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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Confessions Of A Born Again Southerner

 Confessions Of A Born Again Southerner 

By C. W. Roden 

Probably the only scenes in the film Gone With The Wind that holds any significant meaning to me in how I view my Southern-Confederate historical heritage.

Recently I read a somewhat strange article written on AL.com with the title: "Confessions of a recovering Rebel" by one Charles J. Dean.

Let me break the article down for y'all.

The author of the story claims to be a converted Confederate descendant ( a "recovering Rebel" in his words) who started out as a young Southern boy so proud after three trips to the drive-in to see Gone With The Wind he once visited relatives in Illinois proudly wearing a gray Confederate kepi and battle dress uniform coat with fake buttons....folks, I am seriously not kidding with this. It's written plain as day in the article.

Mr. Dean claims to have been that Southern lad of fourteen that the late great Southern novelist William Faulkner wrote about in the novel Intruder In The Dust in the famous paragraph about the afternoon of July 3, 1863 just before Pickett's Charge:

"For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it's still not yet two o'clock on that July afternoon in1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it's all in the balance, it hasn't happened yet, it hasn't even begun yet, it not only hasn't begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances...."

Following this, Mr. Dean goes on to include a strange mix of modern-day politics, including an attack on Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore and other Alabama justices for resisting a federal order striking down the state's gay marriage ban....yeah, I know, you're wondering what the blue hell that has to do with Confederate heritage or Civil War history too. I'll do my best to help everyone along, though I'm afraid the assault on your common sense will unfortunately continue a moment longer, but please bear with me.

Mr. Dean goes on at length about growing up in Alabama during the 1950s and 1960s and how resistance to federal authority - and subsequent loss to said authority - was a part of a "white Southern mystique" that told young Southerners (by which I presume he referred only to white Southern males) that you lose the war, but are proud to go down fighting.

Adding to this he spoke of his Confederate ancestor, who returned home to tell the heroic stories of the war to two grandmothers: "...one of whom ate them up, the other of who managed to find and read books that told a different story. And, a grandmother who grew up watching the second-class citizenship afforded to blacks and whose reading of the Bible and her faith told her it was wrong." This grandmother would be the one who ultimately put a different idea into the mind of this wayward son of the South: "...doubt that maybe the *stars and bars, maybe the "Lost Cause" was the wrong cause. Later Jesuits and a wonderful world history teacher in high school opened me up to the possibly that old Uncle Dick fought for the wrong side."

(*I must also presume that here he refers to the Confederate First National flag rather than the Dixie Cross since "Stars and Bars" was the informal title of the former -- or maybe not, better not to presume. It does seem to be a common mistake made by Leftist ideologues, even those who are "recovering Rebels".)  

Don't worry folks, I promise I am coming to the end of this.

Then Mr. Dean goes on to evoke the memories of four black girls killed in Birmingham and George Wallace standing at the doorway of the schoolhouse. Then of putting aside "childhood delusions" and embracing "true heroes" of equality and "right causes" worth fighting and dying for. And sums up his long and tedious article by pointing out that those who fought for the South in the war were "wrong" that day at Gettysburg: "The Union center did not break. It held. The union was saved for all future generations of Americans: white and black, men and women, straight and gay." That people of "good conscience" as he defines them know this and embrace it.

Let me sum up exactly what Mr. Dean actually wrote reading between the lines:

I am a "recovering Rebel" a white Southern boy who grew up in the 50s and 60s learning that my great grandfather was fighting on the "wrong side of history" that one of my grandmothers taught me to believe a lie. Others helped me to see that it was better to embrace politically correct establishment views on culture and racial identity, to find new heroes, to completely reject one aspect of my Southern identity and condemn it in others not as "enlightened" as I am. If you don't share, word for word, how I and others like me view Southern history, then you are not a person of "good conscience" that you cannot possibly have any sort of enlightened thought at all, and your opinion means absolutely nothing in my world.

Such is the typical absolutist mentality of an Anti-Confederate heritage reactionary and American Leftist: think my way, or you don't deserve a voice.

Well, sorry fignuts, but I do have a voice. This uncensored blog and I am about to use that voice to give everyone my two cents.

Mr. Dean's journey - provided it was not fully exaggerated, and I have to admit the whole learning history from Gone With The Wind story does strike me as a bit contrived, though not entirely out of the question - is largely typical of the type of Southerner who has chosen to reject one aspect of the tapestry that is Southern heritage for the greater politically correct good. Without exception, you will probably find a similar story among others who share Mr. Dean's ideals. People who deal with absolutist mentalities, with no middle ground or gray areas in their perception of the world and their history.

