During my recent trip to Gettysburg I made time to visit the Seminary Ridge Museum, which is located on the campus of the Lutheran Theological Seminary. It’s a wonderful museum and I highly recommend a visit given the important role it played during the battle and for what you will see and learn inside.
Following the Charleston shootings the seminary issued a statement banning the display of Confederate flags that features the St. Andrews Cross on the grounds. This directly impacts living history events sponsored by the museum. In fact, it impacts an event that is taking place this weekend. You can read the announcement on their website.
It should come as no surprise that many people, especially Civil War reenactors, are disappointed with this decision. I applaud it, though not without some concerns, which I will explain in a minute. First, I find the explanation to be compelling, especially the emphasis placed on the connection between two of the victims and the alleged shooter to the broader Lutheran community. I don’t see how anyone can be surprised by a seminary (of all places) responding to recent events and the broader discussion about the history of this incredibly divisive symbol. [Unfortunately, much of the outrage that I’ve seen has been directed at the museum.]
The seminary has every right to respond to the national discussion about the meaning of the Confederate flag and control public perception as it relates to events on its property. I suspect that a general ban was deemed easier to implement as opposed to addressing possible scenarios on a case-by-case basis.
My concern is not with the ban, but with seminary spokesman John Spangler’s distinction between understanding the Confederate flag in its Civil War as opposed to Civil Rights contexts.
The problem with the symbolism in question is not about its historical use in the context of interpreting the Civil War, it is rather the subsequent use in resisting civil rights and overt and violent racism by individuals and groups that continue to this day. We simply can’t ignore this deeply disturbing and historical usage.
This is just another example of trying to thread the needle between history and heritage and it has to stop. It’s as if the Confederate flag only became associated with racism and white supremacy beginning in the 1950s. This is history at its worst. Do I really have to quote Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens and countless others again? Whatever else it might mean, from day one the Confederate battle flag was wrapped up in white supremacy, first as part of an attempt to establish an independent slaveholding republic and later in the broad push against black civil rights.
The surrender of Confederate armies and the furling of flags in the spring of 1865 ensured that such a nation would not exist.
Let me be clear, as a rule I do not have a problem with the display of the Confederate battle flag as part of carefully choreographed living history events. It certainly doesn’t mark a Confederate reenactor as racist simply because he is associated with it. Living historians/reenactors who wish to utilize the Confederate flag, however, will not be able to proceed in the wake of recent events as business as usual.
To do so is not only to ignore recent history, but to pretend that the origin of the flag itself is not central to the story.