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Confederate Monuments


Confederate Monuments         Gerry OShea

Deirdre Clarke, a young Irish-American teacher with roots in Rockland County, posted a statement on Facebook recently dismissing the opinions of some of her friends in the Irish community who were arguing that statues of confederate leaders should not be removed because they are part of our history. Deirdre responded that based on that logic they would have no problem with an Oliver Cromwell Memorial in Dublin or a similar statue in Cork recalling the antics of the Black and Tans.

John Mitchel, a leader of the revolutionary Young Irelanders in the 1848 rebellion, presents an interesting case in this debate, especially from an Irish nationalist perspective. He fought for the principles of equality and fair play for all Irish people, irrespective of religious affiliation. Coming from a Presbyterian background, he decried the demeaning anti-Catholic tirades by English Establishment leaders and their supporters. Mitchel saw clearly that subjugation of Catholics was central to the colonial policies dictated by all the political parties in Westminster.

He was expelled by the court to Van Diemens Land, now Tasmania, for his leadership in the nationalist insurrection in 1848. He escaped from there and made his way to America where, after a spell in New York, he settled with his family in Knoxville Tennessee. There he became a rabid promoter of slavery. In 1857 he founded a newspaper, The Southern Citizen, for the express purpose of “promoting the value and virtue” of slave labor.

Amazingly, for a man who was so perceptive about the prevailing inequality in Ireland, he expounded an extreme, contradictory philosophy in his newspaper, claiming that blacks were inherently inferior people and should be subject to “flogging or other needful correction.”

 His colleague in the leadership of the Young Irelanders, Thomas Francis Meagher, also ended up in New York from exile in Tasmania, but he viewed the slavery issue much differently and he joined the Union army at the start of the Civil War. He rose to the rank of brigadier general with a mixed record of military success against the confederate armies. He was especially famous for helping to recruit the Irish Brigade, an infantry regiment from New York which distinguished itself in some of the major battles of the war.

Mitchel considered Abraham Lincoln “an ignoramus and a boor.” He was entitled to his opinion of the president, but his vicious support for  slavery, claiming that the despicable chattel system was ”inherently moral and good” highlighted a huge character flaw in the Irish leader.

In this era of #BlackLivesMatter Mitchel’s memorial statue is likely to be removed from the middle of Newry, Co. Down, and GAA players aligned to John Mitchel’s clubs will surely have a queasy feeling about their allegiance to a team that honors a man with such a dubious history.

The Confederacy was originally formed by the secession of seven slave-holding states and it lasted for four years from 1861 to 1865. Their goal was clearly set out by their vice-president, Alexander H. Stephens, who described the ideology of the breakaway states as being based upon “the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”

President Lincoln was installed as president of the United States in March, 1861, but a month previously a conflicting Confederate government was established with its headquarters in Richmond, Virginia. They had their own army and coinage and they invited other states to join them in secession – which some did, increasing the number in the confederacy to eleven. They were in open and flagrant rebellion against the Union, and their actions were called out as treacherous and illegitimate. The Civil War began in April when confederate forces attacked Fort Sumpter in Charleston, South Carolina.

Rebel armies were successful in some of the major battles in the early years of the war, but superior Union forces gradually asserted their dominance, greatly helped by naval control over the ports along the coastline from Virginia to South Carolina.

The Confederate leadership under their president, Jefferson Davis, and their top military commander, General Robert E Lee, felt sure that their cause would be supported by the English and the French governments. They reasoned that cheap cotton was so necessary for the economies in both countries – especially in England – that to maintain a supply of inexpensive slave-produced cotton they would feel compelled to support the claims of the new country.

Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward, warned Paris and London that helping the secessionist states would have dire consequences for them. In addition, slavery was illegal in England since 1833 so supporting a slave owners’ rebellion would be hugely controversial in powerful political circles in London. The French sold some military supplies to the rebels but were never close to sending troops across the Atlantic. No foreign power recognized the legitimacy of the new nation.

 The Confederate armies initially consisted of white males, aged between 16 and 28. They committed to serve for at least one year, but after twelve months a majority did not want to re-enlist. To find sufficient recruits they introduced conscription and extended the age of recruitment to forty-five, but the southern armies nearly always faced larger numbers and better-equipped Union troops.

 Early in 1865 Davis and Lee wanted to recruit black men for their regiments but the governing Confederate Congress refused to grant freedom for service to these soldiers. Not surprisingly, less than 200 black combat troops enlisted.

General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 9th 1865 effectively ended the disastrous civil war which claimed the lives of more than half a million combatants.

The 13th Amendment to the constitution which passed in December 1865 outlawed slavery, but the leaders of the revolt got off lightly. General Lee was indicted for treachery and spent a short term in jail, but was never tried in court for what was obviously a really serious crime. Jefferson Davis was covered by a mass amnesty granted by President Johnson on Christmas Day 1868.

While the Union victory gave important legal relief to black people, economic and social progress for them came in tiny steps. In many southern states flogging was replaced by lynching, and the oppression and humiliation of Jim Crow laws replaced the chains of slavery.

About 50 years after the Appomattox surrender it became politically acceptable to explain the Civil War in terms of an assertion of states’ rights against an unjust central government. In reality, the constitution of the Confederacy was very similar to the prevailing one for the Union – with one notable exception covering the place of black people in the community. Pleading about the importance of the rights of local governments invites the question about whose rights were being devalued in American states in the 1860’s?

 Southern segregationists promoted the Noble Cause narrative of the Civil War. This glorified the good intentions and noble behavior of the Confederate soldiers who lost the war but were deemed to be engaged in a glorious venture defending their homes and the rights of statehood. Statues were erected to the leaders of this “brave” experiment and the confederate emblem was inserted at the top corner of the national flag in some of the previous confederate states.

The flag controversy only ended recently when the legislators in Mississippi – the last to change - agreed to display only the stars and stripes in the national emblem. The statues and monuments erected to leaders of the confederacy remain a major issue. President Trump decried “the merciless campaign to erase our values and indoctrinate our children” in his Mount Rushmore speech for Independence Day and previously he has hailed the confederate memorials as “beautiful.”

 He may well be whistling against the wind on this occasion because the #BlackLivesMatter campaign has widespread public support. Only a declining minority now believes that the country should be honoring  traitors like Robert E Lee who, waving the pro-slavery flag, led an internal renegade revolt that resulted in the deaths of over half a million Americans.

Deirdre Clarke will be glad to know that it is very likely that a main street in Cork city will be re-named in honor of Frederick Douglass, the great abolitionist leader, who spent three weeks in Cork in 1845. The people treated him as a man of heroic stature, and he wrote in laudatory terms about the exuberant welcome he received from the people of all classes in the southern capital.

Gerry OShea blogs at wemustbetalking.com






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