How To Interpret a $35 Nylon Confederate Flag

The controversy surrounding the removal of the Confederate battle flag on South Carolina’s State House grounds continues. A number of public officials and other concerned citizens have expressed frustration over the projected costs for displaying the flag at the South Carolina Relic Room and Museum.

In my latest essay at The Daily Beast I comment on what I see as the bigger problem of how the flag should be interpreted for the general public. I fear we are going to end up right back where we started.

Click here for my other essays at The Daily Beast.

About Kevin Levin

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41 comments add yours

  1. Good piece at the Daily Beast, Kevin. You’ve laid out the challenges of what next quite well. I hope the folks at the museum will be allowed to interpret the flag’s official usage from 1961-2015 in context, but my guess is local politics will get in the way.

    • I have absolutely no doubt that politics will get in the way, but we both know that there are some very competent people in the Relic Room, who can properly interpret the flag.

  2. I share your fears, Kevin. It’s going to be difficult for the professionals to do their job in such a politically charged atmosphere. Let’s wish them well.

  3. It’s a strong essay that raises important points. Like you, I doubt that much will change much. The heritage crowd is much too insulated from reality for any sort of change in interpretation or understanding even to recognized as legitimate, let alone accepted.

    I do have to take exception to the term “fake” to describe the flag taken down in Columbia. It’s a catchy headline, but it’s not a fake flag — it’s very much a real flag, and (under the circumstances) it now has an historic significance of its own even if it doesn’t date back to the 1860s.

    My first reaction when I saw the $5.3 million estimate on the exhibit redesign was that the museum was probably including all sorts of additional things into a sort of omnibus funding bill. Later reports seem to have borne that out, but I entirely understand the incentive to do so. Museums generally, whether publicly- or privately funded, are almost always scraping for money to do much-needed work, and I imagine the folks in South Carolina saw that as a chance to get funding for necessary but unglamorous projects like fixing a leaky roof on the museum. It’s a little opportunistic, but understandable.

    I do dislike the the plans for the display of the flag, because it creates what amounts to a secular shrine, and promotes the “sacred banner” aspect of the Confederate Battle Flag, which is something I believe public museums ought to steer well clear of. (It also gets us well into worshiping-a-graven-image territory, for those who take such things to heart.) I think it would be great if the museum told the full story of the CBF on the South Carolina State House, using that specific flag as its centerpiece, but that’s not what’s being proposed as far as I can tell

    • I do have to take exception to the term “fake” to describe the flag taken down in Columbia. It’s a catchy headline, but it’s not a fake flag — it’s very much a real flag, and (under the circumstances) it now has an historic significance of its own even if it doesn’t date back to the 1860s.

      I agree with you, but alas, The Daily Beast rarely uses the titles that I suggest.

    • I’ll second Andy’s observations… my grapevine telegraph tells me that the museum staff is loathe to even have the thing, but is delighted at the $5.3 mil windfall that will go to fixing and funding a lot of other unglamorous projects and programs that would otherwise continue to languish.

  4. As a museum professional, I would love to see their cost breakdown to get that outrageous number. Must be an entire redo of their Confederate section or possibly a large exhibit on memory. Not a bad idea, but probably not smart to ask for that type of funding either.

    • Hi Rob,

      I would like to see it as well. Given the wording of the resolution I don’t anticipate an exhibit on memory. In fact, I think they want an exhibit that does exactly what the resolution states. I am not very optimistic that a more complete history of this particular flag will be featured.

    • Rob, that’s exactly what the $5.3 million figure reflects, a significant expansion of the museum, going well beyond the display of that specific artifact:

      ____

      The plan – which would have to be approved and funded by the state Legislature – would utilize a 4,600-square-foot second-story room in the old textile mill on Gervais Street that houses both the State Museum and the S.C. Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum.
      The S.C. Highway Patrol Honor Guard removed the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds during a ceremony July 10.

      The use of the now-empty Congaree Room, directly above the Relic Room, would increase the size of that small military museum by about one-third and allow curators to also display and interpret authentic Confederate flags and other items now in storage.

      Watson Tate Savory Architects Inc. of Columbia, along with British consultant Haley Sharpe Design, offered the first peek at the proposal Thursday morning during a meeting of the new S.C. Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum Commission. The consultants proposed spending $416,000 a year to operate the expanded exhibit, the vast majority of which would be rent paid annually to the S.C. Division of General Services for the new space.

      “We realize we have to look at the impact in relation to the budget,” architect Sanders Tate told commission members, after acknowledging that the addition would be expensive but the flag needed to be placed in an appropriate setting. . . .

      According to the proposal, the flag from the grounds would be displayed in a case that fronts a wall of electronic tiles that could display the names of all 24,000 Confederate South Carolina troops killed in the Civil War.

