Tag Archives: Confederate flag

Battle flag backlash?

Something really unusual happened this afternoon.  I was headed back to my apartment when I met a pickup truck going the other direction with two ginormous banners fluttering from its back: Old Glory and a Confederate battle flag.  I’ve been running around Knoxville for a few decades now, but that was a first.

Come to think of it, I’ve basically spent my entire life in the South, and that was probably only the second or third pickup truck flying a ginormous Confederate flag I’ve ever seen, period.  People whose knowledge of the South is limited to pop culture and what they get from the news probably assume that pickup trucks flying big Confederate flags are ubiquitous down here, but my experience has been otherwise.  Pickups decked out with Confederate flag bumper stickers, novelty plates, decals, and the the like aren’t that uncommon, I guess, but huge, in-your-face flags on poles mounted in the bed are another matter entirely, especially in an urban setting like Knoxville.  Yet today somebody was driving around town with a pretty big Confederate flag flapping in the wind, in the midst of a national debate over that flag’s display.

Of course, one such sighting doesn’t amount to much, but there are other indications that the Confederate flag is becoming really popular all of a sudden.  I’ve always said that most southerners I know are neither strongly in favor of nor strongly opposed to the flag.  It’s just not the sort of thing that comes up in the day-to-day lives of most people.  It would therefore be really ironic if the recent groundswell of support for taking the flag down only ended up prompting a backlash, reversing what would have otherwise been the continuation of a long, slow, gradual decline in regional attachment to Confederate iconography.

Or maybe the uptick in sales noted in the article linked above is just so much statistical noise against a general backdrop of indifference or hostility to the flag on a regional or national scale.  Your guess is as good as mine.

In any case, my question for people who are suddenly rushing to defend southern heritage by buying Confederate flag merch is the same as it was a few days ago.  Wouldn’t southern heritage be better served if you devoted that energy and money to preserving historic sites and objects?

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Flags, monuments, and a proposal for proponents of Confederate heritage

While I was on the road the past couple of weeks, a heck of a brouhaha erupted over historical memory, specifically the place of the Confederate flag, Confederate monuments, and the Confederacy generally in contemporary American life.

I was getting snippets of all the arguments on Twitter, but I didn’t really have time to make my usual rounds of the historical blogosphere.  In fact, over the last few weeks, I haven’t been thinking about American history or historical memory as much as I usually do.  Instead, I’ve been enjoying the company of old friends, gorging on good food, visiting places oriented toward non-historical subjects, and going to the movies.  (Well, I’ve actually been going to the same movie, over and over again.)

To tell you the truth, I was pretty glad I had other things to distract me, mostly because I was already weary of the whole thing as soon as I got wind of it.  If you follow the intersections of history, politics, culture, and current events long enough, then you can usually predict the lines along which arguments of this sort are going to run.

The only thing that’s surprised me about this latest Confederacy kerfuffle has been the speed at which it became so widespread.  Usually these debates play out within the context of one particular town or organization trying to figure out what to do with a monument or a flagpole, and the only people who take an interest are the local media, a few heritage groups, and those of us who blog about historical stuff.  With this round, though, it seems like everybody’s in the fray.

Well, for whatever it’s worth, here’s my take.

I think it’s perfectly reasonable to be uncomfortable about seeing a Confederate battle flag on the grounds of a state capitol, or any other space where it’s implied that a sitting government is wholeheartedly endorsing the ideals on which the Confederacy was founded.  The secessionists were quite explicit about why they were doing what they did, and they did it because they felt slavery was threatened if they remained in the Union.  Slavery was simply the Confederacy’s raison d’être.

This is not to say that every Confederate soldier enlisted or fought to uphold slavery, still less that the desire to preserve slavery and white supremacy lay behind every thought and action of white southerners in the Civil War era.  Nor is it to say that descendants of Confederate soldiers have no business remembering and honoring their ancestors.  But it is to say that without slavery, there would have been no Confederacy.

It is therefore not at all inappropriate to keep statehouse flagpoles Confederate flag-free.

Am I, then, opposed to the display of Confederate flags in any context other than the exhibition of artifacts in museums?  No, I’m not.  I don’t see anything wrong with using the battle flag to decorate the graves of Confederate soldiers, or in certain other commemorative settings.  Indeed, I thought the W&L students’ demand to remove the flags from Lee Chapel was a bit much, and I said so at the time.

Nor do I agree with every position that supporters of Confederate de-flagging have taken in the recent brouhaha.  As a preservationist, I’m generally opposed to moving longstanding Confederate monuments.  To me, monuments are more of a historic preservation issue than anything else.  We maintain old structures and works of public art because they have intrinsic historic value, not because we agree with the statements made by their creators.

