Tag Archives: United Daughters of the Confederacy

Whose Confederate Heritage?

This story out of Haywood County, North Carolina about the display of the Confederate flag on public ground is perfect for helping us to move beyond the popular narratives of North v. South and black v. white.  It’s a fairly straightforward story:

For years, David Crook had been making monthly rounds past the Confederate Memorial on the lawn of the historic courthouse and tucking a tiny flag into the ground at its base. And for years, an anonymous person who felt the flag carried negative symbolism had been pulling them up.  “They kept disappearing,” said Thomas Shepard, whose own ancestors fought for the South. “So we kept replacing them.”  The flag tug-of-war gradually ramped up, with a new one being put down and pulled up almost daily.  The county was forced to wade into the fray in June, when a local attorney complained about the tiny flag display and asked the county to intervene.

County officials decided to remove the flags for good and this enraged those who see the flag as central to their understanding of the Southern/Confederate past.  What I find interesting is the way in which this debate has been framed by the local newspaper.  They refer to flag advocates as “Confederate supporters” but this tells us very little about the wide range of views held by white Southerners re: their past.

Despite the heated emotions on display in the comments section of the article no one in this dispute has a monopoly on Confederate heritage.  It turns out that not all (perhaps not even a majority) of white Southerners have a deep need to see the Confederate flag on public property.  This does not imply that they hate their past or are ashamed of it in any way.  It doesn’t even necessarily imply that they have a problem with the Confederate flag.  Are we really going to argue that the UDC has turned its back on standing up for a meaningful Confederate past simply because it refuses to press the issue on the Confederate flag?  The UDC is the organization responsible for placing the marker on courthouse grounds in 1940.  Does anyone else not see the UDC as the last line of defense against the trivialization of the Confederate flag by its so-called “supporters.”  It must be upsetting to some that they can’t frame this debate along racial lines or even as a legacy of those meddling carpetbaggers.  Even H.K. Edgerton and his fancy t-shirts seem just a little out of place here.

This is just another example of why extreme flag advocates have become gradually more marginalized in the South.  It’s not because they are victims or because they are being discriminated against or even because others will not learn their history.  Their mistake is in their assumption that the flag means the same thing to all people (even white Southerners) and that it is indispensable to maintaining a meaningful connection to the past.

Civil War Memory Starts With the Children

Will Moredock has a wonderful editorial in today’s Charleston City Paper that provides some sense of why a Robert Smalls Weekend is so significant.  All too often the study of Civil War memory seems like an abstract exercise, but in this case it is grounded in something that all of us can relate to: history textbooks.  If you want to explain why the city of Charleston is now in a position to commemorate Smalls look no further than the pages of your child’s history textbook.  Not too long ago many of them were filled with all kinds of myths and distortions about black Americans and slavery.  Moredock shares excerpts from Mary C. Simms Oliphant, The History of South Carolina, which was used in the state as late as the mid-1980s.  Oliphant was indeed the granddaughter of William Gilmore Simms, but what Moredock does not mention is that her 1917 textbook was a revised version of Simms’s own history of the state written in 1860.

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A Relic of the Past

Lee Monument, Richmond, Virginia

Last night I received an email asking why I continue to post about the activities and antics of the Virginia Flaggers [see here and here].  It should be obvious given the content of this blog, but let me once again state the obvious.  The Flaggers and their cause provide a clear window into the changing cultural and historical landscape of Richmond and much of the rest of the South.  I should point out that I don’t really have a problem with planting the Confederate flag in front of Pelham Chapel, but apparently the VMFA does and it is their private property.  Andy Hall was kind enough to forward the official UDC response to Susan Hathaway and the Flaggers following their recent incident:

On December 26, 2011, I responded to Ms. Hathaway advising that Pelham Chapel is not a UDC memorial and that our involvement in this issue could be construed as a ‘political activity’ that would possibly put our 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status at risk. I further advised that our Bylaws prevent our involvement in ‘political activity’ and for that reason; the UDC was unable to allow the use of the flag poles located on the front of our UDC Memorial Building. I reminded her that the First National Flag flies daily in front of the UDC Memorial Building in perpetual honor of our Confederate ancestors.

On Wednesday afternoon, March 7, 2012, Ms. Hathaway came to our building and asked to speak with me. Mrs. Lucy Steele, Chairman of the Memorial Building Board of Trustees (who was in the building on other business) and I met with Ms. Hathaway. The request was that they be allowed to ‘gather’ on the front of our property. She was advised that we would not allow that.

