As a first-generation American, I can say without reservation that I support the right to fly the Confederate flag and feel it deserves to be flown.
The flag itself has gone from being simply controversial in recent months, to being viewed as outright offensive by a growing segment of the population with the resulting backlash triggering its removal from public display.
Worse, with easy victories by advocates seeking the flag’s withdrawal, a wider campaign to divest the nation of its 175 year old Civil War legacy has bloomed to include attacks on monuments to Confederate war dead and even graves of controversial wartime leaders.
The impetus for this? A disturbed youth who latched onto a banner and used it to fit his warped sense of self, holding it as a perceived icon of his own ideology that justified mass murder of people he had never before met.
As the accused awaits trial by a jury of his peers in line with our tradition of due process, the historic flag he revered has been found guilty in the court of public opinion and its punishment ordered meted out as deemed appropriate by those seeking change.
However, I think there are some things about the Civil War that should be addressed at this point in my argument.
Neither side was what it seemed
Many have the notion that the flag and the conflict that spawned it was cut and dried with a racist Confederate Army on one side and the shining instrument of democracy, the Grand Army of the Republic, on the other in the worst war the country has ever fought in terms of lives lost.
However, it was much more complex than that.
Historians show that the vast majority of soldiers in the Confederate military were from agricultural backgrounds and did not own slaves. Rather than being a drawling force of waxed mustached plantation owners, the common Johnny Reb often marched to war without a good pair of boots. Further, the Southern army included Jews, blacks and Native Americans – one of whom was the last Confederate general to surrender.
Speaking of slave owners, the top generals on each side at one point owned human beings but notably freed them before President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Union Gen. Ulysses Grant freed his slaves just before the war while Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee did the same in 1862.
The Union Army likewise, was not beyond reproach when it came to issues of race inequality.
While the 179,000 black men in Army blue made up 10 percent of the Army, they were segregated into a separate corps termed (I’m not making this up) the U.S. Colored Troops and, as only 80 were eventually commissioned as officers, were led almost exclusively by white men with little to no officer training. Although suffering terrible losses, including 40,000 casualties, only 25 of the 1522 Medals of Honor authorized during that conflict were presented to black soldiers and sailors.
While at least 50 Chinese expatriates fought in the U.S. military (and a smaller amount under the Dixie flag) and Congress in 1862 promised citizenship to any foreigner who completed their term of service, the Asians who went to the colors were ultimately denied that right at the end of the war.
Atrocities with racial undertones that today would be considered war crimes were committed under both the U.S. and Rebel flags during the war.
Confederate Maj. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest in April 1864 seized Fort Pillow above Memphis, Tennessee, and, in what lives on in infamy as the Fort Pillow Massacre, left dead some 300 U.S. troops, mostly black soldiers who reportedly were killed after they surrendered.
That same year in Colorado Territory, a 675-man force of blue-coated cavalry raised for the war from local volunteers descended on a peaceful group of Cheyenne and Arapaho camped along Sand Creek. The chiefs had been instructed to fly the U.S. flag in their camp as a sign of friendship and protection, but on that day, it did little good.
Led by Union Colonel John Chivington, who amazingly was an abolitionist minister from Ohio, the cavalrymen massacred as many as 200 Native Americans, mainly women and children, and then paraded their scalps through downtown Denver despite both a U.S. ensign and a white flag being flown from the chief’s teepee.
After the war, Forrest went on to have a part in founding the Ku Klux Klan while Chivington, resigning from the Army, similarly evaded justice and worked as a deputy sheriff, even though an Army judge advocate general called the massacre at Sand Creek “a cowardly and cold-blooded slaughter, sufficient to cover its perpetrators with indelible infamy, and the face of every American with shame and indignation.”
Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky once said that the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons. Based on that, Civil War era society in both the North and South was a failure as both sides ran horrible prison camps for captured soldiers that rivaled the worst seen in military history.
At the Confederate-run POW camp in Andersonville, Georgia a staggering 13,000 Union soldiers died in just 14 months, largely from starvation.
