Friday, June 19, 2015

My Confederate Flag

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?


WMiller81 said...

Fantastic post, Joe. I was raised in the north, but my dad was (during the time I was growing up) a southern sympathizer who would always argue that the Civil War was not about slavery, but about states rights. I had no real dog in the fight one way or the other, as I was more interested in Jaclyn Smith's body on Charlie's Angels back then than I was about the War Between the States. Later, I ended up becoming a history teacher. Meanwhile, over the years my dad gradually came to the opposite conclusion, that the South was wrong to have started the war. He retired down south here in S.C. Now, ironically, when his neighbors put out the Confederate flag, he goes up to them and asks, "Don't you know that's the symbol of losers?"
Perhaps my dad just likes to argue.

SkylersDad said...

This was very well thought out, and more importantly a very personnel perspective Joe. Far from the ramblings of the spit-laced shouts of the people I have seen writing about this lately.

Cup said...

Excellent post, Joe. My husband mirrors your thoughts here.

p.s. The Georgia flag has not included the Confederate flag since 2003. Sadly, it was not on our state flag until 1956, when the state crackers added it on the eve of the Civil Rights movement.

Lary9 said...

Excellent. I wasn't sure what to expect when I clicked the link to your page from a Twitter post in my feed. But after reading into the first paragraphs, it became clear that, not only do we share a common heritage (I'm a New Orleans born native Lousisanan transplanted to the northeast for 55 years now) but we share a common judgment on the battleflag of the Army of Northern Virginia. Here's what I wrote today 6/19/15:

"The flag everyone is whining about isn't the nation flag of The Confederate States of America---it's the Confederate Army of No. Virginia battleflag, which is probably worse to those who are understandably sensitized to such symbols. It shouldn't fly anywhere publicly or be remotely linked to any state government. Private? Sure. Fly it all you want at home or at the local DAR lodge but don't insult all of us with that historically excremental symbolism.
Gov. Haley is just spewing the party line---"Let's not not deal with other issues like gun control or the Confederate battleflag at a time like this...everybody is trying to heal."
Such utter bullshit. I think they may actually believe what they're saying. But it's wrong; dead wrong! Stay crispy...stay outraged...these emotions are the stuff that fuels the fire for any real change in this matter. To hell with healing!"

IrishPirate said...

That would be a great book title: "It Was Bullshit: The Lost Cause and American Memory".

Any DamnYankees who spent time in the military might be able to relate a story like this one. I recall one particular white Sergeant from Alabama who liked to talk about how the south would win a civil war today(today being 30 years ago). I asked him to think about why all the ICBM's were in the north in places like Wyoming and the Dakotas.

A few things I've read, reread or listened to again the last few days.

Academic on the real history and meaning of the Confederate flag.

The sainted Robert E Lee had a choice. He chose badly. His own sister was an unreconstructed UNIONIST and a number of his cousins fought for the Union to include one asskicking Union admiral.

Contrast West Point graduate from a Virginia slave owning family Lee with West Point graduate from a Virginia slave owning family George Henry Thomas.

Thomas's life gave rise to one of the best named civil war biographies: "George Thomas: Virginian for the Union." The freaking title makes my nipples hard.

Here's a forty minute talk the Virginia raised author and Depaul professor gave. Let's just say that he never heard the name George Henry Thomas in his Virginia primary and high school years.

Thomas served under Lee in Texas prior to the Civil War. The amusing thing is that we're lucky that both men made their respective choices. Lee would have been exactly the type of aggressive General the Union needed in the first two years of the war. Sitting on his ass like McClellan was not in his nature. With Lee in command of the Union Army I expect Lincoln would never have had the chance to issue the Emancipation Proclamation as the war might have ended in 1862 and slavery would likely have continued for a few more generations. If Thomas had fought for the Confederacy the war might have ended with a stalemate. He was a defensive genius, but when he went on the offensive it was something like the last Bears Super Bowl victory.

America got the two Virginia born generals it needed in the Civil War. One is a traitor on the losing side who is revered. The other is a Giant from the winning side who is largely forgotten.