I have a Confederate flag in my basement.
No, it’s not hanging on the wall over my gun cabinet. It’s folded up and wrapped in plastic in a box, along with a bunch of WW2 era newspapers that my grandmother gave to me as a child. My grandmother told me that flag had “flown over Richmond.”
Not long after I received this gift, my family took me to visit the Confederate Museum in Richmond, VA, and a staff member looked at the flag. He determined, based on the grommets and stitching, that the flag was not Civil War era, but likely from the early 1900’s. It wasn’t a real Civil War flag; it was manufactured at least 35 years after the war was over.
According to my grandmother, one of my forebears served in the 10th Kentucky Cavalry CSA. Looking back, Granny was a wealth of Lost Cause mythology, and I loved the stories. I’m not entirely joking when I say I was nine or ten years old before I realized the south lost the Civil War. As a boy I was enthralled by the sad nobility of the Lost Cause-- the gallant cavalry charges, outnumbered southerners repeatedly out-soldiering Yankee invaders until overwhelmed by the industrial might of the Union. My grandmother stressed that our family did not own slaves.
It was all bullshit.
I did not easily arrive at that conclusion. Granny turned me into something of a Civil War buff, and the vast majority of the books I read reinforced, to some degree, the Lost Cause narrative. I took up reading Civil War histories again about 20 years ago, and I learned that the preservation of slavery was indeed the central tenet of the Confederacy.
Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy, in his Cornerstone Speech, said this: “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
I also learned that Union generals weren’t as incompetent as I’d been taught, and Confederate generals weren’t as brilliant. It's embarrassing to admit that, for a while, this part bothered me more.
Why did my ancestor fight? His home, Kentucky, was a border state that contributed more than twice as many soldiers to the Union cause than to the Confederacy. Was he swayed by a convincing speech, or persuaded by a good friend? Did he believe Kentucky belonged in the Confederacy? Perhaps, in fighting for the Confederacy, he did the wrong thing for (as it seemed to him) right reasons. In that case he’s not different from young men throughout history who’ve been duped and enlisted into fighting wars in which they should have had no cause.
Why did my grandmother have that flag, and what did it mean to her? I believe that, in most cases, we should not judge past generations too harshly, based on our more complete knowledge and progressive views. My grandmother was born in 1909. I’ll assume her love of that flag resulted from stories of a relative’s wartime heroism, and a misplaced Gone With the Wind style nostalgia for a past that never existed.
I don’t know for sure about either of them, and I never will.
Here’s what I do know. It doesn’t really matter what the Confederate flag meant to my grandmother, or my Confederate ancestor, or to me. I know that for African Americans it will always be a symbol of enslavement and oppression. I cannot imagine the pain it causes to see it flying from a government building, or incorporated into a state flag as in Mississippi or Georgia. For those who would offer some version of the "it’s not hate, it’s heritage" argument, I would ask this: why does the symbol of your “heritage” continue to be employed with such enthusiasm by self-avowed white supremacists? Does it not make you feel at least a little…ashamed?