perdickettLook Away, Look Away

A time trip I like to take about once a year spirits me back to Sept. 19-20, 1863, at a spot along the Tennessee-Georgia border where soldiers did what soldiers do. And that includes dying – 3,969 of them – and being maimed, blinded, shattered and a variety of other almost-but-not-quite-lethal events we describe as wounding – another 24,430.

It was called the Battle of Chickamauga, and if you go to the visitor center at the battlefield, you’ll be captured, as I am on my annual treks, by the photographs of common men in rough blue and gray uniforms. Many of the warriors were mere boys. This is not the fancy dress Civil War portrayed by Hollywood.

Among the larger photos is one of Col. Cyrus Sugg of the Confederate Army’s 50th Tennessee Infantry, who commanded Gregg’s Brigade after Brig. Gen. John Gregg was shot in the neck. One of the plaques scattered around the battlefield even notes where “Sugg took command,” a phrase that appeals to me.

Unfortunately, Col. Sugg rated a calculation in one or both of the numbers above. He was wounded at Chickamauga, and then taken to a field hospital in Marietta, where he expired.

Cyrus Sugg was a relative, and one of many Suggs who fought in the Civil War, so this is personal for me, folks. John H. Sugg, another Tennessean, was a Confederate soldier who ended up as a Yankee prisoner of war. Then there was Joseph Sugg, who kept dodging service in one or the other of the competing armies in Missouri until captured by federal troops who made him join their band. There was even a Rebel steamboat named the Tom Sugg, which was captured by Union solders in Arkansas’ Little Red River.

And, there are many African-Americans with the surname Sugg or Suggs, who likely are descended from slaves owned by my ancestors who originally settled in South Carolina. I’ve even attended a family reunion of one branch of the black Sugg family.

So, all things considered, I get this Southern heritage thing. But if I ever in some eternity get to ask Col. Cyrus Sugg a question, it would be: “Suh, jes’ what were y’all thinkin’?”

And if I ever get a chance to ask the Georgia General Assembly, en masse, a question on the subject of history, it would be: “Gentlemen and ladies, if I may use those terms in their loosest application, what the hell were you thinking when you failed to pass urgent transportation funding but did find time to pass a silly law that would have the effect of elevating the fables of Gone With the Wind to sanctified history?”

Which is exactly what a bill that passed by overwhelming majorities in both houses (AKA asylums) of the General Assembly did. The law denoting April as Confederate Heritage and History Month will undoubtedly be signed by Gov. Sonny “Unreconstructed” Perdue.

Let’s consider for a minute exactly what Georgia will be commemorating. A bunch of brigands, in order to preserve their own aristocratic way of life, connived and committed acts of mass terrorism to undermine and overthrow the U.S. government. If there had been a Pentagon in the 1860s, they surely would have bombed it.

They pursued their criminal conspiracy by convincing the most uneducated and unsophisticated citizens that the nation they thought they were part of really wasn’t their nation, but that a mythological fairyland of cavaliers and damsels was their homeland. The treasonous leaders of this conspiracy, especially the military el jefes led by a turncoat named Robert E. Lee, violated their sacred oaths, including those made to God. They claimed to be honorable, but where the hell is honor in betraying one’s country and vows?

The plebeians were largely duped into joining the 19th Century’s version of Al Qaeda, but the law allows little room for those who are determinedly stupid. Just as many uneducated Muslims are conned by “leaders” into committing vile and unforgivable acts of terrorism, so too were the farmboys of the South deceived into believing in a “cause” that never really existed.

That’s not quite the magnolia and Scarlett O’Hara version of Confederate history that the legislators envision. Without regard to the implications, their proposed law calls on all Georgians “to honor, observe, and celebrate the Confederate States of America, its history, those who served in its armed forces and government, and … the cause which they held so dear from its founding on February 4, 1861, in Montgomery, Alabama, until the Confederate ship CSS Shenandoah sailed into Liverpool Harbor and surrendered to British authorities on November 6, 1865.”

Indeed, it’s worth noting that they did not pass a law endorsing the rich, fruitful “Southern history,” only that part of the South’s past as it relates to a band of usurpers, terrorists and traitors. But, of course, defining it as “Confederate” history means it’s white history. Blacks, as we know from the Holy Gospel of Margaret Mitchell, had only supporting roles, mostly to be whipped or be treated with about the same paternalism as one shows to a good dog.

In part, this Confederate history law is a mean-spirited swipe at the idea of black history months. The legislation would equate the fantasy of a noble “lost cause” with the actual reality of the African-American narrative, a story that has been suppressed, often viciously so, by the South’s Jim Crow mentality. Put another way, to follow the Georgia legislature’s logic, the Aryan myth of Nazi Germany would be just as valid as the true history of the Holocaust.

Since this is Georgia, everything is about race. The Republican (AKA Neo-Confederate) dominated legislature didn’t pass transportation funding or other critical legislation because the rural good ol’ boys were playing racial politics, at least in part. They don’t want to be perceived as doing something that would help all of those blacks, interloping white Yankees, gays and other minorities in Atlanta.

The Confederate history law is more of the same mindset. Indeed, its Senate sponsor, John Bulloch, hails from that part of the state 200 miles south and 200 years in the past from metropolitan Atlanta. It’s a part of the state where more than a few folks have folded sheets and hoods in their attics. I’m sure Bulloch has no intention of teaching about the legacy of Confederate Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Ku Klux Klan, and the 5,000 or so incidents of terrorist lynchings by fans of Confederate history. That would be simply inconvenient and uncomfortable.

Racism has been a sure road to power for some Republicans. When former state Rep. Sue Burmeister (R-Augusta) introduced a requirement for photo voter registration in 2005, U.S. Justice Department lawyers reported that she said, “If there are fewer black voters because of this bill, it will only be because there is less opportunity for fraud,” and “when black voters … are not paid to vote they do not go to the polls.”

Sadly for the GOP, being beholden to the “Old South” is about as viable a long-term political strategy as Germans who still believe a fellow named Adolf had some great ideas for running the world. Aunt Pittypat bemoaned: “Oh, dear. Yankees in Georgia. How did they ever get in?” Bad news for Pittypat (and Georgia legislators): A lot of Yankees and a lot of Southerners (like me) who won’t tolerate racial politics and who most definitely don’t believe in honoring terrorists, whether named Osama bin Laden or Jefferson Davis, now live in Georgia.

State Rep. Tyrone Brooks (D-Atlanta) chided his colleagues on the Confederate history month law – but his comments are equally applicable to much of what goes on at the Gold Dome. “These Southern states really still have not come back into the Union,” Brooks told the Los Angeles Times. “That is why it’s been so difficult over the years to get the states to recognize that flying the Confederate emblem on the flag, holding reenactments and pushing these calendar events as a matter of law is a reflection… of their Confederate mentality. …The Confederacy lost, and the majority of the American people will not accept these ideas about a renegade group of folks who decided they would overthrow the U.S. government.”

Put another way: Do un-American acts have a shelf-life? If certain acts were un-American less than 50 years ago, weren’t they un-American 150 years ago? If so, who would expect us to honor those acts today? Are these people terrorist sympathizers? Are they un-American?

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John Sugg

John Sugg

John Sugg is executive editor of Georgia Online News Service (GONSO). He has more than 30 years of journalism experience. He held senior writing and editing positions at The Miami Herald, The Atlanta Constitution, The Palm Beach Post, American Lawyer, and the Creative Loafing group. Sugg's awards include honors from Investigative Reporters and Editors and the Society of Professional Journalists.