By ANDREW MCGINN
So it turns out that 2020 has been the most exciting year of the Civil War since 1865.
In just the past week, we’ve witnessed the lowering of the Confederate battle emblem over the seat of government in Mississippi, the second state to secede from the Union and the last state whose flag incorporated the incendiary stars and bars.
That happened the same day the mayor of Richmond, Va. — capital of the old Confederacy — ordered the immediate removal of all statues on city land dedicated to the Confederate cause, beginning with a statue of Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, possibly the most revered military man to have ever been killed by friendly fire.
The Union has racked up smaller victories this summer as well, like NASCAR banning the Confederate flag from events.
In a sense, we’re now the first Americans in more than a century and a half to get to witness the night they drove ol’ Dixie down.
In the spirit of the season — a national reckoning 155 years in the making over systemic racism — I reached out to Bill Burkett, a Greene County Yankee by birth but a Confederate sympathizer by blood and choice.
You’ve perhaps seen him around.
His is the gray (surely not a coincidence) Chevy Blazer bearing the Greene County license plate “CSA” — short for Confederate States of America.
But even if you didn’t make that connection, the stickers adorning the hatch and bumper — four Confederate battle emblems in all — speak for themselves.
I recently arranged to meet with Burkett, picturing us coming together like Grant and Lee at Appomattox Courthouse.
For the good of the Union, I — Brig. Editor Andrew C. McGinn, commanding officer of the one-man 1st Jefferson Bee & Herald Volunteer Infantry Regiment — looked forward to accepting the surrender of this northernmost Southern rebel.
I’m clearly not persuasive enough.
“I’m not politically correct. I won’t apologize,” Burkett, 75, informed me. “You’ve come to the wrong fellow.”
On one hand, it’s silly to even think about asking a man to apologize for the sins of a great-grandfather he never knew — one of four Confederate veterans scattered throughout Greene County cemeteries, and a Confederate deserter at that.
But considering I’ve spent my entire life in either Iowa or Ohio — two states whose sons by and large fought to preserve the Union — Burkett is so far the first and only person I’ve ever met who’s so openly proud of the Confederates in his closet.
He’s so proud of it, in fact, that he’s a life member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the organization open to male descendents of Confederate veterans dedicated to “insuring that a true history of the 1861-1865 period is preserved.”
These days, Burkett said, the organization is tasked with protecting Confederate monuments.
“And to protect the good name and reputation of our brave ancestors,” he explained.
You see, what we think we know about the Civil War isn’t true, people like Burkett allege. And, what’s more, he prefers not to even call what transpired between the states a civil war.
Please, if you will, it was “the war for Southern independence.”
But we can probably all agree that it’s hard these days to be a champion of the Confederate cause.
“Quite a job anymore,” Burkett said.
In fact, in taking a seat, his very first words were as follows:
“I’m not a Nazi. Or Aryan Brotherhood,” Burkett stated, clearly just wanting to get that out of the way. “They are nuts.”
Instead, Burkett champions a belief that’s come to be known as the “lost cause.” In that version of history, the South went to war, not to protect the evil of slavery, but to uphold states’ rights.
Today, states’ rights are at the core of nearly every hyperpartisan issue, like abortion and guns.
Back then, however, the issue just happened to be whether the residents of a particular state had the right to own people — black people — as livestock.
“I grew up a Yankee,” Burkett explained, “but, believe me, there are two sides to every story.”
Burkett’s own story may have played out entirely below the Mason-Dixon Line if not for Andrew Jackson Burkett — a private in the 9th Battalion, Mississippi Sharpshooters — and his unlikely relocation to Iowa before the war even ended.
‘He was a good shot’
Bill Burkett’s great-grandfather, Andrew Jackson Burkett had originally been drafted into the infantry in September of 1861, but quickly must have proven his worth with a musket.
“It’s almost a certainty he killed Iowa boys,” Burkett said, referring to his great-grandfather’s participation in the Battle of Shiloh, a two-day bloodbath in Tennessee. “He was a good shot.
“Would you believe he lived to be 90?”
Indeed, Andrew Jackson Burkett lived out the last 48 years of his life in Greene County. He died in Jefferson on Dec. 26, 1929.
Given the recent vandalism nationally of Confederate sites, Burkett is touchy about revealing the whereabouts of his great-grandfather’s final resting place.
“These yayhoos destroying graves, that’s pretty low,” he said.
Andrew Jackson Burkett, however, ended up deserting at Chickamauga in Georgia in 1863, according to Bill Burkett.
Unfortunately, we’ll never know whether he had a change of heart about the cause or else simply saw his life being cut short by one of the Spencer repeating rifles the Union deployed at the Battle of Chickamauga.
Either way, he set out for the North, where Bill Burkett believes he took a job guarding Confederate prisoners of war at a prison camp in the Quad Cities. (Nearly 2,000 Southern POWs are buried there in the Rock Island Confederate Cemetery.)
Yes, a Confederate deserter watching over Confederate POWs.
Really, though, is that any nuttier than a killer of Iowans deciding to settle down in Iowa?
He brought his wife and five kids further west, to Greene County, in 1881, Bill Burkett said.
But as the years passed, it became something of a Burkett family secret that there had been a Confederate in their ranks.
“I’d heard rumors. Southern rumors,” said Bill Burkett, a 1963 graduate of East Greene High School who didn’t have access to running water at home until he finally left Dana for the United States Air Force.
Admittedly, his father, Clifford “Andy” Burkett — who undoubtedly had known Andrew Jackson Burkett as a young man — was of little assistance whenever the topic came up.
“My dad would get kind of a faraway look,” recalled Bill Burkett, who retired home to Greene County in 2000 after 32 years as a Northwest Airlines gate agent in Minneapolis and Des Moines.
