I’m a direct descendant of a Confederate soldier, Enoch Watts. He served in a particularly noteworthy unit, the Orphan Brigade. Enoch wasn’t some rich planter from the Lowcountry with a lot of land and slaves. He was a poor hillbilly from eastern Kentucky. After the war he even listed his occupation on an army pension application as “I try to farm.” He was wounded in Dallas, Ga., and when the war ended, he walked home across the devastated South, much like the main character in Cold Mountain. My son is named after his son, Sam.
I think it’s important for my sons to know their family’s history, but at the same time I feel no reason to celebrate our participation in the Civil War. Enoch never left a diary, so I don’t know exactly why he volunteered for the Confederate Army when he was 22. His ancestors had settled in Kentucky from Virginia after the Revolution, and he probably believed he was fighting with his fellow Southerners in a war of self-defense against northern aggression.
The reality is that he and thousands of other poor Southern white men were manipulated, cajoled, or (especially later in the war, after conscription) marched off to fight for the right of a tiny elite infinitely richer than them to continue owning other human beings, a planter aristocracy that sold them on dreams of martial glory and racial solidarity, but sadly treated them as white trash cannon fodder. For that they died in hideous numbers, in what is still the bloodiest American war. Enoch survived, but he spent the rest of his life in poverty, in a shattered South that decades later still lagged far behind the rest of the country.
It’d be easier and more romantic to spin his story as one of noble lost cause. Who wants to believe that their ancestors had been duped, that all their bravery and sacrifice was for a hideous cause, that the war they fought wasn’t just a mistake, but an enormous tragedy that continues to wound this country to this day? It’s more tempting to cling to heroic statues embossed with words like glory, patriotism, honor.
Enoch’s story isn’t a glorious one about doomed valor. For me it’s a cautionary tale about the dangers of blind patriotic fervor. About how a system built on racism and inhumanity will ultimately corrupt and devour everyone in the end. And about how you can conceal the truth of that behind nice-sounding platitudes about duty, honor, your way of life… and nice-looking statues. But you best honor the past by telling the truth about it, as bitter a pill as that might be to swallow.
So tear all the Confederate statues down … they never should have been put up to begin with.
Ian Watts is a native of Beaufort, S.C., and a 2006 graduate of the College of Charleston. He currently lives in New Jersey with his wife and two children.