Tag Archives: Sons of Confederate Veterans

The Future of the Confederate Flag

My recent post on the unveiling of another large Confederate flag in Tennessee generated a number of comments.  It’s an emotional issue on all sides and it is unlikely that the interested parties will ever fully agree on whether it should be displayed in public as well as its meaning.  But that’s the way it is when it comes to controversial symbols.  By definition they are open to multiple points of view.  There is a certain amount of legitimacy on all sides and on occasion we can also see these same individuals/groups engaged in actions that betray ignorance and callousness.  Consider H.K. Edgerton’s ridiculous suggestion that if you don’t revere the Confederate flag than you ought to be considered a “traitor” or the Auburn official who plucked the Confederate flags from a soldier ceremony.  I could go on and on with examples.

Such a state of affairs is one of the reasons why I’ve suggested that the flag ought to be removed to a museum setting where it can be properly interpreted.  I don’t understand why more people in the SCV and other Confederate heritage groups don’t consider such a move.  Done right the flag would be taken out of a public debate that rarely evolves in a way where any real understanding of history is conveyed; it simply works to fuel passions on both sides.  As I see it the problem is that the flag is both connected to men who fought bravely in battle during the Civil War and it is a flag that was used as a symbol against civil rights in the 1950s.  You can’t change the history and, by extension, the way people identify with it.  To suggest otherwise is to misunderstand history and the nature of symbols themselves.  Go to the Museum of the Confederacy and you will see the flag in the context of the Civil War.  Across Broad Street, at the American Civil War Center at Tredegar, you will see the flag associated with the Civil War as well as a symbol of white supremacy in the 1950s.  The flag is there to be better understood.

Now, you might suggest that I am being a bit extreme in suggesting that the flag ought to be retired to a museum.  After all, its supporters want to see it in public as a rallying point and as a symbol of pride.  Fair enough and luckily we live in a society where that is permitted up to a point.  The sticking point as we know all too well is that the visibility of the Confederate flag is determined to a certain extent by society through local assemblies and other levels of government.  And let’s keep something very important in mind as we proceed: THIS HAS ALWAYS BEEN THE CASE!

The only difference in the last three decades following the civil rights movement is that a much broader segment of the population can now weigh in on issues having to do with how the past is remembered in public spaces because a broader segment of society is now represented in local government.  Because of this the debates are more heated and the outcomes no longer follow what some have taken for granted for far too long.  Does anyone really believe that if African Americans had been allowed to take part in local government during the era of Jim Crow we would not have seen a more vigorous and and even contentious debate about the public display of the Confederate flag along with monuments and other public sites?  Of course we would.  The defensiveness of some who believe that their “heritage” is under attack is a function of the fact that a certain segment of society has had a monopoly on public remembrance.  That has changed since the 1960s, but again, it should not be seen as anything more than the same democratic process at work.

So, what is the future of the Confederate flag (along with other symbols) and their meaning?  Its future will be determined in every community by those who choose to focus on whether this particular symbol best reflects their values and its collective past.  For instance, in Allegany County, Maryland the local school board has prevented the distribution of a pamphlet that depicts the Confederate flag.  In Jonesborough, Tennessee the mayor and aldermen voted to allow the placement of bricks with the names of Confederate soldiers from the county in a display to honor its veterans.  In both cases, as in so many other examples that can be found in newspapers across the country, these decisions are being made by elected officials who do their best to reflect the sentiment of their constituents. Get it right in enough cases and they stand a good chance of being reelected.  Get it wrong and they are out on their asses.  There is no fixed meaning of symbols with the kind of contested history as the Confederate flag, but if enough people rally to allow or prevent its display in a park or parade, etc than in that sense the community has issued a statement.  In each decision the meaning of the flag is fixed until the community chooses to change it.

On one of Robert Moore’s recent comment threads, fellow blogger Richard Williams suggested that the large Confederate flags are examples of “push back” against those who are perceived to be a threat to their preferred view of the past.  I think that is a fair characterization, but it is one that I hope I’ve explained in this post lies at the foundation of our democratic process.  Let me suggest that the supporters of the Confederate flag ought to be grateful that we now live in a society where “push back” is possible.

