Confederate States of Mind
Multimedia producer Logan Jaffe talks with three Americans for whom the Confederate flag represents three very different things.
Ed Ayers: Okay, Nathan. What do Princess Leia, James Brown, and Donald Trump all have in common?
Nathan Connolly: Okay, I got this. They all had an awesome 1970’s. Yeah? No. It’s the hair. We know them by their hair.
Ed Ayers: Well, I think we would give you credit for both of those, but as it turns out, hair is what we’re talking about today.
Nathan Connolly: All right.
Ed Ayers: Yes, they all have signature hairstyles, and their locks say something about who they are. I was wondering, have you ever had signature hair, Nathan?
Nathan Connolly: Absolutely not. I play it real straight.
Ed Ayers: You kept it close to the vest or-
Nathan Connolly: That’s right, close to the scalp. That’s right.
Ed Ayers: Well, if some of you are more interesting than Nathan on this front and if you wear your heart in your hair, we wanna know, what does your hairstyle say about you? How does your hair convey your identity? Or are you happy like Nathan, that it doesn’t?
Nathan Connolly: That’s right.
Ed Ayers: Send us a 30 second voice memo from your smartphone, to email@example.com.
Nathan Connolly: We’ll hair some of your responses. No, air your responses on an upcoming show about the history of hair in America.
Brian Balogh: We’re gonna close this show today with a perspective that we don’t often hear. It’s the voice of someone who actually changed his mind.
Ed Ayers: Waverly Adcock’s love of Civil War history dates back to the 5th grade. That was when his teacher pointed out that in 1862, Stonewall Jackson’s army marched down the very street where he lived.
Waverly Adcock: I could imagine seeing those soldiers walking down our road, with the dust flying and the muskets gleaming in the sunlight. And at that moment, I was absolutely hooked.
Ed Ayers: As an adult, Adcock spent more than a decade living out that history as a Confederate re enactor. He loved everything about it; the drills, setting up camp, and the camaraderie. He even liked the hardtack. All that made him feel a powerful connection to his ancestors who had fought for the Confederacy.
Waverly Adcock: Well, I’d say we were definitely fighting for home and hearth and for our state’s right to … Protecting ourselves from that Yankee horde that was coming, that Lincoln had sent down. We didn’t feel it was right for him to try to tell one state how they should live.
Ed Ayers: So, to what extent did you consider slavery to be a cause of the war?
Waverly Adcock: Well, I always felt that, yeah, slavery was one of the causes of the war. But you really want to wash it over. You just want to cover that up. You know it’s there, but man, you just don’t want to bring that up, because you know it’s sensitive to a lot of people.
Ed Ayers: But in 2013, Adcock started having second thoughts. It was during the anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.
Waverly Adcock: We had a reporter embedded with us at the 150th Anniversary, which was a mega event, I think about 11,000 or 12,000 reenactors. And the discussion started turning towards, “How do you feel about slavery? And how do you think your ancestors would have thought about it?”, and things like that.
Ed Ayers: Right.
Waverly Adcock: And I started thinking about my perceptions of the war, and was I really being accurate or was I really being honest with myself about why I portrayed a Confederate soldier. And it started putting a few seeds of doubt in my head.
Ed Ayers: Right.
Waverly Adcock: And then last year about this time, I discovered … Doing a little family research, I found out that one of my ancestors founded Augusta County, John Lewis.
Ed Ayers: Wow.
Waverly Adcock: And then I found out that his son Thomas, who is my seventh grandfather, petitioned the court to have one of his slaves castrated.
Ed Ayers: Oh, wow.
Waverly Adcock: And that had a huge, huge affect on me. And I started seeing that … This became very real. And that was kind of another eyeopener for me. It’s okay to love the South, but how do you celebrate the Confederate soldier and still deal with the sins of slavery? It’s a complex thing. I love the South, I love my ancestry. It’s always something that’s been beat into my head since I was a child, is that you revere these men and women that brought you to this place. But I can’t condone for their actions sometimes. Thomas Lewis, I can’t condone that. But I also realize that’s a sin that he has to deal with.
