My Confederate Conversion Experience
Excerpt from the Introduction to
Bullspotting: Finding Facts in the Age of Misinformation
Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, a major controversy in my home state of Georgia centered around the state flag. Since 1956, the Georgia flag had featured, in addition to the state seal, the battle flag of the Confederate States of America. Some argued that this was representative of a racist past. Others felt that this was a display of Southern heritage and was no more offensive than the flag’s use on the roof of the Duke brothers’ Dodge Charger.
I fell into the latter camp. I was, after all, a dyed-in-the-wool Southerner. My Southern credentials were (and still are) impeccable. I am a seventh-generation Georgian. The Collinses have lived in Georgia since the 1830s; other branches of my family tree can be traced back to the 1700s Carolinas. The only branch of my family that didn’t live in the antebellum South was the branch that immigrated to America in the late 1800s…and settled in the South. I am descended from not one, not two, but five Confederate soldiers. And I was raised in Stone Mountain, home to the world’s largest memorial to the losing side of a war.
So, naturally, I grew up defending the Confederacy, which I saw as synonymous with defending the South itself. It was an extension of regional pride and was unsurprising, given my influences. Such influences included the accepted “fact” that the Civil War was fought not over slavery but rather over a series of legitimate Southern grievances. To suggest that the Confederacy was motivated primarily by slavery or racism was nothing more than an anti-Southern smear campaign.
And so, when it came to the state flag, I saw the inclusion of the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of pride, not prejudice. I wanted to defend it from those who saw it as an opportunity to demean my ancestors and to destroy my heritage. Having heard for years that the South had fought over states’ rights, I thought that a good defense strategy would be to document and summarize the South’s “real” motivations—to draw from contemporary source material the Southern states’ unanswered complaints of oppressive tariffs, unfair regulation, and more.
That was what I expected to find. What I found instead changed me.
The contemporary sources didn’t support my thesis; they outright contradicted it. Confederate leaders in 1860 and 1861 were not threatening secession over tariffs or regulations. Rather, all secession rhetoric at the time was centered around a single issue: slavery.
Jefferson Davis, the future Confederate president, proposed a constitutional amendment that he argued would avert secession. Its terms were simple: it would have protected the legal status of slavery. Forever. Four Confederate states issued declarations of cause, detailing their reasons for seceding; all four identified the protection of Negro slavery as their primary motivation. Alexander Stephens, the Confederate vice president, proudly bragged that the Confederate government was the “first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth” of black inferiority.1
Other contemporary sources told the same tale. When taxes were cited in support of secession, they were taxes related to slavery. When regulations were cited, they were regulations related to slavery. To the extent secession proponents spoke of states’ rights, they appeared to be concerned with but one right: the right to own slaves.
This was not what I had always believed. But there it was, in the Confederate leaders’ own unambiguous words. And my efforts to find more positive sources were fruitless. Every contemporary argument for secession made slavery either its primary focus or its exclusive focus. Any other concern was plainly inferior to slavery and was not, by itself, a driving force of secession.
I had set out to gather support for a conclusion I already had scripted. I had wanted to justify the belief I already held. But the evidence I found was so universally against my position that I could not even pick and choose my sources; any source that even mentioned a nonslavery grievance mentioned slavery far more prominently.
I had a choice to make. I could look past this evidence and find other ways to justify my existing belief, or I could change my belief. I chose the latter.
I am sure that to some readers, this sounds like a perfunctory decision. Like it was nothing more than being corrected on what year James Garfield was assassinated. But this was not a mere factoid; it was a cultural truth. Remember, it was at the center of a major debate over the state flag.
Accepting that I had been wrong meant acknowledging that I and others I trusted had been advancing a false argument for a long time. Moreover, given the nature of this new truth, it also meant that my five ancestors had fought on the wrong side of that war. It meant realizing that my hometown prominently honored the leaders of that wrong side.
It did not make me ashamed to be a Southerner. But it did make me ashamed to have believed for so long that the Confederacy was an aspect of my heritage to be proud of. Accepting the truth was difficult because it was an uncomfortable truth. Conceding the evil of the Confederacy’s ways gives me little satisfaction. And yet, there is no shortage of Confederate apologists who seem to have made the opposite choice from me. They object to the presentation of slavery as the South’s motivating interest, and they have their own ways of justifying their belief.
What makes my argument more compelling than theirs? I like to think that it comes down to the nature of the evidence presented. When I set out to defend the Confederacy’s honor, I immediately set my sights on what I believed would be the most determinative and elucidative enumerations of the Confederate cause: the words of the Confederate leaders themselves, as they were promoting the creation of the Confederacy. Perhaps this wouldn’t be unimpeachable evidence; perhaps they might paint a rosy portrait of themselves. But it is certainly a logical starting point, for the same reasons that any discussion of America’s founding starts with the Continental Congress and the Declaration of Independence.
Confederate defenders don’t take this approach. They find their justification in other places. They quote what Confederate leaders said after the war was over, after the Confederate States of America had lost, and once slavery was illegal. They look to the beliefs of the foot soldiers in the Confederate army rather than to the political leaders who orchestrated the secession and founded the Confederacy. They shift the focus onto the North’s motivations or onto Lincoln’s beliefs and then try to reverse engineer the South’s motivations from that. Because they seek justification, they find places to mine it from, and then they reject the more straightforward evidence.
When I published an editorial in the university paper criticizing the idolization of the Confederacy and citing numerous sources in support of my position, I received only one response that disagreed with me.2 And even he chose not to address the facts I presented; his only mention of my writing was to object to my use of the word ‘shame’. He couldn’t overcome the words of the Confederate founders, so he could only ignore them.
As much as I tend to see this as the central turning point in my critical thinking, it was truthfully more of a tentpole moment along the way. It was a sudden shift in opinion, away from a belief that I then realized I had rationalized for far too long.
1. “Modern History Sourcebook: Alexander H. Stephens (1812–1883): Cornerstone Address, March 21, 1861,” Fordham University, http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1861stephens.asp
2. Loren Collins, “The Truth in the Story of Secession,” redandblack.com, April 30, 2003, http://www.redandblack.com/opinion/the-truth-in-the-story-of-secession/article_39bd5f2e-d8d9-59a3-832b-d858faccdd4f.html