The Boys Who Wore the Gray

I saw this quote once, I can’t remember now who said it:

In the south, we know where our grandparents are buried.

That captures much of what it means to be southern. Family is important and history is important. That doesn’t mean everything in that family or that history is as is should be but it does mean you don’t cavalierly abandon either one.

This week a mob descended on a Confederate monument in Durham, NC, put a rope around it and pulled it to the ground. They then kicked it, spat on it, and cursed at it. This was not a statue of a particular person. This was not Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson, this was a statue of a generic confederate soldier and was dedicated to the memory of “the boys who wore the gray.” It was erected by those for whom the Civil War was not just a distant memory but by people who remembered the horror of that war or had relatives who did.

So who were these “boys who wore the gray” that they should be so despised and spat upon? First of all, many of them didn’t actually “wear the gray” because they were too poor to have a proper uniform. They were mostly common men who worked their farms and loved their families. And because of that they left those farms and families to fight when they believed those things were in danger. They were my great, great grandfather who volunteered to fight for his state and his family, not to keep his slaves, having none. He returned from the horror of that war to marry, work hard and raise a family. They were my distant cousins one of whom lost his right hand at Cold Harbor. He too returned home and despite his handicap married, worked his farm in Clayton county and raised a family. They were a third great uncle who was mortally wounded at Olustee then languished in a hospital in Tallahassee for a month and died far from home. They were one of my fourth great grandfathers who died of disease and starvation at the federal POW camp in Elmira, NY, leaving behind a wife and children.

None of these men owned slaves. None of these men were movers and shakers defining the world in which they lived. They were simple men who worked hard, raised children and were willing to sacrifice even their lives for what they believed to be the greater good. To use a southern colloquialism, they were a darn sight better men than those who tore down that statue and spat on their memory.

And this sacrifice was repeated thousands of times across the south. Travis Archie says:

Many counties and towns (in the south) lost an entire generation of young men during the war. Some lost that generation on single battlefields within hours or even minutes. This catastrophic loss has not been replicated.

How do the ones left behind deal with that? One way is to erect memorials to those who died. That’s what happened in small towns and cities across the south after the war. This helped individuals, communities and even an entire region of the nation to heal.

The history purgers may prevail in our day. But though they remove the symbols of history from the public square, they will not change that history or remove the memories themselves. In the south, we know where our grandparents are buried.

Re-Humanizing Johnny Reb by Travis Archie


Regarding Monumental Changes

Recently my wife and I visited Petersburg, Virginia to attend the wedding of a family friend. While there we were saw some of the many historical sites in that area of the country. One of the most interesting was Blandford Church and Cemetery. The cemetery has graves dating back to 1702. After the siege of Petersburg, as much as a year afterwards, there were still bodies in unmarked shallow graves or even lying in the open on the field of battle. Most were confederates as the union troops had been given proper burials. The women of Petersburg knew these men were someone’s husband, son or father and felt it unseemly for their bodies to remain this way. So, they formed the Ladies Memorial Association of Petersburg and began raising funds to give these men proper burials on what became known as Memorial Hill near the church. In the end, they buried or repatriated the bodies of some 30,000 confederate soldiers, many in mass graves because they could not be individually identified in the days before dog tags.

Georgia window at Blandford Church

But the most interesting aspect of the church is the windows. From 1904 to 1912, Louis Comfort Tiffany designed windows for the church, one for each southern state, to commemorate the men who gave their lives at Petersburg. It is one of the few buildings in the world where every window is a Tiffany window. The windows are works of art, each featuring a different character from the Bible and the seal of the state to which it’s dedicated. Each state also wrote an inscription to their war dead that Tiffany incorporated in the window. The window for my own state of Georgia features St. Thomas.

While touring the church, I thought of ongoing attempts across the south, most recently in New Orleans, to purge confederate history from the public square.  When seeking to remake a society in their own image, totalitarians always seek to destroy its history. This is often done by reducing history to a binary, everything associated with a particular event or time is evil and so must be destroyed whereas everything the new guard are seeking is good and must displace the old.

This happened after the French Revolution and during every communist revolution including Mao’s Cultural Revolution. During the Cultural Revolution, thousands of Chinese historical sites were destroyed by the communists. I wonder how long it will be before this beautiful church is in the cross hairs of our own version of the cultural revolution?

