A constant refrain heard over the past week is that the Confederate battle flag is a revered symbol for the descendants of the men who fought under it between 1861 and 1865. If so, for how many descendants? The Sons of Confederate Veterans certainly embrace the spirit of this claim. According to Wikipedia membership in the Sons of Confederate Veterans numbered just over 29,000 in 2014 – an incredibly small number by any estimation. Certainly, one does not have to be a member of the SCV to claim a strong ancestral connection with an ancestor who fought. Perhaps there are many more outside of the SCV who identify the flag with a Confederate ancestor. Perhaps that number is far outstripped by descendants of Confederate soldiers who have never given their ancestor much thought at all.
But what exactly are we acknowledging when the Confederate flag is embraced by a descendant of a soldier who fought and to what extent ought the rest of us acknowledge this as a legitimate interpretation of the flag’s meaning? The embrace of the flag by descendants of Confederate soldiers usually comes with claims about the bravery and steadfastness of their ancestor as well as vague claims about the defense of home and family.
I don’t mean to belittle such beliefs, but there is a problem.
It is safe to say that the overwhelming number of Confederate descendants who claim a strong connection to that ancestor know very little, if anything, about his service and experience in the army beyond official military records. It is certainly not for a lack of trying. Those lucky enough to uncover a detailed personal account rightfully cherish them as family heirlooms. For most soldiers, however, we can say very little about their experience beyond official military records. Even with the vast store of Civil War soldiers’ letters and diaries, the window into their intellectual and emotional worlds is blocked owing to their inability or decision not to share their experiences in written form. Even in cases where a written record is available, they often fail to explore the kinds of experiences that historians and Civil War enthusiasts yearn to read.
Did an ancestor behave bravely on the battlefield? Did he believe in the cause? What did he believe about the institution of slavery? Did he finish the war and want nothing more than to keep his memories to himself? Did he have strong feelings about the flag under which he fought? We can find plenty of examples of Civil War soldiers reflecting on these and other questions through published primary accounts and archival collections (the latter often difficult to access), but for the overwhelming number of men in Confederate ranks the record is silent. It may be possible to glean some understanding of what a soldier experienced from the vast body of research on Civil War soldiers now available, but that may be less than satisfactory for those seeking a personal connection.
I have no doubt that pro-flag advocates who are descended from Confederate soldiers are sincere in their strong identification with the flag as a reflection of their ancestor’s service. But we ought to remember that the war being remembered reflects their preferred memory and not that of their ancestor.