Symbolic Reckoning

by Rob Hammock

“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, … think about these things.” – Philippians 4:8

As the 4th of July passes, I have been thinking about the challenges we face in the United States – COVID-19, racial justice, divisive politics, and historical memory. I am thinking about my great-great grandfather.

Sergeant Major Marion Hill Fitzpatrick died 155 years ago, but through the dedication of my great uncle, our family has a collection of letters that he wrote to his wife during the Civil War –  over 170 pages written from 1862 through 1865. Reading them, I hear the voice of a man who loved his wife, loved his son, and desired to be of service to God. Consistently, I am struck by his humility before God. He also loved his country. In one of his last letters, written in March 1865, shortly before his death from battle: “Now is the time for all to rally around the standard of our Country and let us route Sherman and I firmly believe that peace will soon follow.” (Fitzpatrick 1976) The “Country” is the Confederate States of America. As with the large majority of my ancestors, Sgt. Major Fitzpatrick was a proud Georgian. Growing up, I learned to cherish this personal, intimate look into life along the battlefield while pining for home.

Photo by Rick Lobs on Unsplash

I have lived with what I have thought of as the “honorable” memory of my great-great grandfather. And yet I was also honored to be baptized at a sister Black Baptist church as ours had no baptistry. Despite growing up in Chicago as one of the few “Yanks” in the family, living into this tension never posed that great of a challenge. My immediate family was the only part of the family in Chicago and not in Georgia. And few of my Chicago friends and classmates cared much for Civil War history. The tension changed when I went south for school. What I learned then was that the notion of the Civil War as “The Lost Cause” or “War of Northern Aggression” was not dead. 

It has been over 30 years since I first moved south, and I still find myself fighting to reconcile my family heritage. I am slow to judge my great-great grandfather in his time, because I don’t know that I would have chosen any differently to support the Confederacy. It is quite easy to imagine myself an anti-slavery abolitionist a century and a half removed. However, knowing my own conflict averse nature, I’m afraid I would not have been so brave. I am not able to insert myself in those ancestral shoes to know how I would have acted.

There may have indeed been honorable and pleasing parts of my forbear’s conduct on a personal level. But I also know that to think on things that are true and just, I cannot but question the Confederate legacy in my lived present. During my younger years, I endured educational attempts to justify The Lost Cause by its focus on states’ rights. This is not an untrue notion, but it is a wholly inadequate portrayal when the overwhelming evidence points to a primary focus of those states’ rights being the ability to continue or expand slavery. The Articles of Secession were not part of my high school history classes, but had they been, I would have been quickly disabused of the notion that slavery was not a central issue. Yet, more insidious than the question of slavery was the blatantly clear white supremacy. 

In Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens’ now infamously named “Cornerstone Speech” delivered in March 1861, one month before the beginning of the war, he comments on the error of the U.S. Constitution and its call for equality of all men:

“Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.” (Stephens 1861)

The legacy of a post-Civil War south through Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era reinforces that Stephens’ words did not die when Lee surrendered. As the next 100 years attested, slavery may have been abolished, but the notion of white supremacy remained intractable. And it has not died yet.

The flag of the Country under which my great-great grandfather marched and fought is one inexorably linked to white supremacy. To clamor for the memory of this time as one of “heritage, not hate” is to be blinded by willful misremembrance. And this faulty memory is not limited to Confederate standards. When we hearken back to the Declaration of Independence and its “self-evident” truth that “all men were created equal” (Jefferson 1776), we now proclaim that this was but a partial truth as it only applied to white men. We must acknowledge that the Declaration, profound for its time, was a limited, aspirational document. 

It is high past time to be reformed to the vision that all are God’s beloved children and equal in God’s eyes. If our old standards and guides are built on lies and half-truths, then the time has come to reexamine and reimagine them. If we don’t, then they have become nothing more than idols deserving to be thrown down as much as any golden calf. (Exodus 32) As for my great-great grandfather, if he was alive today, I pray that his spirit of humility would allow his eyes to be opened to see the damage done in the name of Christ by the standard of the Confederacy, and that he would live into a true love of his neighbors, especially the Black ones.


Postscript. For those who may be wrestling with their own challenges of how to reconcile Southern history and process its impact after having been steeped in its mythology, I recommend the work of my friend, Pete Candler, and his website, A Deeper South. 

From his blog, “Closing Time in America” in April:

“If nothing else, my experiences attempting to reckon with Southern history and culture and my own place in it have taught me how those contradictions can co-exist with one another truthfully, and not without hope. It is not a question of reconciling contradictions between the American ideal and the American reality; it is more basic than that: getting contradictions in the same room together, around the same table, if only to sit in silence together for a while. For a nation that has arguably never really been morally sober, this may be too much to ask.” (Candler 2020)


Bibliography

Candler, Pete. 2020. “Closing Time in America”, A Deeper South. April 15. Accessed May July 4, 2020, 2020. https://www.adeepersouth.com/stories/2020/4/15/closing-time.

Fitzpatrick, Sergeant Major Marion Hill. 1976. Letters to Amanda: 1862-1865. Edited by Henry Mansel Hammock. Culloden, GA: Henry Mansel Hammock.

Jefferson, Thomas, et al. 1776. Declaration of Independence: A Transcription – National Archives. July 4. Accessed July 4, 2020. https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript.

Stephens, Alexander H. 1861. Cornerstone Speech. March 21. Accessed July 6, 2020. https://www.battlefields.org/learn/primary-sources/cornerstone-speech.


Robert Hammock recently rolled off of the Session after a 3-year term at Caldwell Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC. Although trained at Princeton Theological Seminary (MDIV), the last 20 years of his career have been focused on affordable housing and community development efforts, primarily in urban contexts. He remains active in a leadership role through his church’s development of affordable housing through the re-purposing of part of its campus.

Rob is also a part of the NEXT Church blogging cohort, and his writing focuses on faith, ministry, and community development.