SCV Hoists Another Big Ass Confederate Flag

Here’s a sure fire way to announce to the world just how irrelevant you are.  More to the point, the SCV would have us believe that this is nothing more than an attempt to honor the men who carried this flag into battle, but anyone with an undergraduate degree in child psychology can see that this is a classic example of children who are desperate to be seen and acknowledged.  The best part of this ceremony, however, is the inclusion of everyone’s favorite black Confederate, H.K. Edgerton.  He is in classic form:

This place should be full of black folks.  I don’t know why [I’m the only one here]. Maybe your newspaper should have told them to come to celebrate and sing Dixie and salute our flag. It’s a shame white folks and black folks make people think this is an evil flag. This is a southern flag. You can’t attack this flag and call yourself a southerner. You can call yourself a traitor….I represent four and a half million black folks who’ve been beat down and would love to be here, too.  If they tell you they wouldn’t be, the first thing you ask is where they’re from. Then you tell them to go on back.

Tracking Civil War memory can at times be downright fun.  Way to go boys.

If the SCV were really interested in ensuring that the flag is interpreted “properly” they would retire it and push for its display only in museums where it can be given the kind of attention it deserves.  As always my thinking on this issue has been influenced by John Coski’s The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem (Harvard University Press, 2006).

Confederate Memorial Day As a “Line in the Sand”

UVA Confederate CemeteryI had a few hours to kill today so I decided to attend our annual UDC/SCV Memorial Day commemoration here in Charlottesville, Virginia.  The ceremony is held at the Confederate cemetery at the University of Virginia.  It’s a wonderful little spot that includes your standard soldier monument as well as the graves of 1,097 Confederate soldiers from all over the Confederate South.  I decided to stand in the rear to take it all in.  These ceremonies are pretty standard.  They typically include the Pledge of Allegiance, a salute to the Confederate flag as well as old favorites such as “Dixie’s Land” and “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny.”  Who can resist the lovely Lost Cause imagery in “Carry Me Back”, especially when the lyrics were composed by a black man:

Carry Me back to old Virginny/There’s where the cotton and the corn and taters grow/There’s where the birds warble sweet in the springtime/There’s where this old darkey’s heart am longed to go/There’s where I labored so hard for old Massa/Day after day in the field of yellow corn

The prayers included typical references to the “Spirit of ’76″, “Died for states rights”, “overwhelming numbers”, and the SCV’s rallying charge of “unequivocal confidence in the righteousness of the cause.”  One reference, however, got me thinking.  One of the speakers remarked that the graves, along with the monument, reflect a “line in the sand between modern day evils” and a “strong moral code” that animated the men buried, and, I assume white Southern society before modernity set in.  If you look at the profile of the audience the reference makes perfect sense.  There were reenactors with the 19th Virginia in attendance as well as members of the UDC in period costume.  More to the point, it is safe to say that the average age of the audience (approximately 100) was somewhere between 55-60.

There are two problems with this view.  First, it’s self destructive.  To argue that modern society is void of morals or individuals who care about morality/ethics is a sure fire way of alienating a very large constituency.  Unfortunately, today I didn’t see people who wer defending a way of life.  I saw people who fear modernity, which is fine, but it also means that the sound system you’ve been using for the past 50 years may not work when needed.  Let’s face it, given the profile of the SCV/UDC it is not a stretch to suggest that their days are numbered.  Seriously, how many of these chapters will be left in 20 years?  The bigger problem is that their view of the past is much too simplistic and anachronistic.  This notion that white Southerners resisted many aspects of modernity simply does not hold up under close scrutiny.  Many Virginians eagerly embraced industry and other forms of technology as a way to improve their lives and reclaim their rightful position as the leader of the nation.  Even the wealthiest planters hoped to encourage farmers to adopt modern soil practices and, according to John Majewski, vigorously pushed the Virginia state government to become much more active in encouraging the subsidizing of railroads and agricultural societies.  My point is that these were not people who were trying to turn back the hands of time despite what is posted at the entrance to the Wilkes family plantation.

I enjoyed the hour long ceremony.  I got to catch up with my friend and fellow historian Rick Britton who spoke eloquently about the 19th Virginia.  And I was also pleased to hear that our local UDC chapter is working to raise money to place grave markers for all the soldiers buried in the cemetery.  It’s a worthy endeavor and they’ve already managed to place an additional 60 markers since the program began and include the two markers in the above image.

Should Barack Obama Place a Wreath at the Confederate Memorial at Arlington?

Update on 5/22: Quoted in Judy Pasternak’s piece at the Daily Beast.

Shistorian ociologist James Loewen and Edward Sebesta (his blog) have written a letter calling on President Obama to discontinue this practice as party of Memorial Day exercises:

Since the administration of Woodrow Wilson, presidents have sent annually a wreath to the Arlington Confederate Monument. Prior to the administration of George H. W. Bush, this was done on or near the birthday of Jefferson Davis.  Starting with George H.W. Bush, it has been done on Memorial Day.  We ask you to not send a wreath or some other commemorative token to the Arlington Confederate Monument during your administration or after.

