Our Civil War Heritage and Our DNA

By Sherry Sylvester


In the aftermath of the South Carolina church massacre, Texas is beginning a serious debate on the future of Confederate monuments that are abundant throughout the state. The debate seems to center around what it means to embrace our history – both the good and the bad – and the insistence by some that Confederate symbols honor their ancestors. Before moving forward on that second point, we need to be a little more honest about who our ancestors actually are.

I am a history buff and a genealogy nut, the kind of person most people try to avoid at parties. I can go on for hours about my great-grandfather and his three brothers who all fought for the Union. In 1864, my great-great grandfather was quoted in a Northern newspaper saying that despite having four sons fighting for the U.S. on battlefields around the country and his longing to end the war (which the Democrats were promising) he would be voting for Lincoln.

Today, as a conservative Republican, I frequently proclaim that being in the party of Lincoln is in my genes. But my boasting about my Union ancestors is highly selective, not unlike those sons and daughters of the Confederacy who insist their ties to their great-grandfathers and mothers requires clinging to Confederate flags and monuments. It’s a piece of personal history that only tells a small part of the story.

My Union ancestors represent a few dots on my DNA strings, no more or less important than thousands of others who came from other forebears with different attitudes and allegiances. I have Confederate ancestors too. In fact, it is almost certain that any Anglo (which is who we are mostly talking about here) descended from Americans who were in the United States during the 1860s has genetic ties to both sides in the Civil War. They may also be linked to those who opted out of the fight by going west, those who deserted and those with genetic connections to African-Americans or Native Americans who had little or no control of where they ended up during that awful period. Hispanics, who were in Texas before the Anglos, of course, have a wide range of stories too.

Anyone who doubts this should visit a genealogy Web site, punch in some family names and start tracing family trees. The results almost always surprise. Ben Affleck had a slave-holding ancestor. President Obama and George W. Bush are cousins, 10 times removed.

Knowledge of our forebears helps illuminate history. We can put ourselves in our ancestors’ shoes and contemplate their choices at crucial points in times past.

But we must recognize that we all have a lot of shoes. Every human has 46 chromosomes and 21,000 genes. As in so many things today, the truth is found in the DNA. Our genetic code reflects the generations of familial, cultural and geographic changes in our country over the 150 years since Appomattox. If you can trace your family back that far, you’ll almost always find ancestors in every camp.

Texas may decide there are reasons to keep Confederate monuments in place, but honoring our ancestors isn’t one of them. If it were, surely honoring the ancestors who fought to preserve the union and end slavery would be the first priority.

No one disputes that there were many honorable men and women who fought for the Confederacy, just as there were many honorable men and women who fought for the British during the American Revolution. They have millions of American descendants, but we don’t fly the Union Jack or build statues to Cornwallis or George III.

The Civil War is over and a larger, freer vision of America won. Texas exemplifies that vision. We can thank our ancestors for that.

Sherry Sylvester is a political communications consultant based in San Antonio. She is a member of Daughters of the American Revolution.