The request was then made to allow them to ‘gather’ on the back corner of our property. Mrs. Steele pointed out that the property at the back corner belonged to VMFA but that we did not have a problem with it but she would have to seek approval from VMFA.

Ms. Hathaway then asked if the “No Trespassing” signs that had been posted recently were because of them and if they gathered on our property would the police be called. She was told that, as with any trespasser, we would call the police.

We explained to Ms. Hathaway that there have been instances of people sleeping under the bushes around the building. Recently during a work day, a man was seen crouching between the bushes and the building with binoculars which raised questions as to his intentions. The police were called at that time. “No Trespassing” signs were placed on our property in an effort to protect not only our building but our employees as they come and go, often times during early morning and evening hours.

On Saturday, March 10, 2012, during our Annual Spring Board Meeting, the VA Flaggers gathered on the sidewalk in front of the UDC Memorial Building. A short time later, they were observed leaning and perched on the cannons ignoring signs stating do not climb on the cannons. They then moved from the cannons to the steps leading to our building for a group photo. At this point, Mrs. Steele went out to ask them to move from the steps to the sidewalk – some moved immediately. Others remained on the steps. During this time, the Richmond City Police were called.

The UDC could have found a way to accommodate the Flaggers if they had wanted to do so.  It’s safe to say that their “15 Minutes” expired some time ago.  Their fundamental problem is the same problem that the rest of the heritage community faces and that is a continued embrace of the Confederate flag as the beginning and end of Confederate memory.  It reflects a complete lack of creativity as to how to forge meaningful ties to the past for those people who may be disposed to follow.  Although the community believes that their ability to commemorate the past has been threatened, the irony is that there is no better time in the Richmond area to explore the rich history of the Confederacy and the Civil War era.  There is some evidence that tourists are visiting the area for precisely this reason, but apart from a few poorly maintained websites  (some of which are attached to some pretty shady people) and a YouTube page no one is coming to their defense or providing additional support. It is difficult to see the Virginia Flaggers as little more than a relic of the past.

UDC Snubs Virginia Flaggers

Update: Margaret Blough reminded me that the UDC has always maintained a strict code for displaying the Confederate flag.  Their concern has always been that liberal use would disconnect it from the Civil War – a lesson the Flaggers and others should take to heart.

Looks like the Virginia Flaggers suffered a setback this week during their ongoing boycott of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts for removing Confederate flags from in front of the Pelham Chapel.  The trouble started after the group attempted to take a photograph in front of the national headquarters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

Apparently, a representative of the UDC explained to the Flaggers that their presence threatened their status as a tax exempt organization. Someone is going to have to explain that one to me. Interestingly, the UDC does not use the battle flag on their official insignia.

Has the UDC always used the First National as part of their logo or is this a more recent change?  Somehow I doubt that their concern with the Flaggers has solely to do with taxes.

Fellow Southerners!

Battle of Spotsylvania

It should come as no surprise that a National Air and Space Museum exhibit centered around the Enola Gay and the dropping of the Atomic Bomb would cause controversy in the mid-1990s.  Many of the veterans of WWII were still alive and the issue itself tugged at how Americans saw themselves as moral leaders on the world stage.  Ignoring some of the legitimate concerns with how the event was interpreted by the NASM, it is clear that Americans were simply too close to the event in question to allow for the kind of historical objectivity that the historians, curators, and other professionals hoped to bring to the exhibit. The debate that took place in the halls of the Senate, House of Representatives as well as countless newspapers and magazines provides the perfect case study for what happens when a historical interpretation comes up against a narrative that is rooted in a personal connection to the past that is still very much part of the event itself.  We can see this at work in how the events of 9-11 are commemorated as well.

It is interesting that after 150 years many Americans are committed to framing some of the central questions about the Civil War in personal terms.  Typically this connection is framed as a defense of an ancestor who fought on one side or another; implied is a belief in some sort of privileged connection to historical truth.  I’ve argued in a number of places that our collective understanding has undergone profound shifts in recent years and that we are beginning to take on a more detached stance in regard to the events of the 1860s, but the cries of “heritage violations” can still be heard.  While I have some respect for those who take themselves to be deeply rooted in a personal past, the rhetoric is itself sounding more and more anachronistic.

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