An historic event is never about only one thing and so can rarely be classified wholesale as good or evil. And the participants in the event are never in lock-step as to their motivation for what they do. Anyone who tells you they are is either ignorant of history or seeking to manipulate you.

James Robert Farlow

My great, great grandfather, James Robert Farlow was in the 9th Georgia Light Artillery. They fought in the Chickamagua campaign in October, 1863 and saw action at the siege of Petersburg in 1865. They surrendered with the Army of Northern Virginia on April 9, 1865. He owned no slaves. He was a simple man who returned from the war and went to work farming to feed his family. He once stood for alderman in College Park, GA but as far as I can tell that’s as high profile as he ever got. He passed away in 1915 at the age of 76 having raised seven children. Most of the soldiers of the confederacy were like this, probably most of the soldiers of the union as well. They were men caught up in something bigger than themselves who answered the call to fight for their state and defend their homes and families. They fought with courage and honor. Some of them returned home, many did not.

When I was in Moldova on a mission trip many years ago, I noticed every village had a monument to the soldiers of the village who gave their lives during the Second World War. The Soviet Union was gone by the time I was there and with it Communism, but the monuments remained. Because, like my great, great grandfather, these men were not fighting so much for a larger, political cause, in this case to uphold communism, but to defend their homes and families. To lump them all together as godless communists seeking to prop up Stalin and so deserving of no remembrance would be an insult to them and to those who loved them.

To remember men like this is not only right but it is honorable and those who say otherwise know not honor.

Don’t Know Much About History

Don't Know Much About History
Gone With the Wind premiere, Atlanta, 1939

History is a mixed bag. Rarely is a cause, a person or a nation all good or all bad. The same Roman Empire that fed Christians to the lions made possible the world-wide expansion of the gospel through the Pax Romana and the best network of roads the world had ever seen. Martin Luther who sparked the Reformation which led to the recovery of the gospel in western Europe also wrote some very troubling things about Jews. The job of a historian is to consider all the information and report it as accurately as he or she can, taking the good with the bad.

The job of an ideologue is different.

The ideologue seeks to manipulate the past to facilitate their agenda in the present. Sometimes that manipulation is subtle as in the altering of text books. At other times it takes the more extreme forms of demonization and elimination. One of the tactics of tyrants is to erase the history of a people or culture so they can remake that people or culture in their own image – in other words, control them.

Consider this from Jung Chang & Jon Halliday’s biography of Mao:

“Mao thus succeeded in wiping out culture from Chinese homes. Outside, he was also fulfilling his long-held goal of erasing China’s past from the minds of his subjects. A large number of historical monuments, the most visible manifestation of the nations’ civilization, which had so far survived Mao’s loathing, were demolished. In Peking, of 6,843 monuments still standing in 1958, 4,922 were now obliterated.”

You saw similar things after both the French and Russian revolutions and in both cases the history purgers made the abuses of the ancien regime look like child’s play. Certainly the public square should reflect different points of view and be a place where people can disagree with one another. However, when one group demands that the public square be sanitized of any historical references they don’t like –  danger Will Robinson! 

What began as a request to remove a single Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the South Carolina state capitol in the aftermath of the racially-motivated murders in Charleston has turned into a full-court press to remove all references to the Confederacy from the public square.

Here are a few of the cries that rang out over the last few days:

If the new standard is that nothing should be displayed on government property that any citizen finds offensive, I need to know where to send my list.

In addition, retailers like Amazon, are removing the Confederate battle flag from sale (while still offering items with Nazi and Communist symbols on them) and Apple has removed all Civil War strategy games from the app store because they contain images of the confederate flag.

I knew we would end up here when this started – as should anyone who’s been paying attention for the last 20 years. There is no such thing as “enough” in the left’s eyes when the specter of racism is invoked. It’s the trump sin. Anything and everything can be justified if positioned as fighting racism – especially things that are purely symbolic and do nothing to actually solve the problem. I also realize most of those originally calling for the removal of the flag in South Carolina did not have this kind of nation-wide purge in mind but unfortunately knee-jerk reactions are often the mother of unintended consequences.

So where do we go from here? Someone needs the guts to stand up and say “enough.” However, I can think of no one either in politics, business or among the evangelical elites with that kind of courage. Perhaps when other expressions of history are in the cross-hairs of the cultural sanitizers (and they will be), someone who values whatever the sledge-hammer is being swung at then will arise and stand in the gap. But I’m not holding my breath.