      Commission member Martha Van Schaick of Spartanburg said displaying the flag with the names of the dead Confederate troops was appropriate. “It should be in a place that is revered,” said Van Schaick, a past national president general of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

      The new room would also house other exhibits, including the authentic flags in storage.

      “We have some garrison flags that have never been seen,” said museum director Allen Roberson, who received the flag at the State House after it was taken from its pole behind the Confederate Soldier Monument in July.

      The plan also calls for the entrance to the museum to be expanded farther into the mill’s soaring atrium, making event space available and allowing for a new, direct stairway to the expansion. The new room would also have classroom and event space.

      _____

      By the way, if the name Martha Van Schaick sounds familiar, she’s the former UDC President General who refused to let her organization get dragged into the Virginia Flaggers’ dispute with the VMFA.

      I’ve read elsewhere that $1.3 million of the total, or thereabouts, is for that fancy digital wall that will scroll the names of South Carolinians killed in the war. That really strikes me as being part of the plan because it’s the Shiny New Thing, as much as being appropriate to the display.

      I have to say I sympathize to a degree with the museum, in swinging for the fences with this. I’ve read that their budget has been cut by 40% since 2007, and they may really see this as their last, best hope for a significant infusion of fund to get done a lot of things they could never do otherwise.

      • Such an exhibit would be highly unfortunate for the reasons I expressed in the article. The Relic Room doesn’t need this particular flag to drive an exhibit that simply honors Confederate soldiers from South Carolina. The history of the flag in question seems to me to begin in 1961 and not 1861.

        • “The Relic Room doesn’t need this particular flag to drive an exhibit that simply honors Confederate soldiers from South Carolina.”

          But that was part of the political sausage-making that went into the deal to take it down, though. That decision, like everything else, is based on a series of compromises. The important thing is that it’s down; it should never have been put atop the State House fifty-odd years ago.

          • Sure. I am just pointing out that the scope of the exhibit as outlined in the resolution fails to address the history connected to the flag that was taken down in July. I do predict that if it goes through the exhibit outlined in the resolution will lead to additional questions and controversy.

  5. As a South Carolina native who found the display of the battle flag at the soldier’s monument entirely appropriate, I do think that $5 million to display it in the museum is clearly an attempt by the museum to ask for everything and the kitchen sink in the hope that they can at least get some of the money they’re asking for. Mr. Hall is quite correct about that.

    I like the idea of a digital display listing the names of the South Carolinians who died during the Civil War. An exhibit like that is not as visible in the museum as the soldier’s monument on the State House grounds is, but otherwise I think it’s a fine idea, as long as the taxpayers aren’t soaked to pay for it.

    • I like the idea of a digital display listing the names of the South Carolinians who died during the Civil War.

      Sure, it just does nothing to render the flag taken down in July intelligible for the reasons I outlined in the essay.

      • I wouldn’t be concerned about it. I’d be surprised if a history of the Confederate flag’s display on the dome and on the monument isn’t included as a part of the exhibit. I fully expect that to happen.

        • HS,

          The history of the flag’s display on the dome should not be just a part of the exhibit; it should be the exhibit. This is what infuriates so many African American men and women, and rightly so.

          Let’s just take this one flag, this artifact, and separate it, for now, from all of Confederate history and memory, and from the history of that memory, too. In his article, Kevin has laid out what it represents. I will add to Kevin’s analysis that this is the very flag that flew as Reverend Pinckney lay in state–as President Obama delivered Reverend Pinckney’s eulogy. It is so highly offensive and inappropriate of the state legislature to demand that Confederate soldiers be honored in the same breath. It shows a complete inability to empathize and a sort of tone deafness that is troubling.

          For a white Southerner who “gets it”, contrast that attitude with the attitude of John Cummings, the Louisiana attorney who financed, opened and runs the Whitney Plantation Slavery Museum. At that museum, the visitor experiences the plantation from the point of view of the slave, not from that of the slaveholder. In addition, Cummings put a Senegalese scholar, Ibrahim Seck, in charge of the history of the museum, which adds another dimension to the experience since this scholar connects the American slave past to African history itself. In an interview, Seck says that the purpose of the museum is not to place blame, but to help the visitor understand. This is critical, and it is the right approach. When we stop blaming one another, the possibility of understanding comes closer to becoming a reality. You might want to take a look at the museum’s information, if you don’t know about it already. It is fascinating–and revealing. I don’t know too many people who are aware of the German Coast Uprising and its aftermath. I certainly was not. Now that I am, I will never forget it.

          • excellent comment, Sherree. Just one addendum: when you say This is what infuriates so many African American men and women,…, I’d just add that it also infuriates me, a white guy, and many other white people too.

          • “The history of the flag’s display on the dome should not be just a part of the exhibit; it should be the exhibit. This is what infuriates so many African American men and women, and rightly so.”

