I have been asked several times in the past few days what I thought of the controversy swirling around the Battle Flag of the defunct Confederate States of America. Many of the people who asked know I am a history buff. Some others know that I have been involved with living history performances for the National Park Service for a couple of decades.
That activity has brought me into contact with very fine historians who view the red battle flag as a footnote to history. I have also met some people who would bleed for that flag today.
I do not say that lightly. Some years ago several other historical interpreters were in Union uniforms at South Mountain, Maryland. Maryland was a border state and was kept in the Union during the Civil War. We were, therefore, surprised when a pick-up truck roared by us and a man leaned out waving the rebel banner and yelling at us “Yankee go home.”
For those men, and many others, the battle flag is far more than just an emblem of lost cause. It has taken on a life of its own. It is not the first flag to do so. The modern flag of Germany is a resurrection of the flag flown in 1848 during a rising of the workers. It failed but the romantic image it created lived on to be reborn.
On a darker side is the flag of Nazi Germany. The red flag with the twisted cross is highly sought after by collectors. Go to any military show and you find at least one if not more Nazi banners on sale. For most of the collectors the Nazi flag is an historical curiosity, just like the battle flag.
It is when the flag is raised outside of an historical context that problems develop. When the banner takes on new meaning it raises old images.
Flags stir different emotions. To citizens of the British Isles, the Union Jack is symbol of unity. However to Irish patriots, it is often called the “butcher’s apron” because of the atrocities perpetrated on the Irish people in the name of that flag. To almost half of the population of Scotland, the Union Jack is a symbol of a forced marriage.
Our own nation banner is a source of pride to us but a symbol of neo-imperialism to certain factions around the globe.
I have heard many times people clad in a gray uniform tell me that the flag is about heritage, not hate. It is a distorted heritage seen through a skewed prism. The old south was not filled with cavaliers and contented mammies. It was not “Gone With The Wind.” Nor was it “Birth of a Nation.” Both were contrived images that gave the “lost cause” a luster that fails in the face of historical scrutiny. The rebellion, for that is what is was, followed a misguided course that was destined to fail. It proved impossible to have a strong central government in a confederacy based on states rights. An economic system based on subdued human labor was also doomed to fail with the onset of the industrial revolution.
The battle flag is a banner dedicated to an antiquated system that failed. Its’ closest modern counterpart would be the flag of the old Soviet Union. It too was based on system that could not sustain itself.
I do not argue that the northern states were any sort of paradise. Far from it. The mills and mines were a virtual hell with one major difference. The system offered upward mobility for all of its citizens.
There is a wave sweeping the country to ban the battle flag from public buildings. No one in this debate has suggested the flag be purged from private property.
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley ordered four Confederate banners be taken down from a large monument to secessionist soldiers outside that state’s capitol.
In South Carolina, the birthplace of the rebellion, Gov. Nikki Haley called for the removal of the flag to a museum from its current spot in front of the capitol.
In Mississippi there is a move to redesign that state’s flag which bears the battle flag prominently.
Perhaps more telling is that major retailers -- including Amazon, Walmart, eBay and Sears have banned all items with the Confederate flag on them from their shelves.
In St. Augustine, Florida, the oldest city in the United States, they fly five flags: Two for the Spanish empire, one for the British empire, the real national flag of the Confederacy, the Stars and Bars but above all of the others, flies the flag of United States of America.
That is as it should be because that flag does not disenfranchise any of its citizens. It is the one banner that matters most. All others belong to history.