black Union soldiers should be executed. Fortunately, executions of black POWs declined after President Lincoln issued an order to match them with executions of Confederate POWs.
Somehow, these post-battle rites don’t make it into the reenactments. My guess is that reenacting the post-battle execution or enslavement of black POWs might take some of the fun out of the proceedings.
So, yes, removing the Confederate battle flag from places of honor seems an excellent idea. And while we’re at it, scrapping the voter identification laws enacted to suppress minority voting and putting an end to the systematic incarceration and police harassment of young black men are in order as well. Dispelling our legacy of violent racism requires more than furling a flag.
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