Another Look at the Confederate Battle Flag

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Recently Mr. Donald Fraser wrote a column in my hometown newspaper, the Northeast Georgian, titled “Battle Flag Promotes Hate, Not Heritage.” He opened his article expressing a twinge of fear that he would probably not make many friends. I am glad, however, he is willing to say what he believes even at the expense of offending others, a luxury often denied those who find themselves on the other side of the flag issue. I am also happy for him to have his say because I appreciate one thing the Confederate battle flag stands for: freedom. In that spirit, I offered another perspective (in shorter form—500 words) in the same paper.

St. Andrew’s Cross, the “X” on the battle flag, is a long revered Christian symbol from Scotland—from which many of our forebears in Northeast Georgia immigrated. Just as Wallace of Braveheart fame cried “Freedom!”–the flag was a visible symbol of that same cry. Many soldiers in modern wars (WWII and Vietnam for example) carried this flag as a reminder of liberty. German citizens flew it at the fall of the Berlin wall, and Romanians under communist rule called it the “freedom flag.” More than a piece of cloth came down the pole on South Carolina’s capital grounds. Hundreds of years of rich and revered tradition came down as well.

I went to South Habersham Middle School (then called Jr. High). We were the Rebels. One of my old year books even has the flag gracing the cover. Never once do I remember anyone, including my black friends, associating our school’s symbols with racism. As a I kid remember appreciating all things southern while at the same time wishing I were black! To me, my black friends were the coolest guys around. How is that possible? It simply was not a contradiction in my mind, possibly because I had not been inundated with the barrage of anti-southern rhetoric—something that is doing more to disrupt racial harmony than anything I can think of. Two African American businessmen I met in Columbia, SC (while a graduate student at USC) told me privately that they hoped the flag never came down (back when it flew over the dome of the capital). “It is a beautiful flag,” they insisted, the one they “grew up under!” To say the least, I was a little shocked. But it reminded me that if all we see on this issue is from the national news media, our understanding is shallow and skewed.

The modern knee-jerk reaction that the flag must be seen as nothing but a symbol of hate is a result of a seriously oversimplified view of history. As a historian I regularly alert my undergraduate and graduate students about the complex nature of the past. One of the hallmarks of what Cambridge historian Herbert Butterfield called the “Whig Interpretation of History” is the problem of oversimplification, especially as it exists in the academic profession. Mr. Fraser has fallen into this most alluring historiographic trap. He is not alone, as many take this path of least resistance.

Fraser sees the Civil War as one-dimensional, with a simple monolithic cause—slavery. There is a bedrock rule-of-thumb in the historical discipline: nothing has one cause. Was slavery an issue in the Civil War? No doubt. Some southern heritage groups have unwisely tried to promote the idea that it was all about states’ rights without any reference to slavery. Anyone who reads history knows this is wrong.

By the same token, to boil something as complex as the Civil War down to nothing but slavery is equally simplistic and wrong. What about the Morrill Tariff that created a 47% tax targeting the agrarian South? Or what about the radical abolitionists who were calling for the death of all southern slave owners, and the one radical, John Brown, who tried to make good on his promise? Or what about Lincoln’s own admission at the outset of war that it was not in any way about freeing the slaves? He said in his first inaugural that he would go to war with the South for two reasons only: to re-secure federal property (forts) and collect the federal taxes. Of course half-way through the war he issued the Emancipation Proclamation mainly to keep England from coming in as a southern ally. To say the least, the causes and consequences of the Civil War were varied and complicated.

This “one size fits all” approach to history bleeds into other pronouncements Fraser made in his article. For example, he sees nullification as an outdated “symbol of the old South.” But the doctrine of nullification pre-dates the Confederacy by more than 70 years. It is called the 10th Amendment to the Constitution (1791): “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” You could even go back further and note that the original 13 British colonies, government entities with less political standing than states, saw it as a given that they could nullify British law deemed destructive to their existence. When nullification failed, secession was the next step. We call that the Declaration of Independence, the greatest document of nullification and secession the world has ever known.

Fast forward to 1798 and the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions written by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson respectively. They wrote these resolutions in opposition to the federal Alien and Sedition Acts, insisting that state nullification of federal law was a cherished American ideal and completely constitutional. Fraser is simply wrong to suggest that the Civil War once and for all “settled the issue that we have a federal government which is senior to state governments.” The fact that we currently avoid nullification or secession is not for lack of legal standing, but out of fear of reprisal. We remember what happened the last time states tried to employ the 10th Amendment!