Ed Ayers: But you know a lot of your compatriots would have said, “I can tell you exactly how I live with that.” It’s heritage, not hate.
Waverly Adcock: I disagree. I think it’s a heritage of hate. And my litmus test for people who say heritage not hate is, well, who was your ancestor and what unit did he fight with? I would say the vast majority of them cannot answer that question. And then I say, “Then that’s not a part of your heritage.” Then I try to explain to them that the whole reason this war was fought was so … Whether you call it state’s rights, was for the right for people to own slaves, that states could determine how they controlled other peoples’ lives.
Ed Ayers: And so it’s the not hate part.
Waverly Adcock: Yeah.
Ed Ayers: Do you doubt that that’s sincere?
Waverly Adcock: I don’t think it’s sincere. And I can’t disparage on that, but I think people are misguided when they say it’s not hate. There’s a lot of people out there who believe that the Blacks are fault for how the war ended.
Ed Ayers: How was that?
Waverly Adcock: Well, because you’re a poor Southern man, you fought for four years, you come back, everything you’ve known has been changed, taken from you. And now you have to share-
Ed Ayers: Try to compete.
Waverly Adcock: Compete with a freed Black man. And so, there has to be some animosity there. There has to be some hatred.
Ed Ayers: So, once you started down this road, it sounds like it kind of snowballed a little bit?
Waverly Adcock: It did. Every year at Memorial Day, we always did a Confederate Memorial at the cemetery in Stanton. So, for the last 13 years, I’ve always been asked to be a speaker. When I was speaking to the audience about the Confederate battle flag, I had to mention that fact that there’s much more to the South than just the Confederate battle flag, that we have a great culture of literature, of food, and music, and of course whiskey. That to me is much more important than basing your Southerness on a piece of fabric.
Ed Ayers: A few people in the crowd walked out, but most were polite. Adcock also wrote an oped in his local newspaper. “We cannot pick our history,” he said. “We must embrace the entire story of our past.”
Waverly Adcock: And then three days later, we had the shootings in South Carolina. And then everything seemed to erupt. There was just so much bigotry all and hatred being thrown back and forth. And I felt that I needed to make a statement about that. So using Facebook, I made my comment about how I felt the flag should be treated. And that’s when things really got kind of hot.
Ed Ayers: What sort of things did people say?
Waverly Adcock: Well, there were some threats. But for the most part, people just kept telling me how wrong I was, because I said … I felt it was appropriate to take the Confederate flag down in South Carolina. They interpreted that as I wanted to take every flag down, that I felt that the flag no longer had a place.
Ed Ayers: So, why is it you think the flag has become the symbol to both sides that’s so … No compromise on the flag? There’s other stuff about The Civil War, but the flag, why is it that do you think?
Waverly Adcock: Southerners place so much power in symbolism. And I think that flag was very important to the soldiers, because that was the designation for their unit. I think-
Ed Ayers: It was literally what they rallied around on the battlefield.
Waverly Adcock: Exactly, they rallied to that flag. But it should only feel important to those soldiers. Why have we embraced it? That today that people are willing to cause physical violence on other people because of that flag, that they have no connection to, aside from that their great-great-great-grandfather carried it.
Ed Ayers: And as we’ve seen, the Confederate battle flag has spread to lots of places where it’s very unlikely that somebody’s great-great-grandfather carried it.
Waverly Adcock: Exactly.
Ed Ayers: So, what has this meant for your reenacting?
Waverly Adcock: It means I have retired from reenacting. I’ve taken something that I’ve loved and done for 13 years and had to walk away from it completely.
Ed Ayers: That’s got to come with some sense of loss, right?
Waverly Adcock: It is a huge sense of loss. It means walking away from a lot of friends and walking away from a lot of weekends spent in camaraderie with these people.
Ed Ayers: So you originally got into reenacting because you felt a connection with your ancestors. Do you feel less of a connection with them now that you’ve made this break?
Waverly Adcock: No, I still feel a strong connection to my ancestors. I think we as human beings make a lot of mistakes. We do things that we regret. But I think sometimes we learn and we grow from these things. And I think my ancestors are just like me. I’m sure maybe they had these epiphanies at some point, and maybe some they didn’t.
