Let’s Talk About the Confederate Flag

Seems to me that if anything is going to get me writing again it would almost have to be a controversy over the Confederate flag. I am, after all, something of a student of the period in American history that gave us that particular bit of cloth. Now that the flag has, once again, made its way to the top of the American Outrage of the Week stack we’ve been forced to endure the usual round of apologists and obfuscations and willful misunderstandings that surround the flag’s continued place in American life.

For those who don’t know, a white guy with a serious fetish for segregationist and white supremacist groups murdered nine black people in one of the most important historically black churches in America after saying he wanted to kill black people and start a new race war last week. This led the good folks over at Fox News to start asking serious questions that their demographic tends to avoid, like, “Why would he have done this?” and, “Was he trying to kill Christians? You know that in America it’s not safe to be a Christian right now, right?” It also caused at least one CNN anchor to call the shooting unprecedented and shocking. This is why I don’t watch television news.[1]

Before I go any further there’s one point I would like to make: mass shootings are no longer unprecedented in America. We seem to get a new one every week. As completely not unprecedented as mass shootings are now, however, the other half of this story is so disturbingly commonplace that it even makes the mass shooting angle still feel a little shocking. I speak of white on black violence. America has a long and sordid history of outright violence perpetrated on black people by white people. There’s slavery, of course, but even a cursory study of American history in the century and a half since Appomattox offers up uncountable instances of white on black violence. It’s where we got the Ku Klux Klan, America’s own home-grown terrorist organization, after all. It’s why Eisenhower had to call out the 101st Airborne to trump George Wallace calling out the Alabama National Guard when trying to integrate the schools of Alabama. It’s why the term “lynching” shouldn’t just be casually tossed around in polite conversation. It’s why my two least-favorite Americans are Rutherford B Hayes and Nathan Bedford Forrest.

It’s also why the Confederate flag is, and should be, a centerpiece of the conversation following the Charleston shooting. The flag that ignited so much passion wasn’t flying over the statehouse capitol in April of 1861 when the Confederate States of America officially started the shooting part of the Civil War by opening fire on Fort Sumter. The flag that’s ignited so much passion didn’t exist then. The original Confederate flag looked a great deal like the United States flag, so much so that it was called “The Stars and Bars” in obvious reference to the Stars and Stripes.

The flag that’s caused so much trouble was never actually the Confederate flag. The flag that’s captured the popular imagination as “the Confederate flag” is the one painted on the roof of the General Lee in The Dukes of Hazzard: 13 white stars down the crossed bars of a blue St Andrew’s Cross on a red background. That pattern did make it to the official Confederate flag, but as the field in the upper left corner of an all-white flag (that eventually had a red stripe added because when limp the flag looked like the classic white flag of surrender and by the time the flag reached its final form things were far enough along that any solution outside of the most half-assed required way more work than anyone had the time or resources to accomplish). The flag from the General Lee was actually one of the Confederate Army’s battle flags. Pedants will tell you that makes all the difference. The pedants are wrong.[2]

Why, pray tell, is it better that a large number of Americans are currently proudly displaying the battle flag of the Confederate Army? Why would anyone think of it as a valid argument just because it’s not a political banner, but instead the banner under which an army mustered for the purpose of engaging in treasonous acts against the United States of America fought against the Army of the United States? Thirteen states broke away from the Union and for a part of the next four years killed Americans under the banner that’s now been declared okay because it was “just” the battle flag.[3]

The problem here is that America allowed the losers of the Civil War to control the narrative. Abraham Lincoln wanted, and let me pause to say this was perfectly justifiable and reasonable, the Confederacy to be folded back into the United States as painlessly as possible. He saw the two sides not as intractable enemies but squabbling siblings who needed to learn to work together. His legacy, then, was Reconstruction. Reconstruction ended far too soon and for the pettiest of reasons: the Republicans were afraid of losing the White House in the election of 1876 and made a back-room deal to make sure Rutherfraud B. Hayes got to put his butt in the high seat.[4] The cost was the end of Reconstruction. The Jim Crow era of the South soon followed.