            It didn’t remain on the dome. For the past 15 years, it’s been part of the Confederate soldiers’ memorial, and putting it with a new memorial in the museum continues that function. Most of those soldiers were no more complicit in slavery than American soldiers in WW2 were complicit in the unjust imprisonment of Japanese Americans in prison camps.

            “I will add to Kevin’s analysis that this is the very flag that flew as Reverend Pinckney lay in state–as President Obama delivered Reverend Pinckney’s eulogy. It is so highly offensive and inappropriate of the state legislature to demand that Confederate soldiers be honored in the same breath. It shows a complete inability to empathize and a sort of tone deafness that is troubling.”

            I think both sides display a troubling lack of empathy for the other.

            Many of the families of those Confederate soldiers never saw their loved ones again. Men who went to war with friends and family saw them killed right in front of them. Many men who did survive lost limbs, or suffered from wounds for the rest of their life. Many spent time in prison camps. No doubt they had PTSD, though they wouldn’t have called it that then. Can you see why descendents of those families would want their sacrifice honored and remembered?

            The Union and Confederate veterans put their enmity behind them in time. They understood each other through the shared experiences of the war. We seem unable to do the same today. Regarding the Whitney Plantation Slavery Museum, that sounds like an good way to bring history to life, and to maybe create some of that empathy you’re talking about. But understanding and empathy have to run in both directions, otherwise we’re just talking past each other endlessly, and nothing will change.

            • I think both sides display a troubling lack of empathy for the other.

              I agree that empathy is important all the way around. I also value justice and the Confederate flag at its core is a symbol of injustice. It counters everything that we as Americans hold dear and aspire to achieve even if we often come up short.

              The Union and Confederate veterans put their enmity behind them in time.

              It’s a comforting thought, but a close look at recent scholarship suggests that it’s not entirely true.

              • ” I also value justice and the Confederate flag at its core is a symbol of injustice. It counters everything that we as Americans hold dear and aspire to achieve even if we often come up short.”

                I don’t entirely agree. It’s as much a symbol of valor and love of country and freedom as the United States flag is. It’s tainted by slavery and racism, but then the US flag, the flag of my country with its high and lofty ideals, is also tainted by slavery,and racism, and the aforementioned unjust imprisonment of Japanese Americans, and the wholesale slaughter and theft of the land of the American Indian, and other injustices throughout our long history. I’d be a pretty major hypocrite not to recognize the national sins committed by those carrying both flags, but also the courage and aspiration of those same people. I think we have the idea that slavery is somehow worse and more inexcusable than other wrongs and injustices in our nation’s history, but the truth is that there are other national sins that are just as bad.

                How do I approach it? I acknowledge the wrong, but also acknowledge what was good, rather than trying to condemn everything about the US, or the Confederacy. And one of those things worth remembering is the valor of the common soldier, both Union and Confederate. Those men suffered a lot, either fighting as they saw it to preserve the Union or fighting for his independence.

              • It’s as much a symbol of valor and love of country and freedom as the United States flag is. It’s tainted by slavery and racism, but then the US flag, the flag of my country with its high and lofty ideals, is also tainted by slavery,and racism, and the aforementioned unjust imprisonment of Japanese Americans, and the wholesale slaughter and theft of the land of the American Indian, and other injustices throughout our long history.

                We will have to agree to disagree. Yes, the United States has often fallen short of the values and principles that we hold dear, but I believe in our founding ideals and I believe that all of us have the opportunity to move this nation in that direction if we so choose. I do not believe that the Confederacy represented those ideals.

                For me, it comes down to the belief that the right side won the Civil War. I believe in this imperfect Union and I believe that slavery was immoral.

              • If it comes down to a choice between Southern independence and the end of slavery, I absolutely agree that the right side won the Civil War. That doesn’t mean that I can’t admire the soldiers who genuinely believed they were fighting for their Southern independence, and honor their sacrifice. It’s not an either/or proposition for me.

              • I was responding specifically to your previous claim that we can’t distinguish between the United States and Confederate flags re: their connection to freedom. I believe we can.

                That doesn’t mean that I can’t admire the soldiers who genuinely believed they were fighting for their Southern independence…

                Sure, as long as we never lose sight of what that Southern independence meant for the freedom of 4 million people.

            • “Can you see why the descendants of those families would want their sacrifice honored and remembered?”

              I am a descendant of one of those families, HS, not from South Carolina, but from Virginia.

              I see your point. I understand it. But you are going in the wrong direction with it, imo. The fact that you are open to the exhibit at the Whitney Plantation Slavery Museum speaks to your understanding of the Civil War, and indicates that you are not a “Lost Causer”.

              If you decide to watch the interview of Cummings posted by the Atlantic, you will see that Cummings talks about a need for white Americans, not just white Southerners, to understand debates over slavery, the Civil War, and its legacy, and to not demand that African American men and women “get over it”. First, you have to know what “it” is, Cummings says.