Ed Ayers: But they could look around and they could see the reality, too?
Waverly Adcock: I think so.
Ed Ayers: Yeah.
Waverly Adcock: I think so. I think they would probably be more proud of me for standing up for my convictions, than to just go along with the crowd.
Ed Ayers: Waverly Adcock is a former Confederate re enactor from Whitehall, Virginia.
Nathan Connolly: So guys, I wanna actually make a confession and during the course of listening to Mr. Adcock’s interview, I’ve also had a change of mind, frankly. I’ve argued as recently as 20 minutes ago that we should have a multivocal approach to these kinds of monuments, markers right alongside statues of Robert E. Lee and the like, I’ve actually argued that in print relative to iconography around someone like Woodrow Wilson.
But the more I think about it and the more I place the origins of these kinds of monuments and markers, these really are Jim Crow monuments, right? The creation of Confederate statues in the 1890’s, the redrafting of state Constitutions disenfranchising African Americans, the 1940’s with the rolling out of The State’s Right Democratic Party, and again, other kinds of backlash. These really are Jim Crow monuments. They’re not really monuments of the Confederacy. And if you think about the kinds of signs that went up in the Jim Crow Era, Whites Only signs around water fountains, Colored Only signs in bus waiting rooms, all of that stuff had to come down for the country to move forward.
And it’s my sense now, I think quite clearly, that if we’re gonna have any chance at all of having a workable democracy, we have to take down these monuments to an earlier era. I mean, as a Black historian, as a reasonable Black man in America, I’m always encouraged to think about the other side. And in this case, even the feelings of those White Americans who might have a certain kind of emotional attachment to this kind of iconography, but I think we all have to really grow up frankly, and try to pull some of this stuff down, and really think about what it would mean to turn the page on the old Jim Crow order.
Brian Balogh: Well, Nathan I’m heartened that you’ve taken Ed’s point about all of us needing to learn more about this to heart, but I have to disagree with you on this. Which is to say that I haven’t changed my mind in the last 20 minutes. Yes, these monuments do represent the Jim Crow Era, and I think we all need to remember that Jim Crow Era.
Ed Ayers: It strikes me that Nathan pointed to a really important fact, that these statues are the product of a political process in which White people were the only ones who had access to power and to public places. We need to always remember that.
But the thing is now is the reason we’re having this conversation is that democracy has become more open. And sometimes people bemoan these kind of conflicts over the flags and these statues, but I believe this is democracy’s growing pains. This is what it looks like, I think, when more people have more say about what the symbols that represent us might look like. I think this is all good for us.
Nathan Connolly: That’s gonna do it for today, but you can keep the conversation going online. Let us know what you thought of the episode or ask us your questions about American History. You’ll find us at backstoryradio.org, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re also on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter @backstoryradio. And if you liked the show, feel free to review it in Apple Podcasts. Whatever you do, don’t be a stranger.
Brian Balogh: This episode of Back Story was produced by Andrew Parsons, Bridget McCarthy, Nina Ernest, Emily Gadduck, and Ramona Martinez. Jamal Millner is our technical director, Diana Williams is our digital editor, and Joey Thompson is our researcher.
Additional help came from Emma Greg, Courtney Spania, and Robin Glug. Our theme song was written by Nick Thorbur. Other music in our show came from Paddington Bear, Ketza, and Gizar. And thanks to the Johns Hopkins University studio in Baltimore.
Ed Ayers: Back Story is produced at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. We’re a proud member of the Panoply Podcast Network.
Major support is provided by anonymous donors, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Provost Office at the University of Virginia, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation.
Speaker 1: Brian Balogh is professor of History at the University of Virginia and the Dorothy Compton Professor at the Miller Center of Public Affairs. Ed Ayers is professor of the Humanities and President Emeritus at the University of Richmond. JoAnn Freeman is professor of History and American Studies at Yale University. Nathan Connolly is the Herbert Baxter Adams Associate Professor of History at The Johns Hopkins University.
Back Story was created by Andrew Wyndham, for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.