The Fourth of July holiday weekend is here, and, in keeping with tradition, Americans will be observing the founding of their nation as only they can: by searing woolly mammoth flanks (on sale at Walmart) on their Realtree-decaled, 124 propane tanked, patio grill to commemorate the time Chuck Norris, a laser cannon-armed cyborg George Washington, and a velociraptor-mounted, open-carrying, tax-cutting Jesus teamed up to win American independence from the overbearing colonial clutches of the gay-communist-British-liberal-anti-freedom zombies.
The Fourth of July is the official holiday for American patriotism, and Americans are a very patriotic people. But in the spirit of Independence Day, it’s worth examining what we mean when we celebrate “patriotism.”
It’s fitting that in recent weeks, the U.S. has undergone some much-needed soul-searching about what role the Confederate battle flag should play in American culture. The debate over the flag speaks to larger themes, especially the American tendency to embrace overly simplified notions about patriotism that dip into the precarious waters of jingoism and blind deference to authority. Real patriotism involves real sacrifice, and real sacrifice means making some really tough decisions about what should be sacrificed and for what purpose. If the sacrifice of patriotism means dying for one’s country, then flag-waving, chest-thumping militarism and the canonization of America™ and its past simply won’t do.
This is where the American Civil War comes in. As the recent Confederate flag controversy demonstrates, the great sectional conflict — via its symbols and legacy — continues to influence how Americans reflect on concepts such as “freedom” and “patriotism.” These concepts are, of course, fundamental to the annual Fourth of July summer ritual of barbecued mammal flesh and digit-severing explosives.
But in the 150 years since the South laid down its arms at Appomatox Court House, the Civil War has been the subject of much mythologizing, to the point where many Americans view its patriotic legacy with a sort of detached, uncritical nonchalance. Sure, all Americans fancy themselves freedom-loving patriots, but the Civil War’s legacy is far more complex than most people realize, and we’d all be better off is we took a closer look at what the war can teach us about patriotism, with all of its possibilities and pitfalls.
As a test-case for how patriotism played out during the Civil War, let’s consider the experience of the state that still incorporates the Confederate flag into its state banner, the second state to secede from the Union following South Carolina, and the state that still epitomizes the Deep South: Mississippi. The Magnolia State sent over 75,000 of its sons to fight for the Confederacy, and many contemporary Mississippians and other white southerners continue to honor the patriotic services of their Rebel ancestors. But few who honor this patriotic “heritage” likely take the time to consider the very serious ramifications inherent in the otherwise common celebration of unquestioned devotion to a patriotic cause.
In Civil War Mississippi, pro-Confederate boosters quickly developed the assumption that the only acceptable type of patriotism was a total, all-encompassing dedication to the cause of the Confederate States of America. This type of patriotism linked body, mind, and soul to the nation, and it left little room for dissent.
In 1863, for example, amidst declining southern battlefield fortunes, military desertion, and flagging civilian morale, Mississippi’s rabidly pro-slavery, pro-Confederate senator Albert Gallatin Brown delivered a blistering “State of the Country” speech to the Confederate senate in which he elevated patriotism to a mystical level. “If I were asked…what the country most needs in this hour of peril, I would say patriotism,” Brown bellowed, “an all pervading and universal patriotism; not the babbling, noisy patriotism, that prates of what it is about to do or has done, but the earnest, heartfelt, quiet, but bounding, patriotism that does all things and dares all things, and wholy oblivious as to self, lives only for the cause.” Brown’s words no doubt tore at many Rebel heartstrings, and, with a slightly adjusted context, could be delivered by any contemporary, flag-flanked, Lee Greenwood-serenaded U.S. politician on cable news. But put into practice, the kind of patriotism that is “wholy oblivious as to self” and “lives only for the cause” sets a thorny precedent, and it warrants further thoughts on the blurry line that separates national pride from blind loyalty.
