Wreaths win Obama praise from Sons of Confederate Veterans
Gestures honor black Union soldiers as well as Confederate war dead
By WAYNE WASHINGTON
President Barack Obama, the nation’s first black chief executive, will be getting a thank you note from the Sons of Confederate Veterans for continuing a tradition of honoring the Confederate dead on Memorial Day.
A group of 48 historians, including one from Coastal Carolina University, had asked Obama not to send a wreath to an Arlington National Cemetery monument honoring Confederate dead — a practice started in 1914 by Woodrow Wilson, who was born in Virginia and lived in Columbia as a young man.
Obama sent the wreath to the Confederate monument, but he also sent one to a Washington, D.C., cemetery that honors black Union soldiers.
The president’s actions pleased Chuck McMichael, commander in chief of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
“The president did very well by sending a wreath to honor American veterans of all types,” McMichael said. “He upheld the tradition of the office to which he was elected. I do intend to send him a thank you letter. This is the kind of thing that transcends politics.”
Orville Vernon Burton, who teaches Southern culture and history at Coastal Carolina, was among the 48 historians who signed the letter asking Obama not to send a wreath to the Confederate monument.
Burton said there is not enough appreciation for the many Southerners — black and white — who fought to keep the Union together.
On Memorial Day, presidents typically lay a wreath at Arlington’s Tomb of the Unknowns,a monument to U.S. service members who have died without being identified.
Presidents also have directed that a wreath be sent to the Confederate monument.
Burton said he was concerned that Obama would be “singling out a group that wanted to split the Union” unless he also sent a wreath to a Union monument.
“People don’t know how close we came to not having a Union, and what that would mean for freedom today,” he said.
Burton said he learned about the historians’ letter through one of its two authors, James Loewen. A sociologist, author and professor, Loewen also has argued the statue of former S.C. politician “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman on the State House grounds should be toppled because of Tillman’s career-long support of white supremacy and violent black disenfranchisement.
Officials at the White House did not respond Tuesday or Wednesday to questions about Obama’s decision to send a wreath to the Confederate monument.
McMichael of the Sons of Confederate Veterans said he was glad the president did not address the letter. “I thought the letter was absurd and should not have been taken seriously.”
Burton said he does not know of any official response to the historians’ letter, which detailed the Confederate monument’s history, its Latin inscriptions and the words of those who have spoken in its shadow.
“The monument was intended to legitimize secession and the principles of the Confederacy,” the letter states. “It isn’t just a remembrance of the dead.”
In not responding to the letter, Obama steered clear of the passions that still exist regarding slavery and the Civil War.
Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederate States of America, said in 1861 that “African slavery” was “the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution,” a verdict many present-day historians accept.
But the Web site for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which describes itself as “the oldest hereditary organization for male descendants of Confederate soldiers,” says the “citizen-soldiers who fought for the Confederacy personified the best qualities of America. The preservation of liberty and freedom was the motivating factor in the South’s decision to fight the Second American Revolution.”
Burton said Obama’s decision also to send a wreath to a cemetery honoring black Union soldiers was “extremely diplomatic.”
Not sending a wreath to the Confederate monument “would have been harder for him because he’s African-American,” said Burton, adding Obama would have encountered a backlash from some white Americans.
In the end, Burton said, he can accept Obama’s decision to send a wreath to both Union and Confederate monuments.
“It does represent the reconciliation of North and South,” he said.
Reach senior writer Wayne Washington at (803) 771-8385.