In the North, the U.S. Army prisoner of war camp in Elmira, New York, termed by those who served time there as “Hellmira,” saw fully one quarter of its Confederate inhabitants buried in mass graves while another 5,000 gray coats were laid to rest at Camp Douglas outside of Chicago.
To dispel another myth, contrary to what some believe, being born in the North or South did not translate into automatically fighting for the North or South.
On each side, it was a matter of personal choice under which banner to cast their lot. Many notable military leaders made decisions to fight against their home states. For instance, Gen. Winfield Scott, commander of the U.S. Army at the start of the war and the architect of the “Anaconda Plan” which ultimately strangled the life out of the Confederacy, was from Virginia while the commander of the “Gibraltar of the South,” the southern stronghold of Vicksburg, was a Pennsylvanian by the name of Lt. Gen John C. Pemberton.
One thing is sure, though, as soon as the war ended each side decided to move on as a united country in their own way.
Burying the hatchet
You would think that a gruesome civil war in which an estimated 2 percent of the country’s population were killed and a half million men were left bearing wounds survived through primitive battlefield medicine would leave some deep national scars. The kind of scars that would leave each side angry for generations.
In other wars in history that left brutal generational gashes, such as in the Anglo-Irish conflicts or in the dissolution of Poland by European powers, guerrilla campaigns by underground insurgents simmered for centuries with an ongoing cyclical cycle of vendetta and violence.
But that’s not the American way.
The same generation that fought the Civil War mended their own fences. President Lincoln before he was assassinated implemented polices to parole and pardon Confederate prisoners who signed an oath.
While there were some war crimes trials, for instance in the case of the Andersonville camp commandant, by and large the Confederate government and military got a mulligan in 1865.
In the last line of the surrender document signed by Grant and Lee at Appomattox, the Union general wrote, “each officer and man will be allowed to return to their homes, not to be disturbed by the United States authority so long as they observe their paroles and the laws in force where they may reside.”
Moreover, they did and, in 1868, a general amnesty was signed that included even those rebels who did not take the wartime oath.
In short, each side stopped being a Yankee or a Rebel and just went back to being an American. This included inviting former enemies back into the fold.
Confederate Lt. Gen. James Longstreet went on to become an ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, a U.S. Marshal and even led African-American militia troops in 1874 Louisiana against a crowd of armed whites protesting voting irregularities.
Swashbuckling rebel cavalry commander Wade Hamilton, whose troops often burned enemy trains and bridges during the war, served as United States Railroad Commissioner in the 1890s under President Grover Cleveland, a prominent Northern Democrat.
By 1898 at least four former Confederate generals: Joseph Wheeler, Matthew Butler, Fitzhugh Lee and Thomas Rosser, were serving their country once more as generals in the U.S. military during the Spanish American War.
This led to a greater reconciliation in Washington as President McKinley, himself a Civil War veteran, said, “[E]very soldier’s grave made during our unfortunate civil war is a tribute to American valor,” as he urged Congress to move to protect the war graves and monuments of both sides in the conflict.
In turn, starting in 1901 and continuing through 1958, a series of public laws were passed by Congress authorizing Confederate war graves to be treated as any other veteran’s would be, in effect, making the body of a Tennessee volunteer killed at Shiloh as protected as that of a serviceman’s remains coming home today from an overseas hotspot.
This opened Confederate veterans as well as their widows and in some cases children to VA pensions, one of which was still being paid as late as 2013.
Even as the generation that fought the war faded to oblivion, the legacy of both the blue and the gray lives on in U.S. martial culture.
While some argue that the rebel battle flag was never used by American troops in combat after 1865, Confederate references and iconography are a thread woven tightly through the U.S. military.
In World War II, U.S. tankers took on the Germans and Japanese from inside a series of tanks named after Union Gens. Sherman (the M4) and Grant (M3) as well as Confederate Gens. Lee (M3) and Stuart (M5). In that war the predominantly black 761st Tank Battalion, still segregated by law, ironically trained on the Stuart before heading overseas where they took on the Germans yet was not recognized with a Presidential Unit Citation until 1978.
