The Daily Beast Shows How Not to Think about the Confederate Flag Controversy

Jonathan Horn’s short article in The Daily Beast is designed to highlight his new biography of Robert E. Lee by wading into to the Confederate flag controversy at Washington & Lee University. While it will likely convince those predisposed politically to agree with his conclusions the historical content falls short. Horn’s basic point is that the available evidence concerning Lee’s brief tenure as president of then Washington College and his overall attitude regarding Confederate defeat ought to serve as a guide for how we see the current controversy about the display of the flags.

Far from being relics of Lee’s tenure, the Confederate battle flags only arrived in the college chapel decades after Lee’s death and were later replaced with the historically meaningless reproductions that hung until recently.

Lee did not want such divisive symbols following him to the grave. At his funeral in 1870, flags were notably absent from the procession. Former Confederate soldiers marching did not don their old military uniforms, and neither did the body they buried. “His Confederate uniform would have been ‘treason’ perhaps!” Lee’s daughter wrote.

So sensitive was Lee during his final years with extinguishing the fiery passions of the Civil War that he opposed erecting monuments on the battlefields where the Southern soldiers under his command had fought against the Union. “I think it wiser moreover not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavoured to obliterate the marks of civil strife and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered,” he wrote.

Publicly, Lee played the reconciled ex-Confederate general. He had every reason not to want to bring negative attention to his struggling college campus in the immediate wake of the war. It is no surprise that he would not have wanted Confederate flags flying on campus or in any other part of Lexington, Virginia. However, as we well know Lee remained bitter in private about defeat, emancipation, and occupation.

More to the point, Confederate veterans in Virginia were prevented by Federal authorities from openly flying flags, wearing uniforms and even displaying military buttons in public spaces during Reconstruction, which ended in the state at the time of Lee’s death. This historical context is absolutely crucial to understanding why the Confederate flag was not more visible during this early stage. Lee and his fellow veterans were not making decisions about how or whether to commemorate the war in a historical vacuum.

The more accurate historical picture is much more interesting in connection to the current debate over the display of the Confederate flag. After 1870 in Virginia and eventually throughout the South Confederate veterans unfurled their flags. What I understand after reading John Coski’s book on the Confederate flag is that veterans chose to unfurl their flags on special occasions. More importantly, in the first few decades after the war they flew primarily (but not exclusively) original Confederate battle flags, which functioned as physical reminders of the late war. It seems that these flags were rarely meant to be displayed outside of a strict commemorative context, especially during the period in which veterans were involved.

Confederate veterans did not campaign for flags to be displayed on city light posts and they certainly did not have a need to remind the public of their service and sacrifice by putting up large flags along the highways. In fact, what emerges after careful study is how limited and calculated their use of the flag was for the remainder of their lives.

This is the historical context that is relevant to thinking about the display of the flag today and not a historically detached analysis of what Lee would have or would not have wanted.

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12 comments… add one
  • St. George Tucker Ranson Jun 24, 2015 @ 23:29

    Is it your position that Lee publicly asked that the battle flag not be displayed at his funeral, but that this was a completely “political” position (accepting the political realities of his time and pace), but that if he had not felt so constrained his position would have been otherwise -and therefore it is a mistake to cite the flag’s absence from his funeral as indicative of any real feeling on Lee’s part?

    But is this not true of any historical figure? We are all constrained by the realities of our time and place?

    For example, I am a direct descendant of St. George Tucker of Williamsburg. He was the author of a proposal for gradual abolition of slavery which I believe was only narrowly defeated in being adopted by the Virginia legislature. (Some have speculated that had it become Virginia Law the Civil War might have been averted. But who knows?) In his writing he expressed great moral sympathy for the “sons of Africa.” He was also a slave owner. Which represented the “real” man? I suspect the answer is that both are true.

