Friday, July 3, 2015

The Godfather and the Southern Code

Confederate dead at Antietam - 1862
Brad has a post up at his blog (which has been mostly Confederate-Flag related posts for the last week or so) about the origins of South Carolina's secession.

The point of his post is to make it clear that slavery was the impetus for succession. To paraphrase our current President: Let me be clear, I agree that secession was entirely about protecting the institution of slavery. Full stop. Protecting the institution of slavery was obviously the basis for the secession. All the theoretical arguments for secession (legal, political, or otherwise) were simply post-hoc justifications for the act itself. Anyone who claims otherwise is not being honest. With me so far? Good.

Now, I'm going to try and make a fine distinction that's probably going to get a lot of people upset:

I don't think that slavery was a direct reason that great many Southern men fought in the Civil War.

I think slavery was a proximate cause for their fighting, because it was the origin of the war. So, while the origin of the war was a profoundly vile thing, I don't think it was the direct motivation for the men you see above. In fact, it may not have been a factor at all.

I think the primary motivating factor for a great many Southern men to take up arms was the idea that they were supporting "their people" even before their own thoughts or principles.

"Their people" was generally the community they identified with, be it family, region, or State. It's a little bit like the code expressed in The Godfather where Michael cautions Fredo, "Don't ever take sides with anyone against the family, again." That old Sicilian code permeated the Old South. The South's Code of Honor did not allow men to simply walk away from the impending war.

Even if a young Southern man did not own slaves (many did not) and even if he believed slavery to be immoral, he was honor-bound to take up his arms and fight for his people. And a young man, doing his duty, he went to war without needing to believe in the fundamental reasons for the war. All he needed to know was that he was not betraying his family, his people, his state.

In that time, I don't think we had fully joined as a nation yet. We still thought of ourselves as Virginians, like Lee did.
With all my devotion to the Union and the feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home. I have therefore resigned my commission in the Army, and save in defense of my native State, with the sincere hope that my poor services may never be needed, I hope I may never be called on to draw my sword...
That's Lee telling us that he can't take sides against the family, ever.

Obviously, this "code" is complete crap.

But it did exist. And it did motivate men to fight. It's wrong for us to judge the men who fought and project our current code of conduct and morality onto them. The men you see lying dead in that grass probably didn't own slaves. Their opinion on the morality of slavery wasn't even relevant.

The thing is, there's a difference between the origins of the war (slavery) and the main reason Southern men fought (honor/peer-pressure). And that difference permeates into how we see the Confederate Flag in different lights. We all are shaped by our own experience and our own identity. 

I'm sure that some black people see the Confederate Flag in a dim light, probably flickering torchlight, with white hoods in the foreground. I'm equally sure that some white people see the Confederate Flag in a positive light, as a banner their ancestors died under. Neither of these views are wrong.

In our case, we have the flag on the capitol grounds, which gives it the official sanction of our state government, and we should not give such symbols that sort of license.

However, if you're going to try and convince an honest flag-defender to take the flag down, going on about the reasons for secession is not the right argument. You're not reaching him, because the Confederate Flag, to honest defenders, is not about secession. It's about the honor of men.

Reach them on that level, and you will win a convert.


  1. You say Slavery as if it was a thing in a if it had no implications beyond Southerners wanting to own people. You don't even want to get into the finer points..."legal, political" etc. Yeah how could those possibly matter? Free Slaves, Manifest Destiny, Civilizing mission, Make the world safe for Democracy...USA USA USA.
    From what I can tell from this blog you are an American. That's what can't be washed out. Good luck to you with that sir.

  2. Bryan, your blog wouldn't let me post my entire response. I refer you to it here: