My ancestors’ slaves, and the ignorance of celebrating Confederate “heritage” by conspicuously displaying the Rebel Flag

Early in my professional career I was at a business networking event and got on the topic of family history with a respected professional here in the Richmond, Virginia business community (for those not from ‘round here, these kinds of conversations happen pretty frequently).

Joab King II was a 3rd great grandfather of mine

I had recently learned that some family genealogy research had uncovered the fact that I had ancestors that fought in the American Revolution, the War of 1812, as well as the Civil War on the side of the Confederacy. One of these Confederate soldiers was captured and served time as a prisoner in a Union POW camp. To me, this personal connection to history was very interesting and I was eager to share what I knew.

The guy I was talking to had a similar family history, and in fact his went all the way back to George Washington’s Continental Army. He told me that these kinds of verified family histories could get one admitted to various “lineage” or “heritage” societies such as the Society of the Cincinnati, the Sons of the American Revolution, and the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

That was interesting too, but donning a tux and dining in generally men’s-only affluent social clubs wasn’t really my cup of tea. Also at the time, the idea of celebrating the Confederacy seemed a bit off-putting to me, but I wasn’t able to really articulate why that was. I politely let him know that I’d be sure to get back in touch if I decided I wanted to go through the application process for any of the groups.

Deeper Family History

More recently, I’ve rekindled my interest in learning more about my family history and genealogy to the point where I’m a paying member of Ancestry.com. Their site is a wealth of information on things like births, marriages, military service records, census rolls, wills, and deaths. Another type of record available is known as a US Federal Census “Slave Schedule” — an enumeration of the human property owned by people appearing on the main census rolls. It’s important to note that in most cases I’ve been able to find, the slaves’ names were not recorded — just their owners.

1850 US Federal Census Slave Schedule showing slaves owned by William Chisholm, one of my 5th great-grandfathers. The three columns filled out in the middle are age, sex, and “colour”, the tick marks repeating an earlier notation of “B” for “Black” Note the lack of “Name” (first column)

As I dug through my own family’s history, I learned (based on the records available to me) that there were far more people owned as slaves by my ancestors than who had fought in the Civil War on the side of the Confederacy, in my family tree.

Clearly, there were people in my family’s past who benefited from slave labor, and those who fought to defend that institution. I know that isn’t an overly nuanced interpretation, but when you come across enough last will & testament documents that describe land boundaries, horses, and slaves being passed from father to son, it’s an easy one to form.


Debates around the display of the Confederate flag

One debate is which is the correct “Confederate” flag and what each variant is actually called, and when was it originally used. This is the one I usually see around town on domestic automobiles.

The recent debates about the display of the Confederate flag on license plates, above a State House, and in public in general, got me thinking about this mix of history, “lineage societies” and those who openly celebrate their Confederate heritage by displaying images of the “stars & bars”.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans — one of the more vocal participants in these discussions — is an organization whose motto is “Defending History since 1896” and whose membership is “open to all male descendants of any veteran who served honorably in the Confederate armed forces”. They describe their group as celebrating:

The citizen-soldiers who fought for the Confederacy personified the best qualities of America. The preservation of liberty and freedom was the motivating factor in the South’s decision to fight the Second American Revolution…
Today, the Sons of Confederate Veterans is preserving the history and legacy of these heroes so that future generations can understand the motives that animated the Southern Cause.

Notable members of this organization have included: Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman, Bear Bryant, and Clint Eastwood.

License plate previously available to Virginians who were also members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans

Unfortunately for them, they recently had their ability to obtain a license plate displaying their logo, which includes a variant of the Confederate flag, revoked by the governor of Virginia.

They continue to fight the battle to display their symbol of heritage on license plates in other states.


A hypothesis about heritage

It is dangerous to take one’s personal experience, or facts one knows about themselves, and project that on to a larger group of people. However, I’m going to put forward a hypothesis based on what I’ve learned about my family history, and the fact that the ancestors it pertains to had many, many descendants, and were members of a population who shares similar demographic profiles (in other words, I know this applies to more people than just me):

If you find that you have Confederate veteran ancestors, you have a high likelihood of finding that you have slave-owning ancestors

Feel free to try to disprove this hypothesis.

“But the Civil War was really about…”

People will argue what the Civil War was really fought over and whether or not it was about slavery, but the fact remains that in 2015, the image of the Confederate flag evokes the ideas of racism and white men owning black people of all ages in a system of chattel slavery. After the Civil War, this particular system of slavery as an institution ceased to exist.

Free speech has meaning

If someone wants to proudly display the stars and bars at their house, or on the back of their pickup truck, or wherever they see fit within their First Amendment rights — this is what they’re saying to me:

At best they’re ignorant of the real history of their family and the community their ancestors lived in. (Please, for the love of your descendants, educate yourself.)

At worst, maybe they know, and they just don’t care about the people who lived alongside the Confederate veterans of their “heritage” and what celebrating that war means to the people in their community today who are descendants of slaves. This is their way of continuing the “rebel” tradition. (Basically, you’re racist.)

…and it isn’t just the descendants of slaves, but what it represents as a symbol of racism today.

Chris Busse is a supporter of every citizen’s Constitutional rights and he calls ‘em like he sees ‘em. He admittedly has a layman’s understanding of history, and welcomes constructive comments on this post.