Thursday, October 25, 2007

Flags of our (Great-Grand) Fathers

I try not to blog about my political opinions here -- there are other venues where I let off that kind of steam. I find it jarring when history-themed blogs morph into contemporary Op-Ed sections, even when I agree with the sentiments expressed. Some issues, of course, bridge the distance between the Civil War era and the politics of 2007 – such is the reach, and the legacy, of that cataclysmic struggle. One of those enduring issues is a simple but universally recognized emblem and the emotions it evokes. Thankfully, wayward Californian John Coski at the Museum of the Confederacy wrote the book on the Confederate battle flag, so you don’t have to.

Speaking of Op-Ed sections, the battle flag controversy was highlighted in one of my local papers several months ago. I made note of it, and intended to write a letter to the editor, but responding to long-discredited “black Confederate” mythology (the part of the editorial that pushed my buttons) seems increasingly pointless. It’s here to stay. I’m reminded of something I read recently in the acknowledgments to Ray Mulesky’s book, Thunder From a Clear Sky. While Ray was trying to ferret out the details of the “battle” of Browning Springs, Kentucky, with Harold Utley of the Hopkins County Historical Society, Mr. Utley made the profound and sadly accurate comment that “once something is wrong in print, it is likely wrong forever.”

If that was true in the past, it’s all the MORE true in the age of the internet.

The SF Chronicle essay in question, “Give the Confederate flag a break: The Stars-and-Bars is a diversion in the nation's fight for racial harmony,” is a well-intentioned call for people to cool their jets, take the long view, and remove the chips from their shoulders (take a moment to read it in full if you want to make sense of my specific references here). It’s also another subtle example of something wrong in print that will help perpetuate misconceptions until the end of time (and I’m not speaking of the common mislabeling of the battle flag as the “Stars and Bars,” which refers, in fact, to a Confederate national flag).

The editorial starts off well enough, discussing the relevance of symbols, but quickly swerves off logical kilter with specious analogies. No one is suggesting the flag be banned from country music concerts. Legal objections to the flag (from organizations like the NAACP) have to do with it being used in a quasi-official capacity – flying over a state house, for example. Considering that it represented some of the armies that went to war with the United States, objections to the flag under these circumstances don’t seem unreasonable. And considering that, like it or not, it is historically associated with the most virulently racist organizations in the history of our nation, it’s unrealistic to assert that the meaning many black Americans assign to that symbol is unfair or irrational. Symbols are powerful things, and diametrically opposed interpretations do not cancel each other out. A non-racist sense of pride in one’s heritage, symbolized by that flag, is no more valid, and no more historical, than a sense of revulsion by those who see it as emblematic of the armies that fought to perpetuate slavery. Or who see it as emblematic of the KKK and their ilk.

Had the Op-Ed author, Mr. O’Neill, satisfied himself with the “Heritage not Hate” perspective, I would not feel compelled to comment on it. But I was dismayed to read the fresh renewal, in my Sunday paper, of some of the most discredited mythology about the Civil War. The issue of so-called Black Confederates has been so thoroughly refuted, it's astonishing that rational people continue to raise it (he wrote, “between 60,000 and 90,000 black men, both free and slave, also served under the banner of the Stars and Bars”). The entire rationale (whether extended consciously or not) behind the notion of large numbers of black people fighting for the South is to diminish the connection between slavery and the Civil War. After all, how could it be about slavery if blacks themselves fought with the Confederates?

The answer is that they did not, except in isolated and exceptional instances. It was illegal for blacks to fight. Even as late as 1864, when General Patrick Cleburne suggested recruiting slaves as an answer to the South’s critical shortage of manpower, he was nearly run out of town on a rail for such a radical proposition. The CSA did not consider recruiting slaves in earnest until just before the war ended.

The phrasing is key: 10s of thousands of black men “served” with Confederate armies. This is a staple of neo-Confederate web sites that attempt to remove slavery from the equation entirely. To them, it was a war of aggression by mongrel hordes (immigrants) against those true American patriots – keepers of the Revolutionary flame – who sought only to salvage self-determination. But if the slaves put to work on behalf of southern armies served for the Confederacy, we must likewise conclude that a lot of allied POWs served with Japanese forces in WWII. You can see how absurd it becomes when forced labor is referred to in the context of willing, or even conscripted soldiers.

And while it's true that "the vast majority. . .owned no slaves,” it's a disingenuous argument. The 1860 census shows that close to 25% of all white southern families owned slaves (and in each of those slaveholding families, likely only one person was named as the owner). The institution was part and parcel of the southern economy, and southern antebellum culture. People who did not own slaves aspired to own them, benefitted from the presence of them, or otherwise facilitated the system. And regardless, the armies were sent into battle to achieve the objectives of the government. In this case the objective was independence to protect a system of chattel slavery, and soldiers were fighting for that whether they realized it or not.

