Sunday, November 11, 2012

Veteran's Day Question

In honor of Veteran's Day, the scouts in our town went to the local cemetery and placed flags on veterans' graves. Our family did the same thing in the spring for Memorial Day, and we had a little dilemma when it came to the many Confederate graves that we saw. Do you honor the military service of men who fought against the Union? Moreover, would Confederate veterans even want the flag that they fought against to be planted in their graves? I've been thinking through this issue on this Veteran's Day.  

The summer after my second year in law school I worked in Dallas. So, over Memorial Day weekend 1997, I drove west on I-20 from Atlanta to Texas. I stopped in Vicksburg, Mississippi to try to spend the night. At the first hotel where I stopped the lady looked at me like I was out of my mind:
"You want a room? In Vicksburg? Over Memorial Day weekend? Oh, honey, you've got to be kidding me. You'd better drive on to Louisiana." 
I wasn't aware of the history of Vicksburg other than a vague knowledge that something had happened there during the Civil War and it weren't purty for the south. Now I know, thanks to Wikipedia that when the Confederates surrendered at Vicksburg on July 4, 1863, the Union would control the Mississippi River for the remainder of the war. Also, the city of Vicksburg would not celebrate July 4th until after World War II. And, apparently even 130 years after the battle, it was still such a big deal that you couldn't stay there over Memorial Day weekend without reservations.

I have at least two direct ancestors who fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. My three-times great grandfather, Moses Jackson (for real, that was his name) was an ardent states-rights advocate who was a lieutenant colonel in the 33rd Mississippi Infantry during. Moses was a man with a lot to lose if slavery was abolished. He owned a big plantation in Amite County, Mississippi. And, as these things go, along with the plantation, he owned a fairly large number of slaves.

I had never really thought about what Moses did after the south surrendered. I assumed that he slunk back to Mississippi, accepted defeat, and got accustomed to the new status quo. However, that would be underestimating the resolve of a man who, when he fought, used the sword that his grandfather used in the Revolutionary War and his father used in the War of 1812. I recently discovered that Moses was instrumental in disrupting the Mississippi elections of 1875 in Amite County and intimidating federal tax collectors and other "carpetbaggers" and "scalawags." It was a sobering reminder that old soldiers don't die, they just find new battles to fight.

Moses's son-in-law, my two times great-grandfather was also a confederate soldier. Johnny Walker (again, his real name, and no relation to the whiskey) was 16 when he signed up, was captured almost immediately and spent the entire war as a P.O.W. at a Union prison in Delaware. Whenever my kids complain when they're teenagers, I'm going to mention that it could totally be worse. They could be spending their 17th birthday in a prison overrun with cholera and dysentery. Johnny didn't own any slaves. His parents ran the school in town and his father was a judge. Johnny wanted to read law, but the Civil War changed all that.

Johnny married Moses's daughter, Nora after the war. Nora seems like a bit of a firebrand like her father, but by 1865, Nora was a 22 year-old widow with a baby girl and not a whole lot of options. I'm sure that Johnny, with all his limbs intact and a latent case of PTSD seemed like a pretty good choice.  The family moved west and Johnny became the sheriff of Dardanelle, Arkansas. The evidence seems pretty clear that Johnny never really recovered from his experiences in prison and losing friends, family, and property after the War. That's probably why Johnny's son, Lamar, Mom's grandfather wrote Mom an impassioned letter when she and Dad got engaged, begging her not to marry Dad because he was a Yankee. 

So, I feel like Moses would round up a posse and go after anyone who planted the stars and stripes on his grave. Even Johnny, who may not have continued to agitate after the War ended probably wouldn't appreciate seeing the flag of his captors on his grave. But, the alternative, planting the flag of the Confederacy isn't a good option for what it represents. I guess when I consider the alternatives, doing nothing seems like the best course. Now that I've thought about this issue, I feel like I have to qualify my thanks to the veterans. Rather than thanking American veterans, I want to thank all the American veterans who fought for the United States.



  1. Replies
    1. I do too, I just hadn't ever thought about the CSA vets and what to do about them. In general, though it's a great thing for the scouts to do.

  2. Just to make sure we give props where props are due: The Girl Scouts (Ava's brownie troop and others) were out there on Saturday morning as well. I think it is a lovely community service project and glad the kids learn what it means at a young age. Too bad they were greeted by disgusting graffiti on the graves, but that's another story.

    Re: the Civil War... Coming from the North like you, I am still amazed by what a polarizing discussion it is down here. I have heard the argument that some confederate soldiers were truly fighting for the safety of their homesteads and families, not for slavery, but overall I think you have to give that up, given the totality of the deaths, damage and destruction of the war that was primarily driven by the desire to maintain slavery. Yet, I just saw a confederate flag on the front of a pick-up truck driving through our neighborhood today. Seems so ridiculous in this day and age!

    That was a thoughtful and thought-provoking post. Thank you!

    1. Yes, I think I said "scouts." Madeleine was late to soccer on Saturday, so I knew it was something that both the girl and boy scouts did (unlike the weapons thing). :)

      It's a complicated issue and the thing that a lot of people forget is that the invading northern army and "Yankees" following the Civil War did a lot of unsavory things to southern civilians. I think it takes a lot of time for those memories to fade. You know in the south, the past is never dead. It's not even past!