I think my opinion on old Confederate monuments squares up pretty well with Andy Hall’s post from yesterday, which I heartily commend to your attention:

While I adamantly support the authority of local governments to make these decisions, I’m not sure that a reflexive decision to remove them is always the best way of addressing the problems we all face together. Monuments are not “history,” as some folks seem to believe, but they are are historic artifacts in their own right, and like a regimental flag or a dress or a letter, they can tell us a great deal about the people who created them, and the efforts they went to to craft and tell a particular story.

I think we need to be done, done, with governmental sanction of the Confederacy, and particularly public-property displays that look suspiciously like pronouncements of Confederate sovereignty. The time for that ended approximately 150 years ago. But wholesale scrubbing of the landscape doesn’t really help, either, if the goal is to have a more honest discussion about race and the history of this country. I’m all for having that discussion, but experience tells me that it probably won’t happen. It’s much easier to score points by railing against easy and inanimate targets.

Furthermore, I’ll go ahead and state that I think some of the actions taken in response to this latest round of controversy have been downright asinine.  Banning Civil War video games because the pixelated Confederates are carrying Confederate flags?  That was like something out of The Onion.  (What are video game Confederate troops supposed to carry?  A banner with the Cobra emblem?)

I’ll also happily go on record to denounce vandalism aimed at historic monuments in all cases whatsoever.  It’s not that I don’t understand why these monuments can still arouse strong feelings.  It’s just that, as a preservationist, I cannot get behind any effort to deface historic structures, property, or artworks.

But, as I said, I think it’s eminently reasonable to remove the Confederate flag from state capitols.  And to self-professed defenders of Confederate heritage who are rushing to keep those flags flying, to set up new flags on private property, or to buy up Confederate flag merchandise just to prove a point, I have a proposal.  It echoes an argument I made on this blog five years ago.

Why not direct that energy and money elsewhere and really preserve some heritage?  Instead of defending reproduction flags and buying Confederate emblem merch, use your time and money to preserve actual Civil War land and artifacts.

Sure, you can start a petition urging legislators to keep a piece of synthetic fabric flying from a pole on the statehouse grounds…or you can start a petition urging them to pass legislation keeping historic ground intact, and to fund the facilities where actual relics are conserved and treated.

You can spend thousands of dollars setting up ginormous Confederate flags on private land just to give de-flaggers the middle finger…or you can give that money to an organization that will purchase endangered battlefield land where real Civil War soldiers fought and died.

You can hold a rally to demand that a historic symbol be displayed out of reach and free of any context whatsoever…or you can support museums and archives where genuine historic artifacts are kept in stewardship for all of us and our descendants to enjoy.

Let me submit that the stuff of “heritage” isn’t flying from a modern flagpole or emblazoned on the roof of a toy car.  It’s on battlefield land that’s threatened by development, and it’s sitting in underfunded museums and archives that need money to keep it in intact.

As someone born and raised in the South—someone who loves the South and the people who live here, someone would not live anywhere else—I’d much rather see our historic sites and artifacts preserved so that Americans of all ages, sections, races, backgrounds, and political persuasions can enjoy them and learn from them than see a reproduction flag hanging from a pole.

Wouldn’t you rather rally to keep the real, raw material of history around?

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A Lexington counterfactual

Those of you who follow the Civil War blogs are probably aware of the SCV’s recent legal defeat.  Those of you who don’t can get up to speed by clicking here.

I’m afraid I can’t give you my opinion on the city’s ordinance or the judge’s ruling because I don’t really have an opinion about either one.  As I’ve said before, the sight of a Confederate battle flag doesn’t offend me; I have about the same reaction to it as I would to the flag of Argentina.  On the other hand, a law against the flying of any flags on municipal poles except those of official government entities doesn’t offend me, either.  It sort of seems like common sense, actually.  So whether the SCV won or lost this one, I’d be cool with whatever.

Let’s indulge in a counterfactual exercise with this very recent bit of Civil War history.  Suppose the law had been overturned.  What then?

What would the SCV have gained from the effort?  They would’ve gained the right to fly the Confederate battle flag from municipal poles in Lexington, VA.  Would it have been worth it?

Sure, Lexington has symbolic value to devotees of Confederate heritage, since it’s the final resting place of both Lee and Jackson.  But anybody who wants to go to Lexington and wave a Confederate flag, plaster a Confederate flag sticker on their car, or march around in a Confederate flag t-shirt can still do so.  Your right to display a Confederate flag in Lexington is as secure as it was before the ordinance, if I understand the situation correctly.

I know the SCV’s raison d’être is to maintain the legacy of the Confederacy, and that perpetuating the display of the Confederate flag falls well within those limits.  And, again, I’ve got no problem with the display of the flag, so long as it’s not done with blatant insensitivity toward the feelings of people who might legitimately be hurt by it.