Their letter, along with a number of signatures by notable historians, was recently published on the History News Network.  The content of the letter outlines the racial and political context of the early twentieth century by citing a number of the speeches that were given at the monument’s dedication, including President Wilson’s.  Yes, the monument is a reflection of the Lost Cause myth, which emphasizes the bravery of the men who fought in Confederate ranks.  It downplays the role of slavery as the cause of secession/war and emphasizes states rights; in addition, the monument gives expression to the myth of the loyal slave both before and during the war.  In that sense, the monument has much in common with most Civil War monuments that were erected between 1880 and the first few decades of the twentieth century.  As interpretation, I have very little problem with the content of this letter, though the tone of it is likely to alienate rather than engage the general public in an open dialog – no surprise there.

While I am sympathetic with their view of this matter, I think it would be a bad idea for Obama to end this practice.  While I do not agree with all of Obama’s policies, the one thing that I have come to appreciate is his willingness to engage constructively with those he disagrees.  The president’s visit to Notre Dame this weekend is a case in point and reflects his enthusiasm for taking on extremely complex and emotionally-charged issues in a mature and honest manner.  There are no doubt moments where the president must be decisive in making specific decisions, and this will no doubt alienate and/or disappoint others, but this man cares what others believe and even seems to be willing to amend his own outlook when presented with a compelling argument.  I value having a president who is thoughtful, who listens, and who makes me think.

My problem with this letter is that it is a non-starter.  It is unlikely to lead to anything approaching constructive dialog and it is likely to lead to increased tension and misunderstanding.  Just check out the comments section of the HNN post for evidence of this.  It’s not simply a matter of picking and choosing one’s battles, but it is also how intelligently we choose to take on certain subjects.  Under extreme pressure, President Obama has already demonstrated that he can intelligently address some of the tough questions, from his Philadelphia speech on race back in May to this past weekend’s speech on abortion at Notre Dame.  I will leave it to Loewen and Sebesta to explain what good a refusal to send a wreath to Arlington would do in the short- or long-term.

Calvin E. Johnson’s Neo-Confederate Fantasy Land

I get a kick out of the editorials and short essays by Calvin Johnson, which you can find at such places as Lew Rockwell and the Conservative Free Press.  Given the last few posts on the mythology of black Confederates I thought it might be nice to share another little story.  Yes, I am beating a dead horse, but if this blog can help to correct this skewed view of the past than my time on this site will be worthwhile.  In this essay, Johnson examines the history of the monument to Confederate soldiers, which is located on the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery.  The monument was organized by the United Daughters of the Confederacy to mark the graves of 267 Confederate soldiers.  Designed by Moses Ezekiel, it was unveiled in 1914 and included a dedication speech by President Woodrow Wilson.  Here is what Johnson has to say about the monument itself:

Around the start of the 20th century this country also honored the men who fought for the Confederacy. This site of men who fought for “Dixie” is located in section 16.  There is an inscription on the 32.5 foot high Confederate monument at Arlington National Cemetery that reads, “An Obedience To Duty As They Understood it; These Men Suffered All; Sacrificed All and Died”!  Some claim this Confederate Monument at Arlington may have been the first to honor Black Confederates. Carved on this monument is the depiction of a Black Confederate who is marching in step with the White soldiers. Also shown is a White Confederate who gives his child to a Black woman for safe keeping.[my emphasis]

What exactly is Johnson referring to?  The photographs below are close-ups of the freezes included around the perimeter of the monument.

You can see what appears to be a black man marching in rank with Confederate soldiers as a well as a female slave who is about to take charge of what must be her master’s children.  This is a wonderful example of why the study of memory is so important to our understanding of the Civil War.  To understand this statue and the choices of the sculptor we must understand the historical context in which it was dedicated.  Monuments and other public spaces dedicated to historic events are as much about the time in which they were build as they are about the event in question.  The year, 1914, places us right at the height of Jim Crow.  The images helped to justify the emphasis within Lost Cause narratives of loyal slaves and a war that was supposedly fought simply for states rights.  Wilson’s presence at the dedication is also important given his order at just this time to segregate federal office buildings along racial lines.  In other words, this is not simply a monument to commemorate the lives of Confederate soldiers, but part of an attempt to shape a certain version of the past that worked to minimize the theme of emancipation and distance the Confederate experiment from the preservation of slavery altogether.  The enforcement of white supremacy by legal means helped to ensure that African Americans would be unable to shape their own emancipationist legacy of the Civil War, which in turn helped to perpetuate the political monopoly that whites enjoyed through the 1960s.

Unfortunately, Calvin Johnson doesn’t really understand what he is looking at.