Burkett is quick to note that Confederate veterans are, by federal law, considered American veterans — just like his father, who served in World War II with the Navy Seabees at Bougainville; and just like his namesake uncle, Lt. Bill Burkett, a Dana native who lost his life in 1944 at the throttle of a P-47 Thunderbolt over Belgium.
Burkett himself was stationed with the Air Force in South Korea during the Pueblo incident in January of 1968, when North Korea attacked and captured a U.S. spy ship, the USS Pueblo.
The family’s record of military service is of special importance to him.
“I think the family has earned the right of speech,” he said.
That said, the Anti-Defamation League categorizes the Confederate flag as a “general hate symbol,” given its popularity with white supremacists the world over. But even the ADL cautions that the symbol needs to be “judged in context” because of its use by non-extremists.
According to the American Battlefield Trust, there were two issues at the heart of the Civil War: whether the U.S. was to be a “dissolvable confederation of sovereign states or an indivisible nation with a sovereign national government” and whether the United States, founded on a principle that all men are created equal, would continue as the largest slaveholding nation on the planet.
In all, the war claimed 625,000 lives.
Bill Burkett doesn’t believe the war started over slavery — only later in the conflict, he said, did slavery become the North’s “moral issue” for going to war.
He relishes in pointing out the complicated nature of history.
Like, for example, the little-known fact that future First Lady Julia Dent Grant came from a slaveholding family near St. Louis and had personally owned four enslaved people since childhood. Even Ulysses S. Grant himself, according to the American Civil War Museum, briefly owned a man named William Jones before emancipating him in 1859.
Our widely held view of President Abraham Lincoln as a man of deep integrity is also skewed, Bill Burkett said, given that he personally ordered the hanging of 38 Dakota Indian men in Mankato, Minn., on Dec. 26, 1862, following an uprising that stemmed largely from broken treaty promises on the part of the federal government.
It’s true: The hanging was the largest mass execution in U.S. history. And almost immediately, it was discovered that two of the men were hanged by mistake.
Burkett doesn’t mince words.
“I think he’s an asshole,” he said of Lincoln. “He was a tyrant.”
But don’t think he’s in favor of pulling down the local statue of Lincoln overlooking Lincoln Way, calling that idea “ridiculous.”
“It’s a part of history,” Burkett said.
History is indeed murky.
President Dwight Eisenhower kept a portrait of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in the Oval Office even as he used paratroopers from the 101st Airborne Division to desegregate a high school in Little Rock, Ark.
Still, even the publication at the backbone of the Confederate “lost cause” — a 12-page booklet, “A Confederate Catechism” — tips its hand by implying that slavery was, in fact, what pushed the states to warfare.
‘Barbarians and cannibals’
The booklet — you can read its third edition, published in 1929, on the Sons of Confederate Veterans website — lays out the Southern reasoning for secession, with grievances dating to 1785.
But what really ticked them off was Lincoln’s election on a pledge to prohibit slavery in territories that weren’t yet states.
On one hand, the booklet rationalizes the pledge by stating that “none of the remaining territorial domain was in any way fit for agriculture.” Take that! But on the other, it was Lincoln’s very attitude on the subject that made them seethe.
Lincoln’s ensuing war “violated every law of humanity,” it states.
As for the actual enslaved?
“The negroes were the most spoiled domestics in the world,” the booklet goes on to state. “The Southerners took the negro as a barbarian and cannibal, civilized him, supported him, clothed him and turned him out a devout Christian.”
I read that passage to Burkett and asked whether he agreed with it.
“I don’t agree with it,” he said. “We reject slavery.”
Besides, Burkett explained, slavery was on its way out anyway.
“Slavery would have fizzled,” he said. “That’s obvious with machines.”
In just Mississippi alone in 1860, it’s believed there were more than 430,000 black slaves to 350,000 whites, which factored into the state’s decision to secede, with state lawmakers calling a “blow at slavery” a “blow at commerce and civilization.”
“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world,” the lawmakers wrote in their infamous secession documents of 1861.
Like most Southern whites, it’s not believed that Andrew Jackson Burkett owned slaves. However, Bill Burkett said, Andrew Jackson Burkett’s grandfather in South Carolina, George Washington Burkett (no, you cannot make up these names), owned somewhere between six and 16 enslaved people.
Burkett admits to being fascinated by his family’s history.
For the record, he wasn’t able to use Andrew Jackson Burkett for his entry to the Sons of Confederate Veterans, an organization established in 1896 whose membership purportedly includes actor Clint Eastwood, and formerly included President Harry Truman and World War II general Omar Bradley.
Great-Grandpa was, after all, a deserter.
Additional research turned up another relative — also named Andrew Jackson Burkett; turns out there were four of ’em in all — who served honorably as a sergeant with the Mississippi cavalry.
To date, Bill Burkett hasn’t been able to find a direct family connection to a Union veteran.
Not that he’s looking too hard.
I asked if he’d ever consider joining a comparable group for ancestors of Union veterans if he found one. Like a field surgeon sawing through a leg, I hit a nerve.
“Absolutely not,” he swiftly replied.
“Would you believe,” he explained, “I was a wild-eyed liberal when I got out of the Air Force?”
It would seem that 155 years after Dixie fell, there are still battle lines drawn in this country.
It’s just that they’re no longer as easily defined as North and South.
Locally, he said, no one has ever given him grief over the Confederate stickers on his vehicle.
“There are others,” Burkett said, “who are right with me.”
These days, he added, it’s the “news media we’re up against.”
And so we left it there — me, the perplexed Northern journalist, and him, Greene County’s very own Southern gentleman.
“Have a Dixie day,” he said in parting.