It has been over 150 years since the American Civil War came to a close. The men on both sides of the conflict were sent home by their commanders and whether in victory or in defeat, there can be no doubt that all were glad to see the conflict finally draw to a close. Many thousands had been killed on the battlefield. Hundreds of thousands more had died of disease and starvation. Roughly 2% of the country’s population, an estimated 620,000 men, lost their lives as a result of the war. Taken as a percentage of today’s population, the death toll would have reached 6,000,000, a figure roughly equivalent to the Nazi Holocaust.
In the midst of these sobering numbers, we as a country once again face a spectre from this past conflagration. But it is not the horrors of Civil War itself that visit us, nor the war’s root causes, which have been debated by historians and scholars for generations. Rather, it is the symbols from those dark years that grip us like the possession of an evil spirit that will not go away of its own accord without a kind of national exorcism.
The discussion surrounding statues of Confederate luminaries in Southern cities, most notably of Robert E. Lee, and especially the flying of the Confederate Flag, has been going on for years. But only recently have questions about what these emblems truly symbolize about our past, and about ourselves, gripped our national consciousness so strongly.
Just pause for a moment and remember what America has endured over the last few years. From the brutal murders of nine black parishioners at the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston to the violent “Unite The Right” Rally of white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, the antagonism born of Gettysburg, Antietam and Chancellorsville return like vengeful revenants from those silent battlefields to haunt our Union once again.
Consider the recent election of Corey Stewart to be the Republican nominee for Senate in Virginia. Stewart, whose only previous experience in elected office has been as an at-large commissioner in Prince William County just south of Washington DC, is an ultraconservative firebrand who has crafted a public persona as a stalwart defender of Confederate monuments. His ascendance to the national spotlight will invariably challenge us all once again to consider the full weight of what it means to have symbols from a conflict that literally split America in two in public for all to see.
To put a fine point on it, why are there still Confederate flags and statues on public property? These are symbols of a war initiated by Southern states in 1861, motivated by a belief in white racial supremacy, rising up in armed insurrection against the Union, claiming “State’s Rights” in an effort to retain the ability to own black human beings as slaves.
Now, to be clear, slavery and indentured servitude existed in the North as well. The Revised Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 held that all United States citizens, whether in the North or the South, had to return any runaway slaves to their “rightful owners” or face severe penalties which could include 6 months imprisonment and a fine of $1,000; the equivalent of $28,000 today. New York did not completely abolish slavery until 1827. Pennsylvania did not achieve complete abolition until 1847. Connecticut had slaves until 1848. New Jersey and New Hampshire did not totally abolish slavery until the after the close of the Civil War and the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865.
The stain of slavery and Civil War was not, and is not, borne by the South alone. But it is there that the much of the Civil War’s legacy endures today. It is in the South that the grip of these symbols is strongest and no symbol of that conflict is more emotionally jarring than the so-called “Rebel Flag”. Ironically, when we study the history of the Civil War and America’s involvement in slavery, we find ourselves in the odd position of discovering that the modern connotations that this banner holds do not lie in the events from over a century and a half ago, but rather as a symbol of defiance against Federal intervention in the blossoming Civil Rights movement that began shortly after the Second World War.
Although a man with many personal prejudices about race of his own, Harry S. Truman established the President’s Committee on Civil Rights (PCCR) on December 5, 1946, tasked with investigating the status of civil rights in the United States and propose measures to protect such rights. Whether motivated by electoral politics, concerns that America’s Jim Crow laws in the South would be used by the Soviet Union as a propaganda tool, or simply because it was the right thing to do, the PCCR successfully led to new Federal involvement in the cause of fighting racial injustice. This effort culminated in the signing of Executive Order 9981 on July 26, 1948. Using the authority granted the President as Commander-in-Chief under Article II of the Constitution, this order de-segregated the armed forces of the United States.
