"Everything we're taught in school about the Civil War is wrong," asserts Erik Ernst, commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) at the Col. Isaac William Smith Camp #458 in Portland, Oregon.
We'd arranged to meet this SCV group in the great Northwest to discuss their use of the Confederate flag and what it means to them living thousands of miles from the Southern states. Little did we know, a few days later, debate over the flag's meaning would envelop the nation.
As we drove down Interstate 5 toward Portland, the radio spewed a blow-by-blow update on the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shootings in Charleston, South Carolina. Shortly before we arrived, the police apprehended 21-year-old white supremacist Dylann Roof —who'd fled the scene in a car sporting a Confederate flag license plate.
We met the SCV at a local Portland seafood restaurant, the walls of its reserved seating area plastered in wooden boat boards and deck rigging. As we ordered fish and chips, they related to us the "actual history" of the Civil War, why they view political correctness as distracting from the real story, and the meaning of the Confederate flag as they see it.
"This [the Civil War] was really the beginning of the communist infiltration of America," announced Jay Willis, the camp's lieutenant commander. Willis, a former constitutional law teacher who spent many years educating people on the South's "true history," then went on to explain how Abraham Lincoln corresponded regularly with Karl Marx, and how many of his generals were, in fact, radical socialists.
Portland, with its hipster-centric breweries and organic cafes may seem a strange place to explore Southern culture. But the "Lost Cause" of the Confederacy isn't just a Southern story.
'Lincoln was a total racist,' replied Willis. 'There was actually a really good article in Ebony about it.'
The camp's namesake Isaac William Smith was a Virginia-born Mexican American war veteran working in the Northwest Territories as a surveyor before the war. When Virginia seceded, he returned to the South to fight for the Confederacy. After the war, Smith went back to the Pacific Northwest where he's credited with helping establish water systems and natural gas lines throughout the region.
Many southerners both black and white went west to start new lives after the Civil War, and former Confederate soldiers were among those pioneers. In some cases veterans from both sides used their weapons experience out west as both lawmen and outlaws—notably the James Gang. In Oregon, some former Confederates even lent their military experience to the US Army during the Indian wars.
"Even if we don't live in the South, our ancestors are from there," explained Ernst, informing us that the fraternal organization has members all around the world, including the UK, Australia, and Brazil.
Since its beginnings in 1896, the group's mission has been genealogical, admitting members with traceable family histories to Confederate soldiers. It's also helped to maintain historic sites and Confederate veterans' graves for over a century.
As we found our seats around the table, the light began to fall and a few more people showed up. We took the opportunity to talk to Erik about his own personal ties to the Confederacy. Growing up in Portland, he had little knowledge of his family's ties to the Civil War. It wasn't until he was 21, when a relative mentioned an ancestor who'd fought for the Confederacy, that he began digging and studying the Confederacy with increasing zeal. A full member since 2003, he and others in the group view the cause of the Civil War as one of states' rights and the preservation of individual liberty. The group says they have nothing in common with hate groups, and insist they have no interest in promoting extremist agendas. According to Ernst, if they feel any members are promoting a "racist or militant" agenda, they're expelled instantly.
"A lot of bad groups use our symbol for the wrong reasons," he said.
Recent years have seen accusations that the organization has taken a more activist direction, with critics lambasting their initiatives to display Confederate flags on public property and license plates. This led to an internal struggle within the SCV in the early 2000s and a short-lived dissident movement that feared the group was radicalizing.
"What we're objecting to is turning the mission of the SCV away from the guardianship of Confederate heritage toward 21st-century activism," North Carolinian Walter C. Hilderman, III told the Mountain Xpress in 2003. "That makes Confederate heritage a political pawn and gains us 21st-century political enemies."
In 2011, the SCV's Mississippi Division launched a campaign to honor Nathan Bedford Forrest—the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and perpetrator of the Fort Pillow Massacre —with a specialty license plate. In the massacre, Confederates led by Forrest killed more than 300 African-American soldiers, despite the fact they had surrendered and should have been taken as prisoners of war. The same year, the SCV awarded Arizona's controversial sheriff Joe Arpaio its "Law and Order" award. Arpaio is known for his anti-immigration policies, and his list of heinous activities include assaulting a pregnant woman and forcing her to give birth in shackles and the widespread harassment of Latino women, which resulted in a lawsuit for his unconstitutional and unlawful actions by the Department of Justice in 2012.
