[Conclusion of a 3-part post that begins here.]
Most rebel-flag waving Southerners never stop to examine how blessed they are that the South got its ass kicked in the Civil War. Please allow me to show why they should.
Let’s start in 1830 when Michael Tuomey, a young Irishman, immigrates to America and finds his way to Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate New York. He studies geology. Then, equipped with diploma and insatiable curiosity for rocks and soil, he takes jobs in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and finally, in 1842, is appointed geologist of the State of Alabama.
Tuomey’s first objective is to carry out a geological survey of the relatively new state. But to do this, he must calm the concerns of the slave-owning powerful, or, as author Michael Fazio refers to them in his history of Birmingham, Landscape of Transformations (p. 19), “…those agriculture-minded Black Belt planters…who had little or no interest in industrialization or were opposed to it.” [The Black Belt is a massive swath of dark fertile soil stretching from northeast Mississippi through central and parts of southern Alabama. In other words, cotton plantation country.]
Tuomey did convince them, arguing that geological discovery will aid farming, too. So he goes to work, but the plantation farmers’ fears are confirmed. What Tuomey finds as he roams around north-central Alabama’s Jones Valley is a series of mountains “capped by red hermatite” that stretch a distance of 150 miles. This seam will prove to be iron ore, a coveted component in the budding American iron and steel industry, which plantation owners regard as a filthy, perverted Yankee business, not befitting a Southern gentleman.
Soon, however, the Civil War will create the Confederate army’s immediate need for iron-based industry that can produce cannons, guns, bullets as well as the expansion of railroad capacity. But the iron mills that pop up in the South are small and geared almost exclusively to the war. Few moneyed Southerners seem to be paying attention to the long-range potential of industrialization. Why would they? Plantation owners have little incentive to look long-range so long as they’re living in literal and proverbial high cotton.
As I said in my previous post, these plantation elite are the people who created an economy that in 1860 had trapped 3,953,761 black people in slavery, and millions of white folk, like my ancestors, on hard-scrabble dirt farms where they battled against starvation. These rich families started the Civil War to protect a closed economy that offered no upward mobility, no opportunities for poor folks to improve themselves. These people sent our ancestors off to war.
And so the best thing that could have happened for us, the descendants of slaves and of those whom slave-owners called “poor white trash,” is that the North whip the South’s ass.
Why? Because that defeat blew open the door—a huge, gaping door—to Southern industrialization. Step by rapid step, the plantation owners’ complete control of the Southern economy was loosed. Within six years of the war’s end, Michael Tuomey’s discovery of iron ore brought far-sighted entrepreneurial industrialists to Jones Valley, where they began to build a city which they named after England’s industrial powerhouse—Birmingham.
Into Birmingham will stream former slaves and poor white folks (like each one of my grandparents), and while some may rightly question how fairly these folks were treated by the new industrial barons, one cannot deny that, for the first time in hundreds of years, these families have a shot—however long it may be—at upward mobility, of bettering their lives and the lives of their descendants—of gaining dignity. And this isn’t just Birmingham. All over Alabama, all over the South, big factories pop up in need of employees, most of whom are drawn out of what otherwise would’ve been inescapable poverty. [As just one example among millions, read my grandfather’s story here.]
Again I’ll say it: the South needed to lose the war. Some have argued, “Even if the South had won the war, slavery would’ve eventually collapsed.” That’s probably true. History shows that, at least since the fall of the Roman Empire, slave-based economies always collapse because they keep wage-earners from the job market. But, for the sake of argument, let’s imagine the U.S. had a lesser leader than Lincoln who withstood pressure from many Northern politicians to accept the Confederacy’s plea for a truce. Let’s say Andrew Johnson, instead, was president, and his administration accepted the truce, so that the Confederate States were able to continue as an agrarian nation. And, for the sake of argument, let’s say the Confederacy did eventually eradicate slavery, maybe by 1920 or so, and that slowly but surely the Confederacy began to build an industrial base.
Where would this have left our American history as we know it? Without Southern industrial plants augmenting those in the North, would the United States have been ready to play its pivotal role in the victories of World War 1 and especially World War 2? Absolutely not. If the Confederacy had survived the Civil War, we would likely be dealing with a strong legacy of Nazism in Europe today. And we would not, by any scenario, be the world’s most powerful nation.
So, what in the hell is up with all this Confederate-flag-waving nonsense? What’s with admiration of figures like Gen. Nathan Bedford Forest, a slave-owning Klansman—in short, an asshole? Why do we venerate a flag that represents an event in which our ancestors were used and abused by people who called them “white trash”?
I think there are two inter-related reasons. First, most of us white Southerners were, in our youth, subject to an unrelenting indoctrination in which many of us were convinced that our ancestry looked a great deal like the O’Haras in Gone with the Wind. This indoctrination, passed down from the plantations, convinced us—as it did our ancestors—that “Y’all are just like us,” that “Y’all need to help us defend our sacred land.”
Second, because many of our ancestors (like my great-great grandfather Nevil) did sign up, the propaganda is strengthened by this sentiment: “If you criticize the Southern cause, then you turn your back on your beloved ancestors, which makes you a damn traitor!”
For me, this second reason was the more powerful. How could I turn my back on Nevil, my grandmama’s granddaddy? And, honestly, if I had not begun to read and think more clearly about the Civil War, I would still be harping that line today.
But somewhere in my twenties, there emerged in my mind an image of Nevil, my felled Confederate ancestor. He’s lying on his back, bleeding out, from his Yankee-inflicted wounds. Greater than his physical pain is his agony that he’ll never again see or hold his wife or his newborn son. Though he doesn’t yet know that his side will lose, he begins to wonder what the hell he was fighting for. Neither he nor anyone he knew ever owned a slave. All he had was a little dirt farm, a little shack, and a little family that no one, especially not a Yankee, ever threatened.
Over the years, I’ve imagined him looking down through a celestial window, watching his grandchildren, whom he never met, move, one by one, to Birmingham where the men take up jobs in steel mills and train yards and the women raise children or become school teachers. He smiles and scratches his head as he watches them build lives in houses with electric lights and indoor plumbing. He continues to watch as his grandchildren’s children and then their children go to school and learn things he never dreamed of. He watches them get even better jobs than their parents had. As I see him, he draws his right hand to his heart, shakes his head in amazement, as tears of joy stream down his face.
I think of him also when I’m driving down Interstate 459 and a pickup truck blows by me with a huge Confederate flag rippling behind. I watch that flag, and, faintly I hear Nevil’s voice say, “Don’t believe it, my son. Don’t you believe it for one second.”