Our Southern Journey--My Confederate Heritage
[Like many in the genealogical community, I just watched the newest episode of Who Do You Think You Are? with Kelly Clarkson. Her comments on the Confederacy, the conversations that followed with my husband, and deep reflection on my struggles with my heritage are what inspired this letter.]
A letter to my descendants on the Cause and people of the Confederacy,
In writing this letter, I do not want you to believe that I am trying to apologize for or cover up any part of our history. You will be taught throughout your life about the history of this nation, for it is your nation and your heritage. The American heritage runs as completely through your veins as that of any European nation from which you also are descended. Among your ancestors are some of the original settlers of this soil. Remember them. Be proud of them. Know their lives and their stories.
The reason I write this to you is because I fear what you will be taught about my history and heritage. I fear that you will be taught to hate my blood, as I had been taught by those who did not know history well enough to present it truly. For this, I wish to leave with you my thoughts on my heritage. I pray you will receive them, and understand the love from whence they spring.
Among my heritage, you have at least five direct-line ancestors that were a part of and fought for the Confederate States of America. Their names are William Loveless, James P. McKenzie, Thomas Bartlett, Richard C. Keatts, and John M. P. Clark. If either my father's or mother's family possesses more Civil War soldiers, they likely will also be among the ranks and regiments of the Confederacy.
Throughout your life, you will be taught that these men rebelled from the United States of America for the solitary purpose of slavery. You will be taught that they were men without honor, guilty of unspeakable crimes, not the least of which is genocide and racism. You will be taught that everything the Confederacy stood for is morally inferior to the cause of the Union, and it will be easy for you to think that being descended from them is shameful.
But the history of the Confederacy and all those associated with it is not that simple. I hope you will never come to see the lives of men so easily defined through the schema of good versus evil, right versus wrong, Us versus Them. History and men cannot be reduced and boiled down into such simple terms. Anyone who would teach you to think this way grossly misunderstands the nature of humanity and the struggle in times of war, and will pass along to you the same misunderstanding.
The cause of the Confederacy cannot be reduced to so simple a motive as slavery. The very thought is wholly absurd. Your ancestors who fought in the Civil War suffered all manner of privation--hunger and thirst to the point of starvation, exposure to the elements during extreme summer and miserable winter, lost brothers and comrades to the devastating exchange of warfare, and were divided from their families whose sacrifices and endurance cannot continue to be overlooked and understated. Not to mention the devastation of their fellow countrymen whose grief surrounded them on every side. A person ruled by pride and being morally inferior will not endure prolonged hardship and sacrifice for a price so low as free labor. By definition, the nature of being self-interested demands that he does not submit himself to anything like suffering and sacrifice. The citizens of the Confederate States of America, the average man of which possessed no slaves and would never be able to afford them, believed in something much more fundamental to their identity than slavery.
These men, women, and children who called themselves Confederates fought, and in many cases died, to protect the States which they called home. Home and land were always at the forefront of their motives. If land were not at the heart of their interests, slavery would have been wholly useless to them as an institution. They felt their lands and their homes to be wholly threatened by Union invasion--and if any historical revision is needed, it is on this point. How can a citizen stand accused of rebellion when his opponent struck first? A people who is under attack by their government has all of the rights afforded to them under the Constitution to protect themselves. In this, the Confederacy was not guilty of treason. Self-defense is not sedition.
The Confederate troops who enlisted in the regiments of the Southern states thought first and foremost of the safety and protection of their families--no different than a Union fighter. Regardless of why the heads of state began the War, they were common men who took up arms and went to war. It was the hope of common men from both sides that his fortune would allow him to be reunited with his family. When a man from either side was wounded, fell ill, or was killed, the same heartache followed at his adversity. The blood they shed was identical. The agony they experienced was real. Their prayers for their preservation were equal before God. As Kelly Clarkson can point to her starving ancestor who was a prisoner of war, I have a prisoner of war who endured the same conditions. In circumstances no less savage, he was no less a fighter in order to survive.
Why is his human suffering worth less, in the thoughts and memory of some, simply because he was a Confederate?
To be fully honest in the benefit of hindsight, one must acknowledge that the Confederate man's sacrifice possessed a unique element of heroism because of how greatly his odds were against him. He was outnumbered by his enemy in nearly every battle, underfed for most of his conflict, with less resources at his disposal, and with less aid that would ever come in his time of need. Statistically, his chances of survival would dwindle as the war continued as to make it a feat impossible on human strength alone. That the War continued for as long as it did is a testimony to his many virtues, the least of which is strength. Through their suffering and their triumph, these Confederate men proved themselves uncommon men; indeed, extraordinary men worthy of veneration.
You will, with time and careful study, come to appreciate these men as I have. You will feel their influence around you, and you will come to know them as men of strength and resilience, of valor and fortitude. In their hearts was hope for you--their posterity. They fought as much for you and your rights as did the Union soldiers. You are only here today because of them, and their lives deserve to be honored by your deeds. Remember them not with less fondness than the Union soldiers of your heritage. I would sooner have you forget your Confederate heritage than have you dishonor it by speaking ill of them or harboring hatred towards them.
And in whatever flaw you may find them inferior--in morals, in judgment, or in character--be grateful that God has made their weakness manifest unto you. Be humble and remember your responsibility to make all the more of the life and legacy they gave to you.
In love I am ever yours,
Heather D. Collins