Every so often I browse news items related to memory and the Civil War and although I have commented on issues related to the public display of the Confederate flag I have said little of late. It’s like beating a dead horse given that the discussions are never interesting and tend toward an overly simplistic and dichotomous back and forth. On one side we learn that the flag must be understood as a symbol of “heritage and not hate” and the other side would have us believe that it is a symbol of hate. [Consider the recent debate at Fort Hill High School in Cumberland, Maryland.] Like other Civil War memes such as North v. South, agrarian v. industry, backward v. progressive these discussions convey very little if anything that has historical value. Here is another example of the whitewashing of history from an Arkansas chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans who recently celebrated Confederate Flag and Heritage Day:
Mark Kalkbrenner, 2nd Lt. Commander, said “The Confederate battle flag was a flag, an American flag the men were fighting for, what they believed in and it was the symbol they rallied around and we continue to use that.”
Such a claim completely ignores the ways in which that flag was displayed during the Civil Rights Movement and asks us not to remember history but to ignore it in favor of a narrow perspective that serves the interests of a small group. I do not mean to pick on one side since those on the other also ignore legitimate interpretations that resonated with individuals that may not have had anything directly to do with race during the immediate postwar years and the war itself. My point is that if you are one to take part in these debates understand that your stance one way or the other is more about you and not about the overall history of that flag. Each side chooses to ignore some salient aspect of the past and in doing so you leave the realm of history.
This is a perfect opportunity to plug what I consider to be one of the most important Civil War publications of the last 5 years, John Coski’s The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem (Harvard University Press, 2006). I have little doubt that the people who make these overly emotional appeals for their preferred interpretation have never read John’s book, but their failure to do so probably means that they do not really understand their subject. The book is now in paperback so do yourself a favor and read it.