I recently spent a long weekend visiting some family in South Carolina. The circumstances are a little convoluted; you’d think this would be my blood, my roots we visited. Aside from myself, as far as I know, my entire family resides, and has resided, in the southeast United States pretty much ever since they came over here in the 17th century. But we actually visited my wife’s family, a brother and sister-in-law who recently moved to Charleston from Boston for work.
Despite my own insistence to the contrary, I realized shortly into the trip that I’d never been to Charleston. It’s a weird place.
If you’ve been to Savannah, think of a cleaner, less buggy, but no less antebellum-focused city. This is due to a few factors, all of them, I think, having to do with circumstances surrounding the state’s role in the Civil War:
- South Carolina was the first state to officially secede from the Union, shortly after the election of Abraham Lincoln. Many states followed suit, but South Carolina pulled the trigger, in more ways than one.
- Somewhat symmetrically, South Carolina played host to the first major individual conflict of the Civil War, when a gaggle of state militia captured Fort Sumter from Yankee troops. This will become important in another way pretty soon here.
- The fairly symbolic retaking of Fort Sumter occurred on the morning of President Lincoln’s assassination. This seems, predictably but depressingly, to lend credence to South Carolina’s role in the war in the minds of current residents.
On our second full day in town, we took a ferry out to Fort Sumter, now an interactive museum and historic site. There were shades of the personal in this for me, as an ancestors of mine, a great-uncle named Edmund Ruffin, played a key role in the initial assault on the fort. Though he did not fire the very first shot (that honor went to a commander who fired a signal mortar), he gave the order to fire the first offensive volley at Sumter.
In a very real sense, then, a member of my family “started” the Civil War.
This fact has been much less a source of anything resembling pride in my immediate family than it has been, I think fairly, a source of some morbid curiosity. We have a slim folder on the man somewhere in our family history-related papers. The bullet point version is this: an agricultural genius, he pioneered several techniques that laid the foundation for modern farming. He was also a secessionist and firebrand, apparent from his role at Sumter.
At the end of the Civil War, after the Confederacy capitulated, Edmund wrapped himself in a rebel flag, went out into the woods and shot himself in the head, leaving behind a suicide note saying that he would not live his life “under foreign rule.”
A museum is, maybe, the wrong place to try and get a sense of the population’s relationship with its own history. Museums can’t, or at least shouldn’t, be biased; they are there as monuments, as bastions of history and information, a still-life presentation. So when information cards alongside sepia-toned photographs tell us about all the slave labor that was used to build and staff the fort, or when they describe in detail how the victorious militia raised the palmetto-and-crescent-moon flag, it may not be difficult to know how to feel, but it is difficult to know how the state itself feels about, and copes with, its own bloody history.
The line between pride in our own dubious history and stubborn, blind clinging to it, is not a thin one; it is a chasm, a markedly clear divide. Or at least it would be, in a perfect world. That same world would, as well, relegate the Confederate flag to museums and historic sites, banning it from all government facilities, be they federal, state, or local. We can’t do much to ban them from local residences, but we as a country should know better in the first place.
There is nothing wrong with appreciating the rebel flag, former plantation homes, minstrel shows and the like, as long as we are aware of their proper historical context and role in shaping our country. But embracing them in such a way as to try and force them into a modern context, as if they have the same place now that they did then, is irresponsible at best, hateful at worst.
No single major event sparked this column. Rather, it’s an appeal to lifelong Southerners — still, truly, my people — who still retain these ideas. I have no way of knowing if they bear any active ill will by that, but it isn’t the point. Instead, there is a willful ignorance of the implications of such choices. We have to face our history, each other and ourselves simultaneously.