An oversimplified monolithic approach informs the way many think about the flag today, as one thing only–a symbol of hate. Must it only represent one thing? Can it not represent my heritage, even my own family’s sacrifice and memory? Should I ignore, dismiss, or drop my head in shame because my great grandfather George Washington Smith volunteered for the 24th Georgia Regiment and fought in several battles in the Army of Northern Virginia before being taken prisoner at Point Lookout, Maryland. He went into battle risking life and limb to defend his home from invasion. Yet he was a hardscrabble farmer who owned no slaves, and, I suspect would never have fought to enrich the bank accounts of wealthy plantation owners. Outside of protecting home and hearth, he had reasons to fight known only to him.

Grandpa Smith walked home to Georgia from Maryland after the surrender at Appomattox. I wonder if during his trek he heard the cries of families in Virginia and North Carolina, the two states that lost the most men–30,000 each. By today’s population ratio, those two states would have lost somewhere around a half-million souls. Although his home state of Georgia did not lose near as many, he found it virtually destroyed. When Sherman marched from Atlanta to Savannah then up through Carolina he destroyed around $1.4 billion (in today’s currency) in homes, property, and infrastructure. His soldiers raped women, killed or wounded slaves who tried to protect property, and Sherman himself authorized the imprisonment of some 400 women and children from Roswell, Georgia, many of whom never made it back home. These atrocities barely scratch the surface. If you were living in Atlanta or Columbia, South Carolina, you likely did not keep much of anything since Sherman burned both to the ground. I can only imagine what my grandfather thought about all this, but I’ll bet his belief in the cause of liberty strengthened tenfold.

Sadly, Mr. Fraser is correct that the flag has been used by hate groups. That is undeniable. So in a narrow monolithic sense, the flag has promoted hate. But has it really? Was it the flag that promoted the hate, or the haters themselves? We live in an age of “passing the buck.”   People don’t kill, guns do. People are not responsible for crime, the environment is. Ad infinitum, ad nauseam. I remember watching the great Flip Wilson famously say, “The Devil made me do it!” I laughed every time. Little did I realize how prophetic that line would be of today’s culture. When people blame the flag for the despicable murder of those nine precious Christians at the Emmanuel AME Church, they are essentially parroting Flip’s comedic line, but unfortunately and irrationally, they actually believe it, and there is nothing funny about that.

In the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin committed unspeakable atrocities against his own people. In support of his twisted world-view, he embarked on an elaborate scheme to re-write Russian history. He destroyed documents and airbrushed all official photographs to remove political enemies, all with the belief that he could actually, not figuratively, change what happened. Simply put, whatever he could wipe from the people’s memory was no longer a part of the past. Out of sight, out of mind.

Granted, no one is a Stalin in this current debate, but I cannot help but notice the similarities. If we blame the flag as an arbiter of racial hate, take it down from every perch and hide it in a museum, then why stop there? Why not do what Stalin did and change everything we deem as out of sorts with our world-view? The U.S. flag flew over slave ships and represents a country that legalized and encouraged slavery from the beginning. The Klan still flies the American flag! Some people hate it for these very reasons. So why do we still fly and pledge our allegiance to it? The U.S. Constitution explicitly allowed for slavery. That is why abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison called it a “covenant with death and an agreement with hell.” Shall we do what he did at the beginning of his anti-slavery meetings and burn the Constitution? Most of our early presidents either condoned slavery or actually owned slaves. I know people who are deeply offended by even the name Thomas Jefferson. Should we not at least keep visitors away from the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC or from his home at Monticello, or even better, tear them both down?

If you think this is hyperbolic nonsense, think again. Our founder’s namesakes are being removed from schools, roads, and other sites all over the country where the politically correct are in charge. The question we need to start asking is, when and where will this nonsense end? We must study history as it really was, not as something to hide in a museum, or even worse, to re-create on a blank canvas. Until we learn the hard lesson that history is what happened, not what we wish had happened, I see no end in sight.

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One thought on “Another Look at the Confederate Battle Flag

  1. I’d say the issue over the flag is one of hate, all right. Yankee liberal hatred for freedom, Southerners and the South projected onto mere cloth. The Northern Republicans may have won the physical struggle but they could never win the moral debate. It would not surprise me to learn that the Republican Party was created by British Intelligence as a means of finally reversing the outcome of the War of Independence.

    Anyway, what this denouncing of the Southern flag brouhaha all boils down to; is a demand by the Politically Correct that their targets, for social attack, endorse their moral point of view. They want to be told that they are in the right and that any opposition to them is evil.

    They cannot be allowed to succeed.

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