In 2013, the license-plate debate reared its head in Texas. Over a lengthy series of legal battles culminating in a US Supreme Court hearing in the Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans case, it was ruled that Texas could refuse the right to sport customized Confederate flag license plates. As we talked the case over with Ernst and Willis, our food arriving at the table, it was clear they were unhappy with the verdict.
"That's a real shame," Willis said as he dipped a french fry. "It's not the end, though." He and Ernst told us how they were lobbying for Confederate flag plates in Oregon. It's this flag, planted at the center of our table, surrounded by condiments, which occupies the eye of a national media storm.
"This is the actual flag of the Confederacy," Ernst said, proudly pointing to the red and white flag, a small version of the battle flag with its blue criss-cross and white stars sitting in the upper corner. "The flag that most people know, that people get so upset about, was never even the official flag of the Confederacy… It was only the battle flag."
Many flying the battle flag insist it's an apolitical symbol of Southern heritage and the Southerners who died; that it recalls the soldiers' bravery and dedication—not necessarily the government of the Confederacy. But Ernst chose the national flag because of his dedication to the Confederacy's political ideals.
"A lot of guys are really into military history and reenactments, and historically accurate weapons," he said. "That's all fine and good, but it gets a bit banal after a while. It's the cause they fought for that's really important."
As they see it, the war was about resisting Lincoln's totalitarian dictatorship that was using the Union to consolidate power, invade neighboring countries, and over-tax and exploit Southern ports. And it was Lincoln's expansion of the federal government, attempting to turn the Union into a nation that finally led to the South's secession. Slavery, in their view, seems to play but a footnote. To them, Lincoln and his generals were power-hungry war criminals.
"That's why Hitler copied so much of Lincoln," Willis exclaimed. "He was his hero!"
To the SCV, the flag represents the Confederacy's struggle against Northern tyranny. But for many Americans, the flag's meaning is rooted in slavery and opposition to the Civil Rights movement : to bygone horrors of a rusted age.
"The war was never about slavery," Willis continued, an assertion commonly made amongst supporters despite Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens's Cornerstone Speech in 1861, in which he said that "African slavery as it exists among us [is] the proper status of the Negro in our form of civilization" and attributed it as the "immediate cause" of secession.
"Only the one percent had slaves. If the war was really about slavery, what were the other 99 percent fighting for?" Willis asked. His numbers were a bit off—there were 347,525 parties reporting to be slaveowners according to the 1850 US census, or roughly 4.8 percent of Southern whites—but it was true that slaveowners were the affluent class.
After a few drinks, and while Ernst was busy catching up with other members, we pressed the question of slavery. We asked Willis if he could see why African-Americans may be skeptical of the self-determination narrative, particularly if their ancestors' only experience with the antebellum South was as slaves. "Well, if that's what they've been taught," he replied flatly.
"Slavery wasn't racial—it was just slavery," Ernst interjected.
"Lincoln was a total racist," replied Willis. "There was actually a really good article in Ebony about it."
Willis also insisted Union troops were viciously racist and violent against blacks, when Confederates merely tried to protect them. "[Union troops] would take two-hour rape breaks," he said. "They'd rape all the black women and then move onto the white ones."
Rape amongst Union troops was indeed common, and although only 450 cases were processed through Union courts, its existence led to the establishment of Lincoln's Lieber Code, established in 1863 outlawing unsoldierly conduct on the battlefield.
Another surreal layer to the flag's narrative is the Native American experience during the war. There were two native American members present at the meeting, and as we began to move around and chat, Joseph Bailey, an SCV member with Cherokee roots, explained their stance.
"You had a lot of the southern civilized tribes that fought. You had the Seminoles, the Chickasaw, Choctaw, obviously the Cherokee," Bailey said. "And when people talk about, 'Oh, the Confederate flag is a racist flag,' then we look at them with their perception [and say], 'Really? Why it is the American flag is not called the genocidal flag?"
"It was dealing with the treaties," Bailey continued. "The Confederacy was really a big stickler about treaties compared to the Union. To this day, the treaties are a joke in the United States."
"The Cherokee Nation over in the western band wanted to distance themselves from [the debate] because of the modern brainwashing of the Southern Confederacy [being] about slavery."
