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All across the country, Confederate statues and memorials are being torn down. The word traitor is being used for Confederate heroes like Robert E. Lee. This strikes me as a sad distortion of our national heritage in the name of political correctness.

The Civil War was the greatest tragedy in America history — a complete failure of leadership, democracy, and the federal system. It began as a fight over states’ rights and whether to allow slavery to expand into the West. In the end — to justify the horrific bloodshed — it became a war to free the slaves.

But for the ordinary citizen, it was not a war over slavery. All politics was local in those days. The goings-on in Washington were very remote. Most people were only concerned about local affairs. And most of them would have said their first allegiance was to their state and not the federal government, with which they had few dealings. The truth is that not many men went to war to fight for or against slavery.

Take the case of my great grandfather, Frank Conrad. I doubt seriously if he had any strong feelings about slavery. He was born in Illinois where there were no slaves. His only direct connection to slavery came when his parents moved to Tampa, Florida, in the early 1850s. A close relative died of yellow fever and left one male slave to his mother. When both of his parents died from the fever, Frank went to live with a relative in San Antonio, Texas. The slave was sold in Tampa when the estate was settled.

In 1862, Frank was 19 years old, living in San Antonio, and working in his relative’s dry goods store. When a great alarm was raised because of a rumored invasion of Texas by Union troops (probably a recruiting device — there was no invasion), Frank did what was expected of young men — he joined the cavalry regiment being formed locally to repel the invaders. He served three years, fighting mostly in Arkansas and the Red River Campaign.

So, should men like Frank Conrad go down in history as traitors? I don’t think so. The great tragedy of the Civil War is that so many brave men fought and died for their country, and that for some of them, their country was the Confederacy.

I have a portrait of Frank Conrad on the wall in my study. I am not going to take it down. I am going to honor him as a man who did his duty to his country as he saw it.

As for the Confederate flag and what it has come to represent, I am not going to honor it. I say let the Confederacy rest in peace. If Southern communities want to tear down Confederate statues, then do it. But do it because the statues were put up to glorify war and affirm white supremacy, and not because the men the statues represent are traitors.

David Conrad, of Murphysboro, is a retired SIU professor of history and the author of several books.

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