Our Obsession With the Confederate Flag

My editor at the Atlantic asked me to revise a recent post on the DNC and the Confederate flag.  You can read it below or at the Atlantic.  I have no doubt that it will raise the usual cries of South/Confederate heritage bashing from the usual suspects.  What I find funny is that the posts I’ve written for the Atlantic that could be construed as Union bashing or whatever the equivalent is this side of the Mason-Dixon Line rarely receive any kind of condemnation.  Funny how that works.  Click here for the rest of the my Atlantic columns.

Next month’s Democratic National Convention and the nomination of the nation’s first black president for a second term in the city of Charlotte, North Carolina, will provide an ideal backdrop for those looking to assess the region’s progress on the racial front. At front and center for many sits the Confederate flag.

Reports are likely to resemble this recent article from The Charlotte Observer, written by Elizabeth Leland, who believes that “remnants of the Old South linger in our region — and none as divisive as the Confederate flag.” Such articles follow a well-worn pattern that includes interviews with one or two white southern men who fly the flag on their property or pickup truck and believe it represents “heritage, not hate.” (As an auto mechanic quoted in Leland’s story puts it, “I’ve lived here since I was a little rascal and my daddy always had an American flag and a Confederate flag, and I do, too.”)

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She’s Back

I haven’t commented on what Brooks Simpson refers to as “the gift that keeps on giving” in some time, but news that Ann DeWitt is once again posting is too good to pass up.  You know Ms. DeWitt as the person who discovered an entire regiment of black Confederate cooks and the owner of one of the most confused websites on this subject.  She is now posting under the name “Little Rebel” and it looks like Ms. DeWitt’s “research” interests have led her to a subject near and dear to my heart.

Yes, we all can’t wait for the next big discovery.  In the eight years that I’ve spent with Mahone’s men I have never come across a reference to anything other than body servants and impressed slaves.  This is not to say that Confederates under Mahone’s command did not have black soldiers on their minds.  They wrote a great deal about an entire division of black soldiers, who took part in the battle of the Crater and they wrote openly and approvingly about their massacre.  In all the letters, diaries, and postwar accounts penned by Confederates who were there not one mentioned their own loyal black soldiers.

Spend enough time with what Confederate soldiers actually wrote and you will have some idea of why the Confederacy struggled with the question of the enlistment of blacks.

Why Petersburg’s South Side Depot Matters

I couldn’t be more pleased to hear that we are one step closer to seeing Petersburg’s South Side Depot renovated and utilized by the National Park Service as a welcome center and as a site to interpret the city’s rich Civil War history and beyond.  It’s nice to see the involvement of the Civil War Trust as well.  While I fully support their focus on battlefields it is essential that they involve themselves in the preservation of endangered sites beyond the battlefield that can only enhance the public’s understanding of the war.  In the case of Petersburg the battlefield was the city itself.

As someone who has thought a great deal about the challenges of interpreting the city’s Civil War history the addition of this site downtown will assist the NPS in their continued effort to reach out to the local population, especially African Americans.  I explore some of these more recent challenges in the final chapter of my new book on the battle of the Crater and historical memory.

Many local blacks that I interviewed during the course of my research never learned about or even visited the local battlefields, including the Crater.  One gentleman shared that while growing up he believed the site of the Crater was off limits to blacks.  Others simply believed that the NPS’s mission was to interpret and protect and interpretation that appealed to whites only.  As recent as the 1970s black students at Petersburg State University believed that the primary function of the NPS to be the “maintaining or glorifying the image of the Confederacy.”  The upshot is a history of mistrust that the NPS has worked hard to overcome since this time.

A comment by NPS Superintendent Lewis Rogers echoes these concerns:

I’m African-American. When I grew up, I didn’t think there was anything in the Civil War for me. I learned there were African-Americans who fought in the Civil War, and Native Americans who fought in the Civil War, both of which fought at Petersburg.  We want to reach out to the urban population … and to become more a part of fabric of the community. We have four sites, but most are out in more rural areas. … We want the opportunity to be right in town and be part of the fabric of the community. We hope it will also help stimulate the economy.

An NPS presence downtown will build on the addition of walking tours that have proven to be very successful and popular among locals.  The Depot itself will take this one step further by applying the necessary assets to interpret not only the battles, but the postwar period as well.  William Mahone used the Depot as an office during part of this period, which opens up a number of avenues to discuss his involvement in the railroads as well as the racial politics of the Readjuster Party during the 1880s.

All in all this is really good news for Petersburg and I can’t wait to see what they do with the place.

Charlotte’s Confederate Flag Problem

Popular media really does have a great deal of influence over how we frame our public discourse about Civil War memory.  We can see this most clearly in what I’ve dubbed the Continued War narrative, which assumes a nation divided along racial and/or regional lines.  Reporters love to utilize this narrative when discussing controversies over how we discuss the tough questions of race and slavery and especially the public display of the Confederate flag in the South.  This story out of Charlotte is a perfect example.

As everyone knows Charlotte will host the Democratic National Convention in September.  The city has a need to demonstrate to the rest of the country that it is not mired in the controversies of the past, but “remnants of the Old South linger in our region – and none as divisive as the Confederate flag.”  Really?  How do we know this?  Just ask a couple of guys who still fly the flag.

“Heritage,” Barrett said when I asked why he flies the Confederate battle flag.  “Heritage,” said Kevin Wooten in nearby Gaston County, who had a Confederate flag in his yard mounted in the back of a broken-down pickup truck. Up front, an American flag flew from out of the hood where the radio antenna used to go.  “It’s nothing about no hate against anyone,” said Wooten, 55, a mechanic by trade who enjoys wrestling and drag racing. “I have black friends I care about more than some of my white friends. But … .”  There’s often a “but” when you talk about the flag.  “I’ve lived here since I was a little rascal and my daddy always had an American flag and a Confederate flag, and I do, too,” Wooten said. “My great-grandfather fought in the Confederate Army down this way. I know a lot of people don’t like the flag, but I don’t see that as a problem.”

Of course, the reporter can’t let them get away with such a distorted view so she interviews a local history professor:

David Goldfield, a historian at UNC Charlotte, believes it’s fine to embrace your ancestors. But Goldfield, who wrote “Still Fighting the Civil War: The American South and Southern History,” suggests it’s time people brought the Confederate flag indoors.  “It offends a lot of people,” he said. “I tell them, ‘If I were in your position, I might have the Confederate battle flag in my house, but not necessarily fly it out in front of my house if it offended my neighbor.’ It’s just a matter of civility. It’s not a question of who’s right or who’s wrong.”  The fact that after 12 years the NAACP is still boycotting South Carolina because it flies the Confederate flag on the State House grounds is as clear an indication as any that the flag remains divisive. Hate groups use it as a symbol. Even back when the flag was first adopted, Goldfield said, it was closely allied to white supremacy.  “There’s no debate among historians today that slavery caused the Civil War,” Goldfield said, “and that the banner Confederate troops carried into battle was supporting a nation that predicated itself on the protection and extension of slavery.”

The reporter concludes by reassuring us that the views expressed by Barrett and Wooten are not her own and suggests to her fellow southerners that it is time “we put it [Confederate flag] away.”  What we never learn, however, is how prevalent the Confederate flag is in the Charlotte area.  Does it even merit this story?  One wonders how this reporter even found Barrett and Wooten.  I can imagine her asking a colleague or friend how she might go about finding a couple of guys in the area who still fly the flag. This is nothing more than a manufactured controversy.  Perhaps that’s a bit of a stretch, but you get the point.

The people of Charlotte can rest easy that the DNC is not going to be an opportunity for the rest of the nation to count Confederate flags.