    I am no Lee scholar and do not pretend to be one. I suspect that in his fantasies where he could be free of the constraints of history, he would have rather have won the war and lead a parade with the flag on honored display – but also knew that he had lost and tried to make what he felt were the best decisions under the circumstances, and that decision was to ask that the flag not be displayed. Does the fact that this decision was made in light of certain necessities invalidate it? Even under the same circumstances one can imagine another man making a,different decision (eg, Nathan Bedford Forest).

  • Fred May 20, 2015 @ 13:18

    So you’re trying to use your own vague, warped opinion about “historical context” to argue that Lee didn’t really mean what he said and that his actions meant nothing (because “we well know” otherwise). You haven’t made a remotely convincing case. Show us some actual evidence that Lee was lying, and that he actually wanted to keep open the sores of war.

    • Kevin Levin May 20, 2015 @ 13:26

      I would suggest reading the final chapter in Elizabeth Pryor’s biography of Lee, titled, Reading the Man.

      Show us some actual evidence that Lee was lying, and that he actually wanted to keep open the sores of war.

      That’s not what I said. Lee was clear that he wanted former Confederates to move on with their lives, but that did not mean that he was inwardly pleased with emancipation and occupation.

    • Andy Hall May 20, 2015 @ 16:10

      Testimony of Robert E. Lee before the Joint Committee on Reconstruction, Thirty-Ninth U.S. Congress, February 17, 1866:

      Question. What is your opinion about its being an advantage to Virginia to keep them there at all. Do you not think that Virginia would be better off if the colored population were to go to Alabama, Louisiana, and the other southern States ?

      Answer. I think it would be better for Virginia if she could get rid of them. That is no new opinion with me. I have always thought so, and have always been in favor of emancipation –gradual emancipation.

      Question. As a question of labor alone, do you not think that the labor which would flow into Virginia, if the Negroes left it for the cotton States, would be far more advantageous to the State and to its future prosperity ?

      Answer. I think it would be for the benefit of Virginia, and I believe that everybody there would be willing to aid it.

      Question. Do you not think that the State of Virginia is absolutely injured and its future impaired by the presence of the black population there?

      Answer. I think it is.

      Question. And do you not think it is peculiarly adapted to the quality of labor which would flow into it, from its great natural resources, in case it was made more attractive by the absence of the colored race ?

      Answer. I do.

      In his own words, Lee said it would be “for the benefit of Virginia” for Freedmen to leave the state, and agreed that Virginia “is absolutely injured and its future impaired by the presence of the black population.” He hoped that Virginia could “get rid of” its African American population. This is not a man reconciled to emancipation, or the legal equality of former slaves.

      • Pat Young May 20, 2015 @ 17:00

        Never read that before. Thanks.

        • Andy Hall May 20, 2015 @ 17:18

          Lee has been re-imagined in some quarters as an opponent of slavery and a champion of civil rights. It’s utter nonsense. He was no better (and no worse) than the vast majority of the Virginia Tidewater patrician class, who were uncomfortable with slavery but nonetheless saw it as willed by God, and reserved a special contempt for meddlesome abolitionists who sought to interfere with it.

  • Jack Jan 26, 2015 @ 14:42


    You can screen capture all the comments you want. Your comments are no longer welcome at Civil War Memory. Good day.

    Kevin Levin
    Civil War Memory

  • Hugh Lawson Jan 15, 2015 @ 17:09

    It seems that this thread means to show that rebel-flag-wavers are out of touch with historical facts. But everybody here believes that already. Right? Does this really need proving here?

    • Kevin Levin Jan 15, 2015 @ 17:22

      I am simply pointing out that the author’s claim regarding Lee’s supposed attitude toward Confederate flags is misleading because it fails to take account of the political situation in Virginia after the war.

  • James Harrigan Jan 15, 2015 @ 14:59

    However, as we well know Lee remained bitter in private about defeat, emancipation, and occupation.
    I’m not familiar with Lee’s postwar attitudes, Kevin. What’s the story?

  • Glenn B Jan 15, 2015 @ 14:20

    Oh, that darn historical context. Always getting in the way of cherry-picked evidence and misreading of the evidence.

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