              I am interested in Cummings story, because he comes at the subject as a lay person, not as an historian, and he is shocked by the information that comes with what is, at first, a real estate purchase. His inclusion of Ibrahima Seck as the historian on site is a brilliant move because it bypasses the sectional arguments that help to prevent an internal dialogue in the South that does not hold this history up as punitive.

              Slavery was a brutal institution, upheld by extreme violence, and an almost authoritarian society. It was a worldwide crime of enormous dimensions and African American men and women who claim that our current society is built upon white privilege that is the product of the legacy of slavery are correct. The South is ground zero in this national and world history, second only to Brazil. It is time to fold the Confederate flag up and put it away, not because white Southerners are lesser Americans, but because we have the courage to face our past.

              • Slavery was a brutal institution. One of the things I’ve been doing since the flag came off the monument in Columbia is to educate myself, to read up on Civil War history and learn about a subject which had been a casual interest at best. It’s one thing to know on a surface level that it’s evil, but it’s another thing entirely to learn the details.

                But not every Confederate soldier had an interest in it, any more than every soldier in WW2 had an interest in locking up innocent Japanese Americans for the duration. While I’ve been reading about slavery, I’ve also been reading books that detail the correspondence and motivations of the common soldier. Many of them could care less about slavery one way or the other, and that’s abundantly clear.

                As a matter of interest, I have NC Confederate ancestry, while my wife has a couple of Ohio Union soldiers in her family tree.

              • Certainly, Confederate soldiers were motivated by multiple and often competing factors, but many of them understood that victory would mean the maintenance of slavery. This became magnified as more and more Confederates (slaveholders and non-slaveholders alike) confronted black Union soldiers for the first time after 1863. Regardless of their motivation, every one of them fought for a nation that was committed to the protection of slavery and white supremacy. At some point, this must be included in any notion of Southern independence.

              • Hi H.S.,

                Just curious… what have you been reading? Since you’ve got NC ancestors, have you seen William Barney’s _The Making of a Confederate: Walter Lenoir’s Civil War_?

              • Off the top of my head (and I can’t remember all of the authors), currently reading “The Road to Disunion” volume 1. I’ve read the first two volumes of Shelby Foote’s “Civil War”, “A Brigade of South Carolinians”, “Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia”, and “What They Fought For”. This is all since June, so it’s not a ton of reading by any means, not that I have a lot of time other than during my lunch hour and late at night. I usually go to the library when I’ve finished a book and browse through the shelf until something catches my eye, and that’ll be my next choice.

              • I’ve written down the recommendation, so maybe that will be my next reading choice when I’m done with the current book. I still need to finish Shelby Foote’s third volume, but they’re so long I needed a break!

              • Hi H.S.,

                Good reading list. I think you’ll find that Barney’s book wrestles with some of the things we’re going over in this thread…e.g. how individual Confederates understood family, economy, and race and class motivations in the larger Confederate national “project” that rested on racial slavery. Barney allows for the historical nuance in regards to these men that is too-often overlooked (Walter Lenoir will overturn anyone’s master narrative), and does so in a way that makes an either/or on slavery debates pointless. Plus, it is the most exquisitely researched and written book on the Civil War that I know, and you can read the whole thing on your day off.

                Also, may I recommend Charles Dew’s _Apostles of Disunion_? That’s another one you can knock out in a weekend.

    • Any scrolling list of South Carolinian soldiers who died during the war should include the South Carolina members of the USCTs who died fighting for their country.

  6. I think you’re absolutely right, Kevin. Good essay. I really don’t understand the logic behind displaying the state house battle flag in this manner. If the museum’s desire is to create a Vietnam Wall-esque memorial to South Carolina’s Confederate veterans (an aside: what about its Union veterans?), then wouldn’t an authentic battle flag be a thousand times more appropriate? The Relic Room certainly has those in abundance. Why use a cheap, modern nylon replica that has no direct connection to the soldiers themselves?

    The renderings I’ve seen are even more problematic, seeming to place the flag in a position of reverence reminiscent of the Star Spangled Banner in DC. All this for a “fake”?

    As you’ve pointed out in the comments, the history of this particular flag absolutely begins in 1961. Perhaps it’s the political climate that prevents such an interpretation, but it would be a shame if that history isn’t placed front and center in any future exhibit. Navigating those political winds is tricky, but not impossible.

    On another note: The museum is clearly using this acquisition to solicit more state funding for other, long deferred projects. Creative. Of course, sensationalist media headlines are causing the uproar by oversimplifying the use of the requested funds. A more truthful headline would read: “Relic Room Requests Funding for Flag Display, Facility Expansion, Deferred Maintenance,” but that’s not as attention grabbing.

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