|The flag of the 28th Virginia Infantry, captured by the 1st Minnesota at Gettysburg, was on display at the Minnesota Historical Society for the 150th of the battle. (courtesy of MPR)|
If you follow me on social media, you generally know where I come out on these issues. But I thought I'd use this post to break it down into a few key points:
1) As a boy, I grew up admiring the South, and the Confederate generals. (See this post.) I even had a few Confederate flags in my bedroom. I didn't really make the slavery connection back then. So the flag to me meant the Civil War and Lee and Jackson. Only later, as an adult, did I come to understand and appreciate the multiple meanings behind it, including the fact that it represents a political entity whose main purpose was the preservation and perpetuation of human bondage. That said, when I see the flag I still think first of battles and generals and my boyhood interest in the war -- despite my better instincts.
2) I think the Confederate flag, in any iteration, should not fly from state houses, town halls, and other government buildings. It wasn't flying there right after the war, and in many instances, it only went up again to protest the civil rights laws and desegragationist court decisions of the 1950s and 60s. Although it may represent the sacrifices and bravery of Confederate ancestors, it also represents slavery and treason to many others. And let's not forget to mention those who actually want the flag to fly there in the name of white supremacy. Gotta go.
3) Some people are now calling for the removal or elimination of Confederate monuments and memorials that dot town squares and other public places across the South. I can see little good in such actions. In most cases, these statues and other monuments were erected by the Confederate veterans themselves, or their immediate offspring. These memorials tell us a lot about how Southerners in the 19th and early 20th century chose to commemorate and remember the war. Sure, they may be associated with a cause we find distasteful (and should), but that doesn't give us a license to destroy our past. If we were to erase these memorials, we'd be no better than Soviet propagandists or ISIS radicals. Instead, as I have noted before on this blog, we should maintain these memorials, and place them in the proper context if necessary. This could include adding markers to explain the meaning of the monuments and what they represent. (The Atlantic published a thoughtful piece on this idea here. I also wrote previously about this issue with respect to Alexandria's Confederate monument here.) Some bloggers and professional historians, like Kevin Levin in this post, are unfortunately opening the door to a slippery slope. Whatever our personal views on the Confederacy, we shouldn't be providing people with a rationale for dismantling the past in our public spaces.
4) The placement of the Confederate flags at museums and historic sites seems like a no-brainer. Where better to interpret the flag and display it than in its historical context? If visitors can't view original regimental Confederate Battle Flags at battlefield museums, for example, then they are missing the chance to connect with tangible and meaningful artifacts. However, the recent move by the National Park Service (NPS) at Ft. Sumter is troubling. (Check out Craig's excellent post here on the subject.) Hopefully others won't go the same way, and Ft. Sumter will reverse its decision.
5) Reenactments and living history demonstrations are another appropriate place to show the flag. Again, however, we see a step backwards when the Gettysburg Seminary bans the display of the flag in a way that adversely impacts living history events held on campus. Far from being a "courageous stand," the action represents nothing more than caving in to public pressure. "Courageous" would have been a position that allowed display of the colors by reenactment groups.
6) Another part of the debate involves what I dub "the bottom of the barrel." Some folks are now just overreaching and looking for excuses to do a complete purge. The debate has focused on removing all vestiges of the Confederacy from gift shops, on-line stores, military bases, street names, and even TV programming. Some of this is downright silly. I mean, is the Duke boys' car really hurting anyone? One of the most ridiculous and foolish proposals I have seen calls for the re-naming of a U.S. Navy vessel because it carries the name of a Confederate victory, Chancellorsville! As for sales of the flag, private enterprises have the right to sell what they want, but they may just be hurting their bottom line, and their capitulation speaks more to their inability to stand up to the current witch hunt than anything. Street, school, and base names have at times been controversial, but I am sure that most people haven't thought twice about them as they go about their daily lives. How many are actually offended by a street or school named after a Confederate icon? That said, if a community wishes to rename public places and streets through the democratic process, then be my guest. Again, however, that just seems like overkill.
7) So how do we get out of this mess? A solution calls for mutual understanding and moderation, as well as a healthy dose of respect for preserving our history. America needs to stop the wholesale rush to dismantle or reshape the past, and instead engage in a thoughtful discussion about the Confederacy. (For example,see Robert's post here.) We also can't ignore the hard truths about the causes of the Civil War.
I am a bit saddened that we did not use the Sesquicentennial to address our history in this way. Instead, extreme passions in the wake of the tragedy in Charleston have driven the agenda just as we are wrapping up the commemoration of our bloodiest war. One possible step in the right direction involves building, rather than tearing down. We should take action to remember slavery and the role of African-Americans in the war. I'd love to work on historical signage to commemorate Northern Virginia's contraband camps. I am sure there are many such opportunities across our country. As we celebrate the Fourth of July, let's strive to heal the divisions that have developed and come together as a country to shape a commemorative landscape that works for all.