Do I know this for experience? Sadly I wish I didn't.

My own journey towards finding a balance between living in the modern world and honoring my Confederate ancestry also began with a movie.

No not Gone With The Wind. Sorry, but despite the stereotypes I think that folks like Mr. Dean have come to accept as truth, not everyone who honor the Confederate dead started out watching that horribly melodramatic - but well produced - movie.

The film that first introduced me to the Confederate soldier and the War Between the States was actually The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly, which I watched when I was about nine with my sister and my grandmother.

In the film the first shots of Confederate soldiers showed ragged, dirty-looking men in tattered gray uniforms who looked like they just got their butts kicked hard as they marched and limped through town retreating from the advancing Union forces. It also showed a man with no legs in the gray uniform, as well as a rather moving hospital scene where men from both sides lay wounded - many missing arms and legs. Confederate soldiers mistreated as prisoners of war. There was a battle scene that looked very violent and the aftermath of Confederate earthworks filled with dead where Clint Eastwood's character gave a dying young rebel a smoke before he passed away from wounds. Nothing glorious. Just death, pain and destruction.

Of course, my grandmother told me and my sister then about the War and about the North and South fighting. She did not offer all the little details, but I presumed at the time it was something like a feud between two sections of the country, rather than some war of ideals. The fact that the South lost the war did not really bother me too much then, and I more or less felt then that they fought and did their best, much like a sports event. At least that's how my nine-year-old self thought of it, having no real concept of war and its terrible costs. I means sure when I was nine I used sticks as make believe muskets and took shots at imaginary Yankees in the bushes;  although the images of prison camps, hospitals full of wounded and body-littered battlefields did stay with me a long time, and influenced much of my research into the history of the war.

So I did not come into my understanding of the War Between The States based on any rose-colored Lost Cause nostalgia about "moonlight and magnolias" and "happy slaves toiling in the fields" or any of the bullshit that the Opposition tends to suggest. Oh I have met people who have had such thoughts, though only a handful, and most of them were from an older generation, rather than my own.

My generation -- the one that came after the turmoil of the 60s had passed -- was introduced to Confederate symbols like the Dixie Cross battle flag as purely regional Southern symbols in a modern context and were never exposed to all the racially charged baggage except as an abstract thing that happened in the past with little bearing on the modern day. As far as the Confederate soldier and the Confederate cause went, my generation was raised primarily on the view that even though the Southerners lost, the war itself made the country stronger and what it is today, and there was no reason to think harshly, or judge the dead of either side.

This probably more than anything explains why I - and other Southerners of my generation - have a hard time really relating to the sort of Lost Cause-type view a man like Mr. Dean claims motivated his own childhood; or anyone else who wrongly perceives that those who honor Confederate soldiers and their symbols are throwbacks who must dream of a time where white people were lords of creation and sat on a porch drinking mint juleps while Big Sam and the slaves toiled in the fields. I was actually rather perplexing when it finally occurred to me that people who throw that charge around might actually believe they are serious.

It's probably just as well that I was in middle school by the time I finally saw Gone With The Wind. When I did, I thought the movie was good for its time, but nothing to write home about. Though one scene in the movie did stand out the most for me: the infamous scene where Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara walked through the train station among the acres of wounded soldiers. That is what defines that ugly war to me more than anything. The tragic and useless waste of human life. 

Yet by the time I was 14 - the age that Falkner claimed every Southern boy wished he was at Gettysburg waiting to charge with Pickett up the slopes of Cemetery Ridge - I was completely turned off of any aspect of the War Between the States, or my Confederate ancestry. From the time I was about 12 or so, I was taught by my teachers that those who fought for the South were motivated solely as a group to keep slavery. That they were the bad guys in the War. That forward thinking views can only be held by folks who rejected honoring that past and embraced every aspect of "progressive" idealism without question.

By the time I was at the age of 14, I was so disenchanted with my Southern heritage, that I tried desperately to train myself to speak with a different accent than my own beautiful Southern one. I would even get verbally abusive with family who spoke with Southern drawls, something that shames me even to this day.

Obviously that did not remain the case. By the same time a year later I was putting flags on Confederate graves and coming to appreciate my Confederate ancestry and history with new eyes.

