By Charlie Miller ’25
Ever since the Civil War ended, many sons and daughters of the South have worked tirelessly to ensure that the spirit of their Confederate ancestors and their failed rebellion would live on, and in a favorable (though often false) light. Historians, politicians, and citizens alike have grappled with such interpretations since the final shots were fired in 1865. The Lost Cause discourse pushes notions of Northern aggression against a peaceful Southern society, deifies leaders such as Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, and highlights the bravery and success of Southern troops against enormous odds. For generations, many Southerners have sought to elevate the image of the Confederate cause and its defenders within the public sphere, initially celebrating them through memorial associations, monuments, parades and literature. Through the moral teachings of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and other materials, they also ensured that every Southern school child would remember their forefathers with nothing short of unadulterated reverence, and emphasize their brave defense of home and hearth against Northern aggression. At Gettysburg Souvenirs and Gifts, one can find an interesting item that continues to carry on this persistent strand of Confederate memory in the United States today.
The item in question is a shirt emblazoned with a giant, majestic black bald eagle, opening its wings to reveal a sword and the Confederate Stars and Bars. Above the eagle floats a large banner with bold print which proclaims, “You Need a Lesson in American History,” with another banner underneath the eagle stating “If this shirt Offends You.” The shirt is clearly a response to recent backlash against the Confederate flag and Confederate memory as a whole. An owner of this shirt would wear it to show both their ancestral or regional pride, as well as their continued loyalty to the romanticized notions of the Old South. By featuring such merchandise, it appears that the store is looking to cater to, among other niche cultural tourism groups, those who wish to preserve and promote a somewhat siloed version of the memory of the fallen Confederacy’s leaders and soldiers—one that separates martial valor and battlefield bravery from the causes and consequences of Confederate secession.
Gettysburg has long provided an ideal platform for a more romanticized and sanitized version of Confederate memory to flourish, as it plays into Lost Cause notions of an honorable and brave South fighting against insurmountable odds for a noble cause. One of the most famous spots on the battlefield, the “high-water mark of the Confederacy” at the Angle on Cemetery Ridge, quickly emerged as the symbol of the closest that the Rebels came to winning the war; according to Lost Cause rhetoric, after their brave defeat at Pickett’s Charge, the Confederates never again would get the chance for ultimate victory, and yet they fought on, dutifully and nobly, for another two years in defense of everything they held dear. This concept is flawed, as there is no one real battle, nor spot on any battlefield that held the singular power to turn the teleological tide of war for good, and the war very much hung in the balance throughout the bulk of 1864. However, a palpable place where the Rebels valiantly “almost” realized their dream, against overwhelming odds, holds incredible staying power in the hearts and minds of many, from both the North and the South. Such a tantalizing notion helps to explain why a pro-Confederate shirt would be for sale in a store located at the site of the South’s greatest defeat, in addition to why the former Confederate states were allowed to erect a plethora of monuments to their men along the battlefield.
For many, both commemorative landscapes such as monuments and memorials, as well as cultural tourism souvenirs such as this shirt serve as a reminder of the Confederate soldiers’ bravery and sacrifice, even in defeat. The erection of Confederate state monuments and statues are some of the most famous efforts to preserve Southern pride and to help educate future generations as to the “most important” causes and consequences of the war, yet their overarching statements carry over into the types of memorabilia sold at the greatest “shrine” to the Civil War in all of America–Gettysburg. Even in defeat, proponents of Confederate memorialization and commercialism emphasize that their men fought bravely and justifiably to the end, accomplishing significant moral victories, if not military ones, despite overwhelming odds. Just as the “high-water mark” represents for Southerners all that they had gained in the face of adversity, this shirt (in a similar, but more blunt sense) aims to project an unshrinking declaration of pride in and respect for the Stars and Bars and for those who fought courageously under it. The assertive language seems to warn any naysayers against disrespecting fallen Confederates, arguing that they don’t truly understand the Civil War or the full “truth” behind the history of the Confederacy if they are upset by the iconography of the shirt. It urges people to be unabashedly proud of what Confederate soldiers and leaders accomplished and how hard they fought, while again siloing how Confederates fought away from the principles that they fought for.
Additionally, the symbol of the eagle is a fascinating part of this shirt. The bald eagle is famously the symbol of the United States, yet a flag whose people took up arms against the U.S. is emblazoned within the eagle. It is not difficult to see the irony here, yet there might be an explanation. Confederate rhetoric during and after the war promoted the notion that the secessionists were the noble successors to the Founding Fathers of the Revolution. They believed that they, and not Northerners, were carrying on the noble duty of the men who established the Constitution and America’s democratic republic, and that southerners’ “freedom” and “states’ rights” were principles that the Constitution upheld. Perhaps this shirt is trying to tap into these ideas, and use the eagle as a bold statement that the Confederates were rightly attempting to carry out the vision of the nation’s founding fathers. (Of course, absent from this statement is the fact that “freedom” and “states’ rights” that the Confederates fought for were inextricably bound to the institution of slavery.
As many know, countless different interpretations of the battle of Gettysburg and the entire Civil War have proliferated over the past 160 years. The Lost Cause and other interpretations that cast the Confederates in a noble and positive light dominated much of postwar discourse in the South, and eventually in the North as well, gaining a foothold that allowed it to seep into the mainstream of the Civil War’s commemorative and commercial culture and national memory. As this shirt demonstrates, threads of this interpretation are still alive and clearly marketable.