In 1983, Cherokee leaders moved to block Cherokee freedmen with slave roots from voting within the tribe, refusing to acknowledge their citizenship as tribal members. This resulted in a series of grinding legal battles that still continue today.
Joseph Bailey, Cherokee supporter of the SCV
As everyone began to loosen up a little more, we pulled the conversation back to slavery. Ernst ordered an iced tea, and he and Willis began to engage with us. The mainstay of the SCV's defense veered toward the "thousands" of black Confederate soldiers fighting on the side of the Confederacy. The assertion leads Willis to blame pop culture on what he believes is a warped view of slavery held by modern Americans. Although the exact number of black Confederates is unknown, according to the 1860 US Census, they made up less than one percent of the 800,000 black men of military age (17–50) in the Confederate states.
"Southern slavery wasn't like you see in the movies—that's all Hollywood," he scoffed. He told us that in reality slaves were "treated well," and that most of them "loved" their masters. "Beatings, whippings, all of that is fantasy… They were too valuable to damage."
"I mean, it's messed up. The whole slavery thing is messed up," said Ernst—insisting the South wasn't unique, and would have shortly abolished slavery on its own terms. "It was on the outs."
Watch our documentary on Triple Hate, on the KKK in Memphis, Tennessee:
But Article I Section 9(4) of the Confederate Constitution states: "No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in Negro slaves shall be passed." This would have prevented any legislation outlawing slavery in the Confederate States.
Nevertheless, it's actually true that there were some black Confederates and black slaveowners—though numbers are almost impossible to verify. For instance, shortly after Louisiana seceded in 1861, the state militia formed the 1st Louisiana Native Guard, made up of free black and Creole volunteers. Significantly, it was the first North American military unit of any kind to have black officers within its ranks.
Ultimately, though, it was short lived. In 1862, the unit was disbanded after Louisiana State Legislature passed a law calling for the militia to be made up of "free white males capable of bearing arms." When Union general Benjamin F. Butler took control of Louisiana, he reactivated the 1st Louisiana Native Guard as a Union unit, though only a handful of its original members returned. The unit fought on the side of the Union during the Siege of Port Hudson.
Later that same year, Jefferson Davis signed a proclamation that called for any black troops to be executed—along with any white officers serving alongside them. He specifically named Butler for execution in the order as well.
"[The Confederate flag] is a symbol around the world against totalitarianism," Willis said. "It's only the libs in this country that have a problem with it."
"You shouldn't even have to talk about slavery," he continued with annoyance. "For some reason people always want to bring it back to that. I don't understand the obsession."
And he really didn't seem to understand. Unlike Ernst, slavery to Willis seemed such a small part of the overall picture that it wasn't worth discussing. As we ate, he bemoaned the stifling atmosphere of political correctness that he believes is not just threatening the South's history, but the whole country's future.
"It's hard to know what these PC extremists want—it seems like it's to destroy all history, destroy family values, and destroy Christianity," he said. "This country was built on Christian values, and that's what the South fought for."
According to him, the South had "diversity of thought" before the federal government forced public education on the masses. He cited the Klan's push to help establish public schools in Oregon. "Liberals will kill, murder, and lie to get their way. Conservatives—we have rules, we're just different kinds of people."
As dinner ended, we walked back to the car foggier than ever about the SCV's motives as an organization. To some, it seemed political. To some, utterly personal.
But with Dylann Roof's images sweeping the internet, a ban on the sale of flags at Walmart, Sears, and Amazon, and legislative calls to remove the symbol from South Carolina's statehouse grounds and from Mississippi's state flag, the Confederate flag is under intense scrutiny once more. So we followed up with Ernst earlier this week to hear his views on the firestorm.
"It's just truly frustrating to see history being erased," he said over the phone. "People just really don't understand what the Confederate flag really means and what the real history is."
"This tragedy, it's absolutely atrocious what happened there and we give our heartfelt prayers and concerns to the families there. And if they need anything they can contact our organization and we'd gladly help them out," he added.
"[Dylann Roof] was looking at a very skewed look at history… He was coming up with his own ideas and turning it into something it's not."
But regardless of mounting public opinion against the Confederate flag, Ernst won't back down.
"Someone has to stand up for our heritage," he said. "And I guess that's me."