Tag Archives: Sons of Confederate Veterans

Another flag flap

No sooner do we emerge from a Confederate Battle Flag squabble in Lexington, VA than another emerges in Georgia.

The Southern battle colors are flying again, this time as part of an effort to unfurl huge Confederate flags along Georgia’s interstates.

Among the three flags that have gone up so far is a car dealership-sized Southern Cross north of Tifton that measures 30-by-50 feet. Two others are in north Georgia.

“We want to remind people of who they are and where they came from,” said Jack Bridwell, the division commander of state chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which is paying for the flags. “Being Southern is nothing to be ashamed of.”

None of the flags fly in metro Atlanta, though Bridwell said the group is actively looking to buy a site along the highway or sign a long-term lease.

Even without the Southern Cross flapping at Downtown Connector commuters, what organizers see as a way to honor soldiers during the 150th anniversary of the Civil War has nonetheless revived the debate over the history of the war and slavery’s role in it.

These Confederate flag dust-ups are like Hollywood divorces.  Every time you turn around, there’s another one.

Here’s a sound bite to ponder: “Bridwell, a retired educator, said any opposition is misguided. To him, the Civil War, ‘or war of Northern aggression, if you will,’ he said, was about economics and an unprovoked attack on Fort Sumter.”

If the attack on Ft. Sumter was unprovoked, then why was it “a war of Northern aggression”?  Go figure.

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And the Park Service historian just sighs. . .

AOL News decided to start the year off with a glance at how America is getting geared up for the Civil War Sesquicentennial, so they called up the usual suspects for sound bites and came away with the predictable rhetoric, guaranteed to be 100% free of any meaningful historic sensibility.

NAACP official Lonnie Randolph compares the South Carolina fire-eaters to Timothy McVeigh, since both parties “disagreed with America.”  A nice grasp of political nuance, that.

Meanwhile, Mark Simpson of the SCV argues that focusing exclusively on slavery as a casus belli “would be like taking a book that has 10 or 15 chapters and tearing all the chapters out except one. While slavery was an issue, it was by no means what brought about the war.”  One wonders what the other nine or fourteen chapters might have been.

Meanwhile, the article reports, “Robert Sutton, the Park Service historian, just sighs.”  I know how he feels.

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The Irritation Proclamation

Plenty of historical bloggers have weighed in on VA Gov. Bob McDonnell’s proclamation of Confederate History Month and his subsequent apology for omitting slavery from it: Kevin Levin, Brooks Simpson, Robert Moore, and Richard Williams, for instance.  

The last meeting of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, two eminent Virginia Confederates, on May 2, 1863. From Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park's website.

 

These historical dust-ups normally don’t spill over into more general-purpose news sites, but this one has done just that.  The Washington Post‘s Virginia Politics blog has devoted several posts to the subject.  

Even more interesting is this post from the same paper’s political analysis blog, on whether McDonnell’s gaffe will cost him a position on a national ticket.  The blogger plays it down, but the fact that people are raising the question at all tells us something about the way we’re remembering the Civil War nowadays.  Confederate history, it seems, is quite the political liability.   

This item on the Post blog states that the Sons of Confederate Veterans requested that McDonnell issue the proclamation, and notes that an SCV spokesman “said the governor’s stamp of approval would help the group publicize the month and aide [sic] tourism efforts in the state.”  I didn’t know the SCV was in the tourism promotion business, and I don’t see why a proclamation of “Virginia Civil War History Month” wouldn’t have accomplished the same thing.  In any case I don’t see how a gubernatorial proclamation of any sort would increase visitation to museums and historic sites.  This sort of thing strikes me as a case of giving lip service to promoting historical awareness and heritage tourism with nothing to back it up.   

Having perused a list of the governor’s official proclamations on his website, I’m not convinced that being the subject of one is anything to write home about.  For instance, in addition to naming April Confederate History Month, McDonnell has also proclaimed the same month to be Financial Literacy Month.   

March is pretty busy, with Mediation Month, Kidney Day (note the stirring section following the first “WHEREAS” on that one), Governmental Purchasing Month, and Tornado Preparedness Day.  Rest assured that if by some remarkable coincidence a tornado had struck Virginia on March 16, 2010, her citizens would have been thoroughly ready for it.   

And Virginians of all ages were no doubt wetting their pants in anticipation of Congenital Heart Defect Awareness Week back in February.  

If the SCV is so concerned about promoting Virginia history, then let them lobby their state officials to beef up funding for historic sites, the state historical society, and so on.  That would take good deal more effort than convincing the governor to issue a simple proclamation, but it would do far more good.  

Similarly, if the governor wants people to visit his state’s many wonderful historic destinations, he’s in an excellent position to do something about it—but I think a proclamation will do very little toward that end.  Let him take active steps to strengthen historical interpretation and preservation  in the state which he runs.  Let him present a budget to the legislature with robust allowances for the state agencies which serve as caretakers of Virginia’s history.  Let him pledge not to lay off the people who work for these agencies, as so many state executives have done.  Let him implement sincere measures to make Virginia’s historic destinations the centerpiece of the state’s tourism initiatives.  