But when I think of all the causes that the SCV might take up—battlefield preservation, monument restoration, scholarships, etc.—I can’t help but wonder whether this was time well spent.

Then again, it wasn’t my time.

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Everybody cut footloose!

The latest heritage skirmish, from right here in the Volunteer State:

Gibson County High School senior Texanna Edwards was — like many of her classmates — looking forward to her prom last Saturday.

But Edwards didn’t get to attend because of her attire — a knee-length red dress decorated with bright blue stripes and white stars inside the stripes. The school’s colors are red, white and blue, but the dress resembles the controversial Confederate battle flag.

Edwards, 18, said she wasn’t allowed inside the prom after school officials told her the Confederate flag prom dress was “offensive and inappropriate.”

Before taking up pitchforks and torches against the school officials, note that Texanna didn’t exactly get blindsided when she showed up for the big dance.  The prom sponsor told her she might want to check with the principal ahead of time:

School officials said a teacher warned Edwards about two months ago that the dress might not be acceptable. The teacher, who served as prom sponsor, expressed concern and suggested to Edwards in February that she should clear the idea with the principal, but Edwards did not do so, said Eddie Pruett, director of schools for the Gibson County School System.

Pruett said there have been race-related issues at Gibson County High School in recent years and that Principal James Hughes thought Edwards’ dress could have caused a problem.

I doubt that any of that information will mollify Confederate flag proponents, just as I doubt that they’ll stop to ask themselves whether a prom dress is an appropriate use of the banner they profess to defend.

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This is why we can’t have nice things

The much-anticipated Appomattox branch of the Museum of the Confederacy is opening soon, and this occasion offers all of us an opportunity for substantial and sober reflection about a host of important topics, such as the challenge of interpreting complex and emotionally charged subjects through exhibits, the proper stewardship of collections at a multi-facility institution, the place of military history in public history as a whole, and the relationship between scholarship and popular memory.

So naturally, instead of considering any of these issues, we’re going to get up in arms over what sort of flags they’re flying in front of the building.

Appomattox, VA – A new battle is brewing around the Museum of The Confederacy in Appomattox. Southern Heritage groups are calling on people to boycott the museum because the Confederate Flag will not fly outside.

All of this is surrounding 15 flag poles outside of the building, called the Reunification Promenade.

It will display state flags in order of their secession leading up to the U.S. flag.

Virginia Flaggers says they’ve offered to pay to add the Confederate Flag to the display, but the museum isn’t interested.

The museum’s president notes that the outdoor flag display is actually intended to illustrate the relationship of the seceded states to the rest of the country, which accounts for the Confederate flag’s otherwise conspicuous absence. Furthermore, the museum will include the biggest exhibit of Confederate flags anywhere in the history of mankind, which suggests that keeping said flag under wraps isn’t exactly a priority for the MOC.  But this isn’t enough to assuage the concern of people who are evidently more concerned about the museum’s front porch than they are about the actual content of the exhibits.

If questions about outdoor vexillology aren’t enough to convince you that nefarious anti-Southron forces are at work here, then consider the assertion that the facility’s location is, and I quote, “evidence that Yankee interests have invested the museum.”

Is the first opening in the lovely Shenandoah where Jackson beat three Union armies in one campaign?  No.  Oh I know, it’s off Interstate 95 at Chancellorsville, the site of Lee’s greatest victory!  NO.  OK, maybe up closer to Washington, D.C. on the Manassas battlefield where the Confederacy won two major battles?  Nope.  So where?

Appomattox, the place where General Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia.   You are kidding!  For a Southerner, only Andersonville could be a worse location!

And bear in mind that while these folks are complaining about encroaching Yankeefication at the MOC, another critic is denouncing the institution as a Confederate shrine.

Make up your minds, guys.  If I’m supposed to go with a knee-jerk reaction, at least let me know which direction.

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Confederate battle flag accidentally leads to small-scale construction boom

From the AP:

SUMMERVILLE, S.C. — A year ago, dozens marched to protest the Confederate flag a white woman flew from her porch in a historically black Southern neighborhood. After someone threw a rock at her porch, she put up a wooden lattice. That was just the start of the building.

Earlier this year, Annie Chambers Caddell’s neighbors built two solid 8-foot high wooden fences on either side of her modest brick house to shield the Southern banner from view.

Late this summer, Caddell raised a flagpole higher than the fences to display the flag. Then a similar pole with an American flag was placed across the fence in the yard of neighbor Patterson James, who is black.

Here’s the whole story.  Before this is over, they’ll be breaking out the concertina wire and machine guns.

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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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