The Battle Flag and History

Iced Tea with Pitcher

Sweet tea – Southern heritage

I have a friend who hangs a Confederate Battle Flag in his window. He’s not overtly racists as far as I know – I asked him why and he said because of his interest in Southern history. So I asked, why not display the Stars and Bars (which, at the time, was not attracting public controversy.) He didn’t recognize that flag. So much for an interest in Southern history!

Assuming my friend is not a racist – what does the flag mean to him? Rebellion, perhaps? Defiance of “The Man?” Fun, pretty girls, and car chases ala The Dukes of Hazzard? Alas, he only said he didn’t mean to offend.

I grew up in New York State and, to me, the Confederate Battle Flag was a symbol of opposition to civil rights, right beside images of governors blocking the doorways of schools to keep out black students.

Polling results show the flag losing support (though if you ask people questions implying they are racist, I’m not sure you get honest answers.) “In 2011, a Pew poll found that just 9% of the country had a positive reaction to seeing the Confederate flag, while 30% had a negative one, and 58% had neither.” I take that to mean most people hardly recognized the flag.

“When we recall our history, and especially when we bring that memory into the political arena, we are more often in the realm of myth than empirical fact — though most of our political and historical myths aren’t simply falsehoods; they include facts, but those facts are always wrapped in imaginative, symbolic narratives that dictate how we interpret the facts.”

I’ve come to realize the flag goes deeper than the 1950s and 60s. As this recent article (reprinted from 2011 in the Washington Post) says, “One hundred fifty years after the Civil War began, we’re still fighting it — or at least fighting over its history.”

The saying that victors write history doesn’t seem to apply to America’s Civil War. A surprising number of myths are widely believed and even ensconced in textbooks – the most common being that the South seceded over tariffs or State’s Rights.

  • Mississippi proclaimed in its own secession declaration (Jan. 9, 1861) that “our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery.” Other breakaway states expressed the same view.
  • “Tariffs were not an issue in 1860, and Southern states said nothing about them. Why would they? Southerners had written the tariff of 1857, under which the nation was functioning. Its rates were lower than at any point since 1816.”

Other articles address Civil War myths, (do a search on that phrase) including this interesting take on why Lincoln went to war:

“The official purpose of the war could never be the destruction of slavery because that would violate the Constitution. Long after he issued the Emancipation Proclamation Lincoln continued to insist that the ‘purpose’ of the war remained unchanged–the restoration of the Union. But you’d be hard pressed to find anybody at the time—slaves and masters, Republicans and Democrat, northerners and southerners—who didn’t blame the war on either slavery or antislavery. Lincoln [said] that the cause of the war was slavery.” Scholars seem to debate the extent of “save the Union” versus “end slavery” sentiment, but that doesn’t surprise me – human beings are complex creatures and any event involving hundreds of thousands of people will have multiple motives.

Popular efforts to correct the public’s view of the Civil War don’t simply point a finger at the Deep South:

  • While I was surprised to read that 40% of southerners in the core Confederate states owned slaves (I didn’t realize the percentage was so high), “in areas with few slaves, most white Southerners did not support secession. West Virginia seceded from Virginia to stay with the Union, and Confederate troops had to occupy parts of eastern Tennessee and northern Alabama to hold them in line.”
  • “It would, and should, pain us to recall how deeply racist most Northern whites were in 1861, and how many were willing to let slavery continue in the existing slave states.”

Coming to grips with slavery and the Civil War will not diminish America – it will make us stronger. It will help us purge ongoing racism from our institutions, as noted in another review on this site. If relegating the Confederate Battle Flag to museums advances us towards our ideal to make a more perfect nation, then its last battle will be a victory.

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