Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Stars, Bars, and Symbols of the Past

For me, history is fun. I love reading about history, watching documentaries, and going to historical sites. When it comes to the history of the United States of America, my knowledge base in this regard is pretty broad and pretty deep, owing to both my love of history and my personal background, having been born and raised in Virginia and being able to trace my family's history in America back to the 1600's. And as a true Son of Virginia, both the Revolutionary War and the Civil War loom large in my mind, have impacted my world view in ways I can identify and in ways I most assuredly cannot.

Before getting into the meat of the matter here, namely the current furor surrounding South Carolina's continued use of the Confederate flag in the aftermath of the Charleston church shootings, I think it's apropos to note the relationship of the Revolutionary War to the Civil War in the Southern mind. The Revolutionary War was sold--and accepted--as a war against tyranny, a war for freedom from oppression (the irony of slave-owners going to war for their freedom is not lost on me, nor was it lost on many of the Founding Fathers). After the conclusion of that war and the adoption of the Constitution, the United States of America, the Union, walked a tightrope as it were, because of the very different natures of society in the Northern States and the Southern ones (a difference that predated the Revolutionary War and extends back to who was settling each region, i.e. Pilgrims versus Crown charters, aggrieved Englishmen versus Loyalists and Scots).

The Civil War was, historically speaking, an over-determined event. It was always coming; it could easily have come decades early (the Nullification Crisis). And slavery, economically speaking, was a dead end. It was, in a very really sense, limiting the economic potential of the South. Plus, the outrage over the institution was growing, England and many other countries having already outlawed the slave trade. Despite all the bluster over slave States and non-slave States in Congress that led to Fort Sumter, slavery was bound to fail, certain to end, sooner or later (and the sooner, the better, in the minds of many).

Still, the backdrop of the Revolution remained; it was a recent event. As the Federal Government grew and exerted more and more influence, there was pushback, especially from people who were used to doing things their way. Such things included, of course, slavery and a basic idea of "white supremacy," i.e. the idea that the European settlers of America were naturally superior to the imported African slaves and the Native American Indians. Naturally, such pushback was more pronounced in the South and in frontier regions (which tended to be in the South and West).

I'm not going to go into the specifics of the conduct of the Civil War here, but rather just note the operative mindset in the South: it was truly a war of Northern Aggression that threatened both the liberty and the way of life of people in the Southern States, for better or worse.

But it was such for two very disparate reasons. First, there was the history and divergent natures of the North and South that I just detailed. And second, there was the concerted effort to propagandize the War on the part of the Southern leadership and elites. This is something that began well before the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter and something that continued as the War progressed. There was no internet in those days, nor television, no radio. The typical Southern citizen got his or her news from local sources, alone. And primary control over those sources was in the hands of those in power, in one way or another.

Thus, the Civil War was sold to the common man as a war against tyranny, since before day one. And the typical confederate soldier went to war to protect his perceived homeland from invasion, plain and simple, not to protect slavery. The typical soldier wasn't a slaveholder at all (the typical officer probably was, though). At the time of the Civil War, States like Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina had much larger free populations than slave populations and had much lower percentages of slave-owning families as compared to States like Alabama, South Carolina, and Mississippi. And while all of the South supplied soldiers to the war, it was Virginia and North Carolina who supplied the most. And lost the most.

As the war progressed, the propagandizing by the Southern leadership became even easier, due to the conduct of Union forces and the destruction of the war in the Southern States. I can even relate an anecdote in this regard: my father's family lived in an area outside Richmond--called Sparta--on a number of farms. At the time, they no longer owned slaves (but previous generations had, to be sure) My great great grandmother was a child during the war and told tales of how the Union forces took over their farmhouse for quartering officers, how they took what they wanted for food and supplies. She, her sisters, and mother were relegated to one room on the second floor. And they would peer out the window and sometimes try to spit on the Union officers coming into the house, they hated them so much. Can one blame them? Their farm was practically destroyed, their home was looted, and they were treated shabbily to say the least.

