Friday, June 26, 2015

The First Confederate Flag Memorialized at Gettysburg

On July 3rd, 1887, twenty-four years after the battle, the first Confederate flag appeared on a monument on the Gettysburg battlefield. Erected at the Angle at the very center of the Union battle line, it honors the Army of the Potomac's First New York Independent Battery. The Confederate flag appears in a bas relief depiction of the climax of Pickett's Charge on July 3rd, 1863. Delivering the dedication speech, Congressman Sereno E. Payne reflected on the rebel flag:
Alas, the scars remain; and there is much that, although forgiven mayhaps, cannot be forgotten. And yet, pressing forward to the things that are before, let us endeavor to forget the things that are behind. Better that the captured emblems of that memorable struggle be hidden away, until the slow tooth of Time shall have eaten away the last shred, than that they be brought into the light of day, to awaken dying enthusiasm of other days, or to enkindle old animosities. Let our anger slumber with these embattled flags. One bright, glorious, significant flag--the Stars and Stripes--is enough for us. Its thirteen stripes, reminding us of the throes of the Revolution, its thirty-eight stars not one lost or clouded or dim, all set in the field of Union blue....
I find myself reflecting on the Confederate flag today. The media attention surrounding it has reached a frenzied pitch following the tragic, racially motivated terrorist attack at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston last week. Political leaders in South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, and Virginia, have acted to remove the 150-year-old symbol from statehouses and license plates. Retailers such as Walmart and Amazon have announced that they will no longer sell Confedeate flag merchandise.This all seems like positive progress to me. Yet I was reminded last night of how far we have to go.

While perusing Facebook, I came across an announcement from Gettysburg National Military Park. The announcement read, in full:
The bookstore at Gettysburg National Military Park's Museum & Visitor Center will continue to sell a wide variety of items that feature both the U.S. and Confederate flags, as well books, DVDs, and other educational and interpretive media where the image of the Confederate flag is depicted in its historical context. However, effective today, the bookstore will no longer sell stand-alone items that solely feature the Confederate flag, including display and wearable items. This only affects 11 out of 2,600 items carried in the bookstore. No other changes will take place on the battlefield: this includes monuments and wayside exhibit panels. In addition, all ranger-led interpretive programs and all living history programs and demonstrations will continue as normal. We remain committed to providing the public with the same historically accurate and authentic programming that you have come to expect. Please visit our website for more information.
An appropriate response I felt, and a reasoned and carefully worded statement to explain the response, designed apparently to offend no one. And yet... it did. At last check, this post had drawn over 2,000 likes, 1600 shares, and 1600 comments. And the comments.... oh the comments. If you want to see how far some individuals will go to stretch, twist, and invent "history" to fit their own world view, it's worth a read. If you don't want to be appalled or angered by ignorance and racism, I would skip it.

Let's be clear. The Confederate flag from its very beginnings was a symbol entangled with slavery and white supremacy. Modern white supremacy groups have not "twisted" the meaning of the flag. Ta-Nehisi Coates summed this up best in a recent Atlantic article. If you want to know about the causes of the Civil War, each Southern State did us all a favor by explaining very clearly in their ordinances of secession in 1861. The State of Mississippi perhaps offered the most direct explanation in A Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union:
Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.
History can be personal and difficult, and I understand why individuals get upset and defensive over the legacy of their ancestors. I trace my own lineage back to the earliest Dutch settlers of New York's Hudson Valley. These ancestors owned slaves.

I believe that for those who become fascinated with history, the initial appeal is one of simplicity and nostalgia. I am certain that such feelings drew me into the study of the Civil War as a freshman in high school. We live in an incredibly complex society, and, on the surface, the past appears to be a simpler time. We are drawn to ancestral stories of glory and honor, and to periods where we can clearly define right and wrong, good and bad.

Yet the true past was just as complex a world as ours, and real history is not hero worship. The Confederacy fought for slavery, yet in its struggle against the United States, it did not have a monopoly on racism. Many in the North did not support the cause of Emancipation, and Abraham Lincoln himself clung to impractical schemes for the colonization of freed slaves during the early years of the war. Real history seeks neither to elevate or denigrate individuals, causes or movements of the past. It seeks to understand them, to place them within proper context. At its best, history can help us use the past to understand our own modern world.

Congressman Payne wanted to banish the Confederate flag from our memory. We can't do that, and we shouldn't. The flag reminds us of our nation's challenging legacy on race - and of a war that cost the lives of 750,000 Americans. It should be studied, and understood for what it represented, and continues to represent. Places like the Gettysburg battlefield, and the wonderful museum at its Visitor Center, are appropriate places to display and study these symbols. State House grounds and government-issued license plates are not.

I am sure that some will mourn the loss of their ability to purchase a Confederate Flag shot glass at Gettysburg National Military Park bookstore. I will not.

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