We move forward through time. No Confederate flag, whether we are discussing a battle or political banner here matters not, flew over the capitol building in South Carolina for nearly a century. The Confederate flag, in fact, all but disappeared as a symbol. Mississippi used the battle flag as a canton on its flag from 1894 on[5] and several state flags were definitely reminiscent of Confederate paraphernalia, but even the second Ku Klux Klan, founded in 1915 and active for a decade or so until it sputtered out, didn’t touch the Stars and Bars, preferring to use a modified Templar Cross.[6]

When do we see the Confederate flag pop up again? 1956: the State of Georgia changed its official flag to include a field made up of the ol’ St Andrew’s Cross of the battle flag.[7] 1962: South Carolina raised the battle flag over the roof of the capitol building.

What was happening in the United States that could have possibly caused two of the states of the old Confederacy to suddenly start flying old Confederate flags? If you said “The Civil Rights Movement” you get a gold star.

So this is where we get to the point that everyone who makes a pedantic argument about battle flags is wrong. The battle flag may never have been an official political symbol of the South but that doesn’t matter. The people who added that symbol to the Georgia flag knew exactly what it meant in that time and that place to add that image to its state flag. The people who raised it over the capitol dome in South Carolina knew, too.

Even if the Confederate battle flag were somehow an unsullied representation of nothing but southern martial culture before 1956 the fact that it was used by racists to signal they still held the seat of power took that away. The fact that the racists chose that specific symbol, though, indicates that it wasn’t just an innocent image, sullied and tattered by assholes. Everyone knew what it meant to raise those flags half a century ago. Everyone should know what it means when they still fly today.

That doesn’t really matter, though. The Confederate battle flag is and never was an unsullied image. It was a banner designed to inspire and direct the men of an army mustered with treasonous intent against the United States of America. Men followed that flag holding rifles that they intended to use against their own brethren. Men followed that flag with the intent to kill and maim and gain the right to own other people as property.

The Confederate battle flag doesn’t belong on the grounds of any state capitol unless it’s in a museum under the words, “Never Again.”

—————————–

[1]The Littleton, Colorado school shooting happened at the tail-end of my senior year in high school. That was the last time anyone could legitimately refer to a mass shooting in America as “unprecedented” or “shocking.” Period. That was far, far from the first mass shooting in American history, but it was the event that kicked off the media circus that mass shootings would eventually become. Now it’s only a matter of details where only Sandy Hook has the ability to really match or exceed the shock of Littleton. The fact is, though, that it now seems like a mass shooting is a weekly occurrence in America and we all just go through the motions. Those motions, for the record, are pathetic. CNN shows up and we get grief pornography for a couple of news cycles. Everyone posts something on Facebook about how they’re mourning those folks in Jonesville, Pennifornia or wherever, the talking heads trot out their usual, tired lines about how everything is the fault of the idiots on the other side of the aisle and don’t they look like assholes trying to politicize this tragedy? Then we all just move on down the road to the next shooting.

[2]Pedantry is the last refuge of a scoundrel on the losing end of an argument. It’s also the first refuge of English and history majors. That makes it rather difficult to distinguish a history major from a scoundrel. My advice: lock ‘em all up.

[3]This points, I think, to a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of flags in a military setting. The flag bearer had one of the most honored and dangerous jobs in all of the army, as all of the men in the unit determined where they were and where they were supposed to be according to the position of the flag. He marched at the front with no weapon and was to keep the flag flying at all times. It was considered a form of sacrilege to allow the flag to touch the ground and if the flag bearer fell someone else had to take it up. There are countless tales from wars of soldiers seeing the flag begin to fall and grabbing it up and all write about the act as one of reverence. On the flip side the greatest prize to be taken off of a fallen enemy was their fallen flag.