In the minds of many southerners at the time, Truman’s action went too far. In 1948, a breakaway group from the Democratic Party formed the States’ Rights Democratic Party, often referred to as the “Dixiecrats”. This faction ran on a platform of segregation. It opposed any efforts by the Federal government toward integration and worked for the preservation of Jim Crow laws in the South. On August 14, 1948, South Carolina Gov. Strom Thurmond became the new party’s nominee for President in the upcoming election, which called for “…the segregation of the races and the racial integrity of each race…We oppose the elimination of segregation, the repeal of miscegenation statutes, the control of private employment by Federal bureaucrats called for by the misnamed civil rights program.” The party’s nominee for the nation’s highest office himself stated at the convention: “I want to tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that there’s not enough troops in the Army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the N**** race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.”
The symbol chosen by the States’ Rights Democratic Party for this revolt against the progressive policies taken by Truman and politicians outside the South was the battle standard of the Army of Northern Virginia (ANV), more commonly known today as the “Confederate Flag”. The last time this flag was flown in an official capacity was on April 9, 1865, during the surrender of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee to United States Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at the McLean House in Appomattox County, Virginia, ending the Civil War.
Lee’s battle standard has become a symbol today for defiance against the United States and all it represents, just as it was on the bloody fields of Petersburg, Virginia in 1864. There are many today who say the ANV Battle Flag is simply part of American history and that is true. Some others, however, say that it is a source of “Southern Pride” or “Southern Heritage”. If it is, I submit that is a misguided heritage. Armed insurrection and yes, treason, for the stated purpose of maintaining the right to own slaves is not something any American should take pride in. Let no one be under the illusion that the motivation behind the rebellion was for anything else. All it takes is a cursory read of the secession declarations of the Confederate states to understand this was the reason for war.
In the antebellum years, the defiance continued in the form of segregation laws designed to keep black citizens as close to their station prior to the 13th Amendment as possible. As the Civil Rights movement entered the 1950s and 1960s, the symbol of those who vowed to keep the old order was Robert E. Lee’s battle flag, last flown in open rebellion against the United States. Is it any wonder then that this flag can still elicit such a visceral reaction to all who see it? The ANV Battle Flag was born of insurrection and rebellion. It was reincarnated as a symbol of the way many in the South still dream that life should still be. A “whites-only” society, where there is nothing wrong with separate water fountains and segregated lunch counters. It is a dystopian vision where all necessary measures are employed to keep those who used to be the help from getting the wrong idea that they may be equal to those who once owned their forebears. Scarlett O’Hara’s grand planatation Tara remains undimmed. We should therefore not wonder at the actions of men who espouse white supremacist beliefs and draw inspiration for their crimes from an admiration of the Confederacy, its ideals…and its symbols.
In this light, we shouldn’t be amazed that someone like Dylann Roof could walk into the Emmanuel AME Church, sit through an entire Bible study and kill those in attendance anyway. Nor should we be fazed by the callousness of James Alex Fields, who drove his car at high-speed into a crowd of demonstrators marching against white supremacists in Charlottesville, killing one and injuring 34 others. As for the consternation that Mr. Stewart is certain to generate in his bid to unseat Sen. Tim Kaine, we can only sit and wait.
These are the ghosts of Appomattox. The spirits that haunt us today should have been laid to rest many years ago; the weapons, uniforms and flags from that war sealed in storage trunks, museums and the history books. To those who say the outrage against the ANV flag and Confederate monuments is merely symbolic and perhaps we should be focusing our energies toward other endeavors, such as stronger gun control legislation, well, that is also true. But as we have seen, symbols are powerful. They have meaning and lend motivation to people’s actions…and inactions.
It is high time that we as Americans collectively decide that the flag whose meaning died on a spring morning in a Virginia courthouse in 1865, a symbol that has been used to cause so much anguish then and now, be relegated to a place where it is only a memory of a national tragedy. Can it ever be something we can glean important lessons from? Yes. If we can achieve this, then perhaps we might learn something from this flag after all and have it be something positive and life affirming instead of divisive.