What changed this for me was my own high school freshmen year's world history teacher, who taught me among other things that people are not just group mindsets. That they are individuals with various different personalities and ways of looking at the world. That thinking of people as stereotypes takes away their humanity and reduces them to an object rather than a thinking, breathing person. I was fortunate that she also took the time to talk to me one-on-one unlike most other teachers I knew, that she respected my opinions and didn't try to force-feed me her own. For that I will always be grateful to her.

So while I took a renewed interest in the War - thanks to a history project - I decided to read the personal letters and accounts of soldiers. In them I found that for the most part the Confederate soldier was fighting not for the Confederate government, or any specifically defined political belief, and certainly not for slavery or rich plantation owners. Rather he was fighting to protect his home and his land from what he saw as an invasion. My respect for that soldier - for the soldiers on both sides - an what they went through and faced in that terrible war grew from there and ultimately led me to placing flags on Confederate and Union graves.

Now when I first read Intruder In The Dust as a young man of about 19 years old, my only thought upon reading that same passage about Pickett's Charge was: Dude, are you out of your fricking mind?! Being a student of the War Between The States and its many large battles, I was fully aware of the logistics of the Battle of Gettysburg even then.

I was 22 when I visited the Gettysburg National Battlefield and stood on the spot where close to 15,000 men and boys once stood under shellfire in the woods before the mile-long stretch of open fields before the small grove of trees on Cemetery Ridge. When I stood there, Falkner's words came back to me and I tried to imagine myself there in that time, standing among those men, all of whom were waiting to take that long march.

I could not say for certain what those fellows must have been thinking on that summer afternoon, sweating in those wool uniforms in the ninety degree heat. Unlike certain history professors and civil war bloggers, I do not claim any ability to put myself into the brain of another human being who lived a century and a half ago and make a calculated guess based on personal modern ideologies what was going through said person's mind, or what motivated them. Frankly, I find such a "talent" to be highly questionable.

No, I could only think what I myself would have been thinking that day, which would probably have constituted reciting Psalm 93 to myself, praying desperately to get out of that situation with my butt intact, and doing my best - and almost surely failing - not to vomit or piss my pants. I don't know for certain if I would have run, or faked an injury just to bury my head in the dirt and wait for an opportunity to get away as fast as I could; or if I would have felt honor bound and compelled to stand with my unit and neighbors, keep moving forward past screaming bullets and artillery shells, and fighting not run even though every instinct towards self-preservation would be screaming at me to do so. I honestly could not say for certain what I would do, and won't bullshit y'all with some inflated illusions of my own sense of bravery.

I have never been in a war, and pray to God that I never have that particular distinction. I never held any romantic ideas about war. Sure I watched Star Wars as a kid, I played with toy guns and small toy soldiers as a boy, but I also understood that dead is not like some video game where you can push a button and Pacman has another life.

That is why I have the highest respect for those who fight in war and the veterans who return from it. I do not see them as romantic characters in some novel about chivalry and honor, I see them as simply men and boys, women and (in a few cases) service animals - fathers, brothers, husbands, sons, daughters, mothers, sisters, companions - all of whom have dreams, fears, desires, passions, who loved, who cried, who felt anger and sorrow and who laughed. I see them as individual lives who mattered to those they touched. That is why their memories and how they are remembered as such interest me so.

Now for my final thoughts.

Mr. Dean is of course free to think whatever he wants about those who still honor the dead of the South, and its symbols. What he - and others like him - do not have the right to do is label, to mock and marginalize, to dehumanize those who do not share their specific point of view to the letter.

I am a Southern-born, white Christian and politically Conservative-Moderate thinking male who takes pride in my Confederate ancestry. That does not mean that I want to hold anyone back. Or that I oppose civil rights, equality for minorities, women, or homosexuals. Or that I hate anyone, or oppose civil liberties, or want to silence anyone who disagrees with me respectfully or otherwise. It does not make me any less of an American, or that I want to secede from this country, or that I want to turn back the clock on human progress, or that I care nothing about the future and working towards it. Nor does not mean that people who don't think like me hold any sort of monopoly on morality and tolerance. And it most certainly does not mean I should feel the need to conform to suit the ideals of those who choose to label me for failing to meet their own narrow mindsets. I don't need anyone's approval to be who I am.

In short, that does not make me - or anyone else who thinks and feels as I do - someone who isn't a "person of good conscience".

And that's my two cents.

Have a Happy Ash Wednesday everyone.

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