The reason for this reverence is based in the realities of military combat in the time before radio and GPS: the flag told the soldiers whether they were winning or losing. If the flag bearer were to drop the flag on the ground to scratch his butt or pick up a rifle and say, “Fuck it, I’m taking some of you bastards with me,” a soldier on the end of the line might see it fall and think the center was collapsing. That, in turn, could lead to the decision to get the hell out of there while the getting was good. Then say a soldier in the next unit over saw the flag fall and soldiers start to head back towards the nearest discotheque. You’d have a rout on your hands in short order.

Here’s the dirty little secret of war: the vast majority of soldiers simply have a job to do and don’t actually want to die doing it. Most battles throughout history have turned on that moment when a soldier saw the guy next to them die, realized that he didn’t want to share that fate, and ran. All the talk throughout human history of war as a noble endeavor and soldiers as warriors upholding a grand tradition is bullshit perpetrated to convince people that it’s totally justified that they’re sending their sons and their crops and their gold to the king so the king can go kill someone else’s sons and steal their crops and gold. That’s why things like flags become important. Some farm kid from the middle of nowhere, Mississippi probably doesn’t want to kill or die. But if you take that farm kid and tell him he’s upholding a great martial tradition and tell him that god hisownself will be angry if that flag ever touches the ground there’s a chance you’ll get that farm kid to fight and kill and die and never realize it was all bullshit in the end.

That’s not to say that all wars are unjustified or that all soldiers are cowards. It’s just to say that I’ve spent most of my life studying military history from the Greeks and Romans through the Middle Ages to the Civil War and up to now and I’ve concluded that most wars are pointless wastes of life and treasure. It’s just that no one wants to hear that, least of all the people fighting those wars.

Which leads back to my original point: fuck the Confederate flag. It’s either the symbol of a treasonous would-be nation that wanted the freedom to own other humans as property or the symbol of the army that fought and died a futile war in the defense of that treasonous would-be nation. That, to me, is a distinction without difference.

Also, it royally pisses me off that the people who wave that flag are most likely to be the ones using some variation of the phrase, “We’re gonna take our country back.” Fuck them. I’m from Illinois. Not only is this my country, too, but our favorite son was President when you tried to leave and our troubled, black sheep son kicked your ass all down the Mississippi River and then went east and handed your sainted, invincible Robert E Lee his ass for the better part of 2 years. I think I have a say in whose country this actually is.

[4]Nobody holds a grudge like a historian. Rutherfraud B Hayes became President 105 years before I was born, yet my contempt for him and the jackasses who put him in office is such that I would not offer them a sack of wet farts if they were on fire.

[5]This is where we need to have a nice, long talk about Mississippi. The Mississippi state flag was only official from 1894 through 1906. Due to a procedural error the notion of an official state flag actually completely disappeared from Mississippi for a while. They finally corrected this and officially re-approved a flag that used the Confederate Battle Flag as canton in 2001. Two. Thousand. One. So from a stretch of two years before the Cubs last won the World Series until the Year of 9/11 Mississippi could have changed their flag any time but decided to stick with their unofficial secession flag. At the dawn of the 21st goddamn century they could have fixed the problem with literally anything that wasn’t a black swastika in a white circle on a red field. They could have made Learn to Fart the official state flag and gained respect for that decision. Instead they institutionalized secession. As of 2015 the official stance of a critical mass of politicians is, “Eh, fuck it. We’re keeping the damn thing.” Alabama took down its Confederate flags voluntarily. Alabama. But Mississippi is just keeping right on.

[6]There are probably pragmatic reasons behind this. The second Ku Klux Klan was more urban focused and had spread far beyond the first’s mere anti-black roots to also target Jews and Communists and unionists of the labor variety. There’s probably an interesting lesson about using hatred to hold on to economic power there, but I’ve only got so much time here…

[7]Georgia kept that abomination until 2001. In 2003 they cooked up a new flag that looks like nothing so much as…the goddamn Stars and Bars. I…words fail.

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