The nation was split literally between slave and free soil interests. The election of a president from a party with explicitly abolitionist roots precipitated secession, which in turn led directly to the war. The architects of secession (see Apostles of Disunion), made it painfully clear that slavery was the central issue, and leading Confederates themselves made no bones about the fact that independence was necessary to preserve slavery. With all the primary resources at our disposal, it's a tortured argument for someone today to say the American Civil War was not about slavery, but about states rights. The only state right at issue was the right to preserve and expand the institution into the western territories. Ironically, the Confederate Constitution took that right to the other extreme: it prohibited states of the Confederacy from interfering with slavery even within their own borders. Which is to say states would have to allow slavery whether they wanted it or not. So much for states rights.

Mr. O’Neill makes the oft-seen point that since the U.S. flag flew over the entire nation prior to the Civil War, it, too, was an emblem of slavery. How to explain to someone that the flag of emancipation transcends the reason emancipation was necessary? In the short life of the Confederacy, how could the battle flag transcend the reasons the Confederacy was seeking independence? How could it transcend the negative associations of the next 100 years?

In one concluding paragraph, O’Neill writes, “Though the Confederate flag remains an easy target for politicians looking to take cheap shots, the heritage represented by that flag is far from simple. Though it retains negative power, there surely is not a soul left on the planet who waves that flag in support of slavery. Voters whose ancestors gave their lives under that banner should not be written off by the party that has, historically, best defended their interests."

Certainly the first sentence rings true, but it bears mentioning that many of those voters he refers to wrote off the party – not the other way around – during the an era of forced integration and civil rights protests. Indeed, there was a monumental resurgence of the battle flag in direct response to court-ordered integration, well in advance of the Civil War centennial.

I agree with much of what Mr. O’Neill wrote in his essay. I share his exasperation with the hollow, pseudo-controversies of each successive election cycle. And I certainly agree that people today should be given the benefit of the doubt when celebrating or honoring their heritage -- that a presumption of racism is unwarranted. It’s pointless to pass moral judgment on the common soldier of 1861, and equally pointless to take an emotional stake in defending their honor (this enduring emotional charge may be unique to civil warfare, while more recent enemies quickly become trading partners and allies). But you can't have it both ways. You can't insist that others appreciate your affinity for the banner, while insisting that their interpretations of that symbol are irrational. Both views have a long, tangible history.

Mr. O’Neil may think I am missing the larger points of his editorial while focusing on a few passing comments (I will email him a copy of this blog entry). But I think everything hinges on this issue of states rights vs. slavery. If one is to easily dismiss the negative connotations that generations of African-Americans, for example, assign to the battle flag, one must first make the case that the war was not really about slavery, then rationalize the particular association of the battle flag with the Klan. Good luck with that exercise.

But one needn’t rewrite the history of the Civil War to make the other, thoughtful arguments. No one who honors the service and sacrifice of their Confederate ancestors owes anyone an apology today. Individuals fought for all kinds of reasons, and in the final analysis, it’s just history. It’s always best to face it head-on.

I really liked this passage in O'Neill's essay, and it's a good one to close with here:

And so it goes, in the words of recently departed Kurt Vonnegut, a wry commentator on human folly in all its guises whose leavening humor and wisdom will be sorely missed in a nation fairly bereft of both qualities. And nowhere is that wisdom and humor needed more than in our bogged-down-in-B.S. attitudes toward race, wherein we continue to countenance unequal schools and a vast disparity in opportunity while arguing about words and old flags.


Dixie Dawn said...

David, It will never matter whether we agree, I have the utmost respect for you and can always agree to disagree know that I have learned much from you for even in disagreement you have given me a drive to search and learn respectably not just the garbage that seems to circulate from both sides. I am honored for your visits and I appreciate, very much, this post and what you had to say...I have posted a couple of new things concerning the "Black Confederates" I found and am hoping you will take a look and let me know your thoughts.

Most Respectfully Yours
Dixie Dawn

dw said...


Thanks for the kind words. I appreciate that you are someone who can take a moment to calmly consider counterarguments, without taking them as personal attacks. That quality alone, coupled with lots of reading, will ensure that in the long run, reason will win out.

I'm sure you've seen my comments on "black Confederates" by now. It appears that they were only somewhat less rare than Confederate leprechauns. Which is to say, there were some, but not many.