The point of this brief history lesson is to note that the issue of what the Civil War was about is not so simplistic as some would try to argue. But there needs to be some clarity in this regard: for the Southern leadership, for the elites in the South, the Civil War was about slavery, end of story. It was about maintaining the power and wealth the institution of slavery had given them and their families. Yet, this was not necessarily the case for the common foot soldier (in fact, it usually wasn't). That common foot soldier might still have believed that blacks were lesser peoples (something no less true for the common foot soldier from the North) to be sure, but that is not why they took up arms. So when someone like Ta-Nehisi Coates says this:
The Confederate flag is directly tied to the Confederate cause, and the Confederate cause was white supremacy. This claim is not the result of revisionism. It does not require reading between the lines. It is the plain meaning of the words of those who bore the Confederate flag across history.
Know that they are wrong. Many of those who "bore the Confederate flag" thought they were carrying on a tradition of resisting tyranny, were defending their homes and families, nothing more. They were most assuredly misguided in that regard, had in fact been duped by a power structure concerned only with maintaining the status quo, which of course included maintaining the institution of slavery. And it is a fascinating thing in my mind, how this reality, the actual history of the common man, so often championed by leftist and progressive historians (like Howard Zinn) is minimized in this particular case. But I digress.

The current backlash against the Confederate flag is understandable and justifiable to some extent. South Carolina--and Mississippi--would do well to purge the symbol from official devices of state, like flags. Because there is more to this tale. There is Reconstruction, the rise of the Klan, and the "rebirth" of Southern pride. But first, let's be clear about something. This is not the Stars and Bars:


This--the first official flag of the Confederate States of America--is:


The first is actually a take-off on the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia. True enough, it found its way into subsequent versions of the flag of the Confederacy, but as given, it was never an official flag of the Confederacy.

So why is it now the "rebel flag," the Confederate flag" in the minds of so many? Well again, there is what came after the Civil War. The flag, being the one flown by the forces of Robert E. Lee and being simple yet quite distinct from the U.S flag, was initially adopted by people who identified with times gone by, who were unhappy with the changes wrought by the Civil War. There was a racist bent for some of this, no doubt. Indeed, the Ku Klux Klan used the flag throughout its history. Still, for many it was just a symbol of heritage.

That's a pretty common thing for many, many people, using symbols like flags and coats of arms to relate to their perceived past. And sometimes, the actual history of such symbols can involve less-than-noble events. It is, in my opinion, difficult and pointless to purge all symbols that might give offense from society at large. From government use? Sure. That makes sense, especially when the offense is widespread among the populace a government supposedly represents. But in general?

I can't say I'm impressed by all of the bandwagon jumping going on with regard to the Confederate flag, with regard to stores like Wal-Mart opting to not carry any merchandise that uses the image in some fashion. I don't know that even all of the symbols of Nazi Germany have received such a treatment, much less the symbols of the Catholic Church and of European powers who engaged in colonialism.

We seemed to be overly fixated on the moment, though, and the current moment involves a flag with a varied history--some of it a very ugly history--but which nonetheless has been a component of Americana for a long, long time. And it's tough to withstand massive waves of change, waves that have no time for the consideration of varied points of view.

To the Confederate flag flying from the statehouse of South Carolina, I say good riddance. To the Confederate flag being waved by racists I say you might as well be waving a Swastika. To the Confederate flag that represents a particular culture and heritage, is neither noble nor base, I say I'll miss you.

2 comments:

  1. Even today the flag is, and should be, viewed in more than one light. When I see it, it might be a statement that "I am a ignorant fool", "I am proud of Southern history", or it is just a relic of a significant event in the growth of the nation, facilitating the first concrete steps in desegregation.
    Does it belong flying over a sate capitol? I can't think of a reason why it does. I also don't see a reason to remove it from the inventory of a store.
    Racist backlash is no more excusable than racism.

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  2. Correct. Concur. "Ignorance is the greatest evil."

    ReplyDelete