The thousands of Mississippians who lost their lives on the battlefield, both volunteers and conscripts, demonstrated the most solemn display of patriotism that “lives only for the cause.” On the Mississippi home front, however, patriotism wormed its way into the very fabric of everyday life, turning the most mundane of daily activities into a potential test of national loyalty. In this über-patriotic environment, Confederate provost marshals (the heads of military police) arrested and imprisoned civilians on suspicion of colluding with Union forces for merely traveling the state’s roadways. The Union Army occupied Mississippi for much of the war, so something as benign as walking down a road could bring on the wrath of Confederate authorities itching to round up alleged Yankee spies.
But the compelled loyalty didn’t stop there. Thousands of Mississippi civilians who wanted to buy and trade goods at major cities like Memphis, Vicksburg, and New Orleans had to deal with the fact that Union forces occupied those commercial centers. In a state of war where scarce food and supplies went to the armies first, civilians, especially women, were forced to conduct trade with the Yankee enemy, much to the consternation of Confederate patriots who deemed such behavior to be the highest level of treason. Said patriots tried to squelch this “treasonous” trade at every turn by imprisoning traders and confiscating their goods. As one pro-Confederate judge stated, “the idea of any of our people trading with the Yankees, while they are waging this unholy war, slaying our best & dearest flesh & blood…is at once disgraceful and unpardonable.” The judge recommended that traders suffer the “rigid and prompt infliction” of “the severest penalties.”
Even those who managed to smuggle their own property across Union lines and back to their homes ran the risk of Confederate cavalry impressing their food, clothing, medical supplies, liquors, and slaves in the name of fueling the southern war effort. Private property didn’t stand a chance when all good patriots were expected to sacrifice everything to the national cause.
This type of patriotism dealt in totalties, and it put utmost faith in the justness of the cause it served. In December 1863, Confederate President Jefferson tried to explain to his fellow Mississippians why the war — a war started by the South’s slaveholding class for the purpose of winning national independence in order to protect their human property from perceived northern abolitionist fanaticism — was indeed a just cause. “I feel that in addressing Mississippians…their interests, even life itself, should be willingly laid down on the altar of their country,” Davis stated.” What Davis described wasn’t the kind of cheap patriotism that thrives on waving flags simply because they represent “freedom.” For Davis and other Confederates, patriotism meant giving up everything for one’s country, but if you happened to be one of the thousands of southerners who heartedly disagreed with the whole Confederate experiment, then your patriotism had to be enforced by law, by gun, by conscription — by force.
The Civil War teaches us that patriotism isn’t any one thing — good or bad. The current American culture that equates spittle-flecked flag-waving and infantile gun-stroking with national sacrifice; that too often fuses blind adherence to authority with a creepily unquestioned fetishization of abstract notions of “freedom,” is a culture that should heed the complex lessons of its own brutal Civil War. In Confederate Mississippi, patriotism often manifested itself as blinding, even totalitarian. If the Fourth of July holiday symbolizes nothing else, it symbolizes an American tradition that should be deeply skeptical of loyalty-by-bayonet, by political force, or by cultural peer pressure.
The Revolution of 1776 was, above all else, a rejection of the long-held notion that loyalties could be — should be — compelled. At their best, the Patriots who won independence from Colonial Britain were driven by the fundamental principle that true patriotism must never be forced by either the gun barrel or blind subservience to a cause, because forced patriotism was tyranny masquerading as freedom. At their worst, the patriots of the Revolutionary Era tarred-and-feathered real and “suspected” British loyalists (aka, Tories) drove them from their homes, arrested them for treason, and even outright attacked them physically. Even in America’s founding years, patriotism had its dark side.
The Confederate revolutionaries of 1861 claimed to be following in the footsteps of their colonial forefathers, but their slaveholding cause wasn’t just. Moreover, their tendency towards compelled patriotism stands as a stark reminder on this Fourth of July holiday of why patriotism involves more than just waving a flag, searing a cylindrical tube of processed hog snouts, and blowing stuff up in your backyard.
Real patriotism involves a critical appraisal of the things that make your country great as well as the things that make it flawed. Real patriotism involves questioning, improving, sympathizing, and resorting to force not out of the fear of being “un-American,” but out of the understanding that force should be a last and necessary resort. So on this Fourth of July Holiday, take some time out to appreciate the complexities of U.S. history and the multifaceted meanings behind patriotism — after all, no one’s forcing you to do otherwise.