Exactly 150 years ago this past April, 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 their families once again. 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 in the conflict. 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 in the horror of the Civil War itself that visits us, nor its causes, which have been endlessly debated by historians and scholars for generations. Rather, it is a symbol from those dark years that grips us like the possession of an evil spirit that will not go away on its own without a kind of national exorcism.
The debate over the Confederate Flag and what it symbolizes has the nation in thrall. With the brutal murders of nine black parishioners at the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, by a man motivated by racial hatred and allegiance to what this emblem represents today has brought to our national consciousness the full weight of what it means to have symbols from this conflict in our public places. To put a fine point on it, why are there Confederate flags and banners on public property? These are symbols of a war motivated by the Southern states rising up in armed insurrection against the Union in 1861, claiming “State’s Rights”, in an effort to retain the ability to own 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 grip of this flag is strongest. It is in the South where much of the Civil War’s legacy endures today. It festers like an open sore in the form of the so-called “Rebel Flag”. Ironically, despite the tragedy of the conflict and America’s involvement in slavery, we find ourselves in the odd position of realizing that the modern connotations that this banner holds do not lie in the events of 150 years 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, President 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 at the federal level 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, which 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 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 Democrats 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 any 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, thus 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 post World War II era, the defiance continued in the form of Jim Crow laws designed to keep black citizens as close to their station prior to the 13th Amendment as possible. Is it any wonder that the Confederate flag can still illicit such a visceral reaction to all who see it? The flag was born of insurrection and defiance and has been reincarnated as a symbol of the way many in the South still dream that life should still be. A “whites-only” world, where there is nothing wrong with separate water fountains and segregated lunch counters. Simply measures to keep those who used to be the help from getting the wrong idea that they may be equal in the eyes of man and God. Tara remains undimmed in their world. It can therefore be no wonder that Dylann Roof had those 13 stars in his eyes when he walked into the Emmanuel AME Church, sat through an entire Bible study…and killed those in attendance anyway.
These are the ghosts of Appomattox. The spirits that haunt us today should have been laid to rest many years ago; their weapons, uniforms and flags sealed in storage trunks, museums and the history books. To those who say the outrage against the ANV flag 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 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 a flag that died on a spring morning in a Virginia courthouse, 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 banner after all and have it be something positive and life affirming instead of divisive.