No less than 10 current Army bases, including the largest in the Western world, are named after Confederate officers and the Pentagon has ruled out changing that any time soon.
Many of the nation’s best officer factories maintain U.S. colors that bear battle streamers won during the Civil War when the schools’ cadets picked up arms as part of the Confederate army in a pinch.
This includes the Virginia Military Institute, who minted no less a military mind as Gen. George C. Marshall, the top American general in World War II and architect of the “Marshall Plan” that put Europe back on its feet. VMI’s national ensign today carries the Army-authorized streamer for the Battle of New Market where the cadets helped carry the day.
Florida State University’s ROTC unit, which produced Col. William Woods, the senior most U.S. service member killed in Iraq, likewise carries a streamer for its participation with the Confederate forces at the Battle of Natural Bridge.
Many combat units carry references to their past service under the Confederate battle flag as a part of their distinctive unit insignia.
For example, the insignia of the 1st Battalion, 155th Infantry Regiment, which dates back to the 18th century, includes references to its command by then-colonel and later Confederate President Jefferson Davis in the Mexican War and a gray field denoting its Civil War service. The unit carried that insignia, adopted in 1931, through World War II, in Bosnia and in Iraq in 2005–06 and again in 2009–10.
Other units keep their Civil War linage alive in ways that are more active.
In 2013, some 140 service members of the Minnesota and Alabama Army National Guards met on the Gettysburg battlefield along with the respective adjutant generals of each state. The reason was to commemorate the occasion 150 years before when volunteers from their states clashed in the pivotal battle. On the more modern meeting, they did it while wearing the same uniform.
Its not just state units that keep the Civil War, and its respective banners, in the public view.
Last year the 3rd U.S. Infantry (The Old Guard), keepers of Arlington National Cemetery, had volunteer soldiers don Confederate uniforms to participate in its Spirit of America program. The program portrays America’s soldiers from the War of Independence through today, and includes both sides of the Civil War .
It should likewise be pointed out that the Old Guard is combat capable and has deployed overseas in recent years.
The military allocates time and resources to helping preserve the history of both sides of the conflict. For example, teams of Navy divers have for months been risking life and limb to salvage a Confederate warship from Savannah harbor to prevent it from being destroyed in a dredging project.
Because that’s what we do as Americans.
We realize that the past is important and needs to be remembered so that we should never repeat horrible mistakes such as atrocities, slavery and inhumanity and keep the flame of reconciliation and goodwill alive. Because honestly, what else can we pass on to future generations other than ideals and the objects that spark discussion.
As a first-generation American born from immigrants who came (legally) to this land in the 1960s after fleeing communist oppression in Central Europe, I don’t have historical “skin in the game” on either side of the Civil War. In the spirit of disclosure, I have lived in both the North and the South as well as overseas and, while white, I am no WASP conservative, being a tragically lapsed catholic with libertarian leanings who has to spell my mother’s name phonetically to anyone not wearing a babushka.
In the end, I personally feel that it is a shameful Zeitgeist to pin the revolting murders of church worshipers on a flag that, whether you want to admit it or not, is a piece of American history which has been bought and paid for by the blood of previous generations and should be retained rather than closeted for the sake of quick and painless political correctness.
An embarrassing sideshow in feelgood politics to distract and confuse while the real story slinks further and further into convenient shadows.
By encouraging the removal of the Confederate flags and authorizing the sanitation of history, we lose a piece of what makes this country great in the respect that we no longer have a teaching point to bring up the past. Heritage not spoken about first becomes misunderstood then fades to an obscure footnote in an unread book, soon to be sold at a garage sale.
With the spirit of inclusion for all that is readily embraced, even bad old flags should have a pole to call their own.
And if you disagree with me, that’s fine too, because it’s America.
Be a rebel.
The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of Guns.com.