No one should ever be asked to throw dirt on graves of his ancestors.
Preparing for my return to Greenville in South Carolina’s attractive, prospering city, I took out the South Carolina Travel Book from our Library System. It was an entry in the Moon series and it assured Northern visitors that Greenville is not home to backward Bible-thumping bigots
And smug cosmopolitans wonder if the rest of us don’t hate our guts too!
Greenville, whose favorite sons are the Jacksons (Shoeless Joe and Jesse), was the site of the last concert that Lynyrd Skynyrd, the free birds of Southern rock, played before the band’s plane went down on October 20, 1977. Skynyrd’s best song, “All That I Can Do is Write About It,” protests homogenization and paving of the South. Ronnie Van Zant, the lead singer, pleads for God to take Ronnie and his family before they go. But pavers gonna pave.
A prominent absence from both the Moon guide and the tourist maps was the mention of the Museum and Library of Confederate History. This is the sort of filiopietistic throwback which makes New South boosters cringe.
Chamber of Commerce, be damned. I stopped by the museum which is run by the Sons of Confederate Veterans. It’s tucked away inside a small flag-flavooned house in the Pettigru Historic District.
Upon entering, I was met by an older man with a distinct accent that recalled the time when the Greenville area was the North American headquarters for Michelin and BMW.
“I am Larry Waddell,” said he, reaching out his hand. It was shaken.
“You starting around here ?”
“No. I’m not from New York.” I quickly added “Towards Buffalo” .”
“Buffalo”, he stated with an unspoken distasteful look, almost as though he’d just said “I’m a Unitarian poet hailing from Boston .”
“Another damnyankee. A green card .”
He gave me a greencard, with the following banner:
The bearer of this card is a citizen from the Northern United States who has been given the privilege to live in the Confederacy. The privilege has been conferred by the union of a Southerner or adoption. This card will be void if you return to the “damnyankee” way of living. You’ll immediately be deported across the Potomac
I avoided expulsion because I am a Yorker and not a Yankee.
The Confederate Museum is item-rich with captions which make no claim of objectivity. Mr. Waddell claims that the museum receives no support from the city. It was the Palmetto State that seceded from the Union. There are no regrets or apologies and no concessions for “on the other” in the CSA redoubt at Boyce Avenue.
I saw revolvers and rifles, weapons and flags. I also saw amputation tools (including one embedded in bone), wooden legs and Confederate money. There were enough images of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, to make an Oberlin sophomore hyperventilate. One of the General States Rights Gist photographs was included in the collection of photos of Johnny Rebs and other generals from South Carolina. Born in 1831 in, ironically, Union, South Carolina, States Rights Gist had a father who admired John C. Calhoun, who at the time was locked in a fight with Andrew Jackson over, well, states’ rights. States Rights, upper case, died in 1864, shot through the heart at the Battle of Franklin, Tennessee.
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The walls are lined with photographs of the black Confederates, and descendants. The descriptive text emphasizes their Southern patriotism. Museum frames war as a divisional conflict, in which slavery was secondary. Although I don’t believe that, it is a shame that those offering alternative views of “the greatest single tragedy that still gives resonance to Our Republic”, Gore Vidal described as “the greatest single tragic event that has continued to give resonance to Our Republic” have been expelled.
My strongest sympathies lie with the Christian anarcho-abolitionists, many from my neck of the woods, who sought to dissolve the South’s peculiar institution by moral suasion in the 1830s and later by defying the Fugitive Slave Act with “personal liberty” laws. They were serving the Lord. But even compensated emancipation–paying slave-owners to free their human chattel–would have been preferable to the four-year slaughterhouse that left 700,000 boys and men dead, millions bereft, the lower half of the country prostrate and impoverished, and the newly freed slaves largely propertyless.
Eugene Genovese was a great Marxist historian about slavery and the South. He said no one should have to ask for dirt on his ancestors’ graves. Greenville’s Confederate Museum is manned by old men who don’t do that.