Tracing lineage of racist rebel flag

February 01, 2000|By DeWayne Wickham

SHARPSBURG -- There's an eerie silence along a pathway on the edge of this town where that rebel symbol was once carried into battle.

Called Sunken Road, the narrow, trench-like passage was renamed Bloody Lane following the clash between 40,000 Confederates and a Union army twice as large near Antietam Creek on September 17, 1862.

A short distance from this battleground, on land he outbid the National Park Service to buy, Anne Arundel County businessman William Chaney plans to build monuments to three of the Confederate generals -- Robert E. Lee, Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart -- who led the assault on Union troops that day. The Battle of Antietam was the bloodiest one-day encounter of the Civil War. When it ended, nearly 24,000 men were killed, wounded or missing. Five thousand of those casualties occurred along Sunken Road.

Those who defend the flying of the Confederate flag atop South Carolina's state house, and who several years ago clamored for the right to display that traitorous image on Maryland license plates, argue that it is a benign symbol of Southern heritage.

That's buncombe.

More than anything else, the Civil War was fought over slavery. The "states' rights" that Lee led Confederate troops into battle to protect was the right of Southern states to keep millions of blacks in subhuman conditions. It was the right to breed slaves like livestock -- and to abuse them physically and sexually. The cause for which Jackson and Stuart ordered their men to fire on U.S. troops at Antietam was a pernicious system of human bondage.

While it's true that only a small number of Southerners owned slaves, everyone in the South benefited from their labor. Slaves were not just the lifeblood of Southern plantations, they built and maintained much of the infrastructure of the South's agrarian society.

But defenders of that racist symbol would have us think otherwise, as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People discovered earlier this month, when it launched an economic boycott against businesses in South Carolina to pressure lawmakers to remove the rebel flag from atop their state house.

Don't believe the defenders.

The Confederate Constitution not only forbade the passage of any law "denying or impairing" the right of people to own "negro slaves," it also provided for the spread of slavery to any territories or states that joined the Confederacy at a later date. In other words, the Confederacy not only was committed to maintaining slavery, but also to expanding it.

Ten days after the rebel Constitution was drafted, Alexander Stephens, the Confederacy's vice president -- and a leading member of the committee that wrote the document -- gave a speech in Savannah, Ga., on its content.

The document "has put to rest, forever, all the agitating questions" about "the proper status of the negro" in the South, which was "the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution," he said.

That's right, Stephens said, slavery was the "immediate cause" of the Civil War.

And that's not all.

Stephens told his audience the foundations of the rebel government "rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery -- subordination to the superior race -- is his natural and normal condition." The Confederacy, he said, was "based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth."

If you've never heard of Stephens, or his infamous "Cornerstone Speech," that's understandable. He was far too forthcoming about what drove the South to rebellion to be touted by those who now want us to believe slavery was not the root cause of this nation's bloodiest conflict.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans and the Daughters of the Confederacy are not just the descendants of traitors; they are the linear successors of soldiers who either consciously, or out of ignorance, went to war to preserve the institution of slavery.

Anyone who embraces their symbols, or their heroes, does more than just honor some abstract heritage -- they champion the words and ideas that Stephens not only espoused, but also etched into the Constitution of the Confederate States of America.

DeWayne Wickham, a former Sun reporter, is a columnist for USA Today.

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