I don’t think the proclamation of Confederate History Month did either harm or good to the cause of promoting Virginia’s Civil War past.  In fact, I don’t think it has done much of anything, except make a lot of people very upset.

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Spend those heritage dollars wisely

Not long ago, the Civil War museum where I used to work sent one of their battle flags to a conservation lab.  The red fabric in the canton was frayed and had needed attention for some time, but the museum had to secure the funds first.  A lot of history museums have backlogs of artifacts in need of more than in-house treatment, which they send out in dribs and drabs as donations, grants, and appropriations trickle in.  The conservation and repair of one artifact can run well into the thousands or tens of thousands of dollars.  Multiply that by thousands of artifacts, and you understand why financial assistance is important. 

That flag is one of those artifacts that always left an impact on visitors.  It belonged to a Confederate cavalry unit from Tennessee—and one of the members of that unit may have been the person who left his blood on it.  The stains are still quite visible.  

I thought about that bloodstained flag when I read this post over at Civil War Memory.  A local SCV group has secured private land and raised nearly $100,000 for a brand-new statue of Gen. Joe Johnston at Bentonville. 

Readers of CWM may recall that the controversial statue of Jefferson Davis and Jim Limber, which the SCV commissioned and then had to trot around in search of someone willing to accept it, had the same price tag.  Remember, these aren’t historic works of art that have come onto the market and need a home, but entirely new sculptures produced for specific purposes.  

Personally, I’m not at all uneasy about monuments to Confederates.  I can understand why public displays of this sort bother some people, but the sight of a Confederate flag doesn’t make me any more uneasy than the national flag of Argentina.  In fact, when I hear discussions about removing or relocating old Confederate monuments, I lose both interest and patience pretty quickly.  

Monuments that are ninety or a hundred years old have historic value in and of themselves.  They’re artifacts in their own right that have become a characteristic aspect of certain American landscapes, and they’re evidence of who we were and what we used to believe about ourselves.  One shouldn’t go around trying to blot out every piece of culture simply because it’s distasteful.  Furthermore, in some cases Civil War veterans themselves placed these monuments, so they provide information about how participants in the war interpreted their own experiences.  Occasionally, they tell us where units were positioned during engagements, or at least where its members thought they were positioned. 

This statue of Joe Johnston in Dalton, GA is an artifact in its own right. The UDC erected it in 1912 at a cost of $6,000. Image from Wikimedia Commons, info from roadsidegeorgia.com.

 Here, though, we’re not talking about statues that have been around for decades and have accrued some intrinsic historical or cultural worth.  We’re talking about brand-new sculptures which cost a great deal of money, and that money has come from the efforts of heritage groups.  

I’m extremely grateful that there are dedicated, generous people out there who are willing to support history with their money and to spend their time persuading other people to do so.  I wish, however, that more of this money could be used to meet existing needs, rather than to create new monuments.  Honoring brave men is a fine thing to do, but commemorative sculpture doesn’t play the prominent role in public memory and civic education that it once did.  What matters now is that we have the raw material of history at hand, and we’re losing it.  The sort of money spent on these statues could go a long way toward helping us preserve it. 

If the SCV is looking for ways to perpetuate the legacy of Confederate soldiers, there is no shortage of opportunities.  The CWPT is trying to raise $150,000 for the site of a remarkable Confederate breakthrough at Franklin, in the face of overwhelming fire and despite devastating losses.  That spot of ground is a far more eloquent testimony to the bravery and prowess of the Confederate soldier than any plaque on a monument could provide. 

The same organization is also trying to raise $75,000 for part of the field at Gettysburg associated with Longstreet’s assault of July 2.  The cost of one of those statues would have secured ground over which southern troops marched during what Longstreet called the “best three hours of fighting” he had ever seen, with funds left over for even more.   

Finally, there’s a need for $12,000,000 for a critical portion of the Fredericksburg battlefield, site of one of Lee’s most decisive victories.  These are just a few handy examples; there are plenty of other endangered sites, along with historic Confederate monuments on battlefields and in graveyards that need the sort of serious maintenance that this sort of money could provide.  

A hundred thousand dollars would renovate a museum gallery.  It would cover the salary of a full-time historic site interpreter for three or four years.  (There is currently no interpretation at Brandywine, due to a loss of state funds.)  It would send a cabinet full of deteriorating uniforms, weapons, flags, portraits, or documents to the conservator.  

Of course, the SCV and other heritage groups do, in fact, support such efforts with their money and time.  I’m sincerely thankful for that.  But I also think that in a tight economy, with governments and institutions slashing budgets for historical causes left and right, it’s important for those who care about history to be especially prudent with their resources. 

That applies not just to Confederate heritage groups, but to those who want to preserve the legacies of Union soldiers, Revolutionary soldiers, abolitionists, Native Americans, or any historic group or individual.  Is the best way to honor their memory a work of art, or ensuring that what’s left of their world is still around for your children and grandchildren to learn from and appreciate? 

One more thing about that flag I mentioned at the beginning of this little tirade.  It used to hang in a display case near the uniform of a young Confederate soldier from Virginia, who died in battle at age eighteen.  The uniform isn’t on exhibit anymore.  It’s in fragile condition, but it might go back on display after some treatment.  Just as soon as there’s enough money to do it.

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