Carlton McCarthy’s Confederate Battle Flag

Given the ongoing public debates surrounding the displaying of the Confederate battle flag and the recognition of Confederate History and Heritage Month I thought it might be time for a little dip into the past. In 1882 Carlton McCarthy published a little study of the Confederate soldier titled, Soldier Life in the Army of Northern Virginia (B.F. Johnson Publishing Co., Atlanta, GA). I don’t know anything about the author except that he had a brother who was killed at Cold Harbor in 1864. The final chapter offers some observations about the history and display of the Confederate battle flag:

The Confederate banner, the witness and inspiration of many victories, which was proudly borne on every field from Manassas to Appomattox, was conceived on the field of battle, lived on the field of battle, and on the last fatal field ceased to have place or meaning in the world. But the men who followed it, and the world which watched its proud advance or defiant stand, see in it still the unsustained banner of a brave and generous people, whose deeds have outlived their country, and whose final defeat but added lustre to their grandest victories.

It was not the flag of the Confederacy, but simply the banner, the battle-flag, of the Confederate soldier. As such it should not share in the condemnation which our cause received, or suffer from its downfall. The whole world can unite in a chorus of praise to the gallantry of the men who followed where the banner led. (p. 225)

What I find interesting is that McCarthy clearly believed that the narrow meaning of the flag as the symbol of the Confederate soldier is conditional. Here is how the author concludes this chapter.

This much about the battle-flag, to accomplish, if possible, two things: first, preserve the little history connected with the origin of the flag; and, second, place the battle flag in a place of security, as it were separated from all the political significance which attaches to the Confederate flag, and depending for its future place solely upon the deeds of the armies which bore it, amid hardships untold, to many victories. (p. 230)

McCarthy was clearly worried that the public display of the battle flag for reasons having nothing to do with the soldier would alter its meaning. Now, what does McCarthy mean by “place of security”? While I can’t be sure, my guess is that he probably would agree with the suggestion that the best place to display the flag is in a location where it can be properly interpreted: How about a museum?

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