The History of Confederate Flags at Washington and Lee University

A couple of documents related to the history of the display of Confederate flags at W&L’s Lee Chapel were sent to me earlier today. They detail a history that is much more complicated than what most people are aware of in the wake of the petition by students to have the flags removed. The story involves numerous stakeholders, including W&L, the Museum of the Confederacy and United Daughters of the Confederacy.

The first document is a timeline related to the loaning of flags to the school by the MOC. One of the things that I found interesting is that the display of Confederate flags in the Lee Chapel dates as recently to 1930, which suggests the possibility that no flags flew in the intervening period following Lee’s death.

The second document is an agreement (1997) between W&L and the MOC surrounding eleven Confederate flags that were entrusted to the school. It’s worth reading, especially point no. 4:

Following restoration, W&L shall display the restored Flags, and only the restored flags, on a rotating basis in Lee Chapel where they shall be presented two (2) or three (3) at a time under glass specially designed for the flags.

Perhaps I am wrong, but I don’t believe that the flags currently on display inside the chapel date to the war.

These documents raise more questions than answers for me.  Hopefully additional documents will be forthcoming to help fill in some of the missing pieces.

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10 thoughts on “The History of Confederate Flags at Washington and Lee University

  1. Betty Giragosian

    Kevin, I believe that W and L has retained ownership of two and maybe three of the original flags. the rest were returned to the MOC. Our Virginia Division UDC voted in 1993 to have replicas of the flags made by Festival Flags in Richmond, Virginia and presented to the Lee Chapel as a gift. During that time, I was President of Virginia Division. It had been thought for many years that the flags were the property of Virginia Division, but records proved this was not true. I remember that one flag was so thin you could actually read the newspapter through it. It was impossible to keep loving hands from caressing them, when no one was looking. One hung from an old tree branch. One one occasion, someone removed one and it was found on Captain Peniston’s desk!! The reporoductions are perfectly done, and are quite beautiful. It is my hope that the flags will reman where they are. I have often expressed the view that the place for the CBF is in a Confederate Cemetery, at a Confederate Monument, or in a museum. The chapel meets these criteria.
    I am sorry these students feel as they do, and wish they could be tolerant of a place that is so dear to southern hearts. They have created ill will, and quite possibly since the original flags were not hung in the chapel until 1930, this will give the University the opportunity to be politically correct and remove them. I hope it will show more character than that–and not yield to threats of civil disobedience.

    That remains to be seen.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Betty,

      I appreciate the additional information.

      The reporoductions are perfectly done, and are quite beautiful. It is my hope that the flags will reman where they are.

      You are not alone. I have also expressed hope that a solution can be reached that preserves a visual connection to Confederate heritage that can be historically interpreted.

      I am sorry these students feel as they do, and wish they could be tolerant of a place that is so dear to southern hearts.

      I wonder how many of these students also identify as southerners. It seems to me that the site will remain “dear to southern hearts” with or without the flags. In other words, white southerners have not always needed a flag to demonstrate their connection to the Confederate past. This may have been the case in connection to the chapel for 60 years following Lee’s death. It’s unfortunate that for many everything hinges on whether a replica flag is displayed.

      Reply
      1. Betty Giragosian

        Kevin, I think it is more than that–Apparently this will not satisfy them, as they want to do more– diminish Lee. I believe the chapel is the only place where the CBF hangs. They have done away with the practice of wrapping black crepe-plastic around the columns on the day commemorating Lee’s death. The service in the chapel featuring distinguished historians as speakers would be discontinued if they have have their way–but I digress, you were speaking of the flags. It is the act of causing the flag to be removed that causes resentment–and anger.

        Reply
        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          Guess what, it’s their community. They can speak out in any way they see fit. The administration is apparently taking their concerns seriously and will be addressed one way or the other.

          The service in the chapel featuring distinguished historians as speakers would be discontinued if they have have their way…

          There is nothing in the student petition that supports such a claim.

          They have done away with the practice of wrapping black crepe-plastic around the columns on the day commemorating Lee’s death.

          Yes, things change. It may be the case that for quite some time there was no Confederate flag inside Lee Chapel and somehow everyone survived.

          Reply
          1. Betty Giragosian

            Kevin, I believe the committee did demand that the chapel not be used for speakers as has been done for many years. Yes, it is the community of about nine students as well as hundreds of others Political correctness is the law of the land. Yankee busybodies like you and most of your commenters will stir the pot to see what rises to the top.The committee have the right to speak and make all kinds of demands. That does not mean their demands are wise, reasonable or sensible. I can see that you have been very busy, gathering your notes of the history of the Flags, which is actually a small part of what the committee demand.

            Reply
            1. Kevin Levin Post author

              I believe the petition states that they don’t want the chapel used by heritage organizations. It doesn’t say anything about historians and others not being able to use it.

              Yankee busybodies like you and most of your commenters will stir the pot to see what rises to the top.

              I am sure you believe this. It’s a convenient thing to say when you are unwilling to look more closely. It’s always outsiders interfering. I do understand that you need to believe this.

              Reply
              1. The other Susan

                Betty you sound just like Robert E. Lee, you must feel so proud.

                “In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence. Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild & melting influence of Christianity, than the storms & tempests of fiery Controversy. This influence though slow, is sure. The doctrines & miracles of our Saviour have required nearly two thousand years, to Convert but a small part of the human race, & even among Christian nations, what gross errors still exist! While we see the Course of the final abolition of human Slavery is onward, & we give it the aid of our prayers & all justifiable means in our power, we must leave the progress as well as the result in his hands who sees the end; who Chooses to work by slow influences; & with whom two thousand years are but as a Single day. Although the Abolitionist must know this, & must See that he has neither the right or power of operating except by moral means & suasion, & if he means well to the slave, he must not Create angry feelings in the Master; that although he may not approve the mode which it pleases Providence to accomplish its purposes, the result will nevertheless be the same; that the reasons he gives for interference in what he has no Concern, holds good for every kind of interference with our neighbors when we disapprove their Conduct; Still I fear he will persevere in his evil Course. Is it not strange that the descendants of those pilgrim fathers who Crossed the Atlantic to preserve their own freedom of opinion, have always proved themselves intolerant of the Spiritual liberty of others?”

                Reply
                1. Bryce Hartranft

                  Of course Robert E. Lee thought it was ok to wait for “providence” to end slavery when he himself was not the one under the whip enduring the “painful discipline.” Quite bold to call abolitionists “evil” while referring to slavery as “spiritual liberty.”

                  I thought the quote “The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically” was interesting. Was Lee not a fan of recolonization back to Africa?

                  Reply
                  1. The other Susan

                    As I understand it Lee’s wife’s side of the family believed that sending slaves back to Africa would help convert Africa to Christianity. So they saw recolonization as more for Africa’s benefit than the slaves. Someone else might better know if Lee himself made any statements on the matter.

                    Reply

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