The current calls for the removal of the Confederate battle flag and subsequently all Confederate flags from public state buildings and even tags is long overdue. The battle flag was used in a war that the Confederacy lost—a war that almost destroyed this country.
However, these flags should not be removed from Civil War battlefields and museums. In this country, we no longer want to teach history, and we want to always try to be politically correct, thus we will be doomed to repeat our problems unless we can look at our history in context.
The Confederate battle flag has been a problem to many for decades and should have been dealt with years ago. However, many Southerners have stated that it was displayed in remembrance of their heritage. This flag has also been used by some Americans—Northerners as well as Southerners—to rebel against the Federal government’s policies.
I always thought the actual “Stars and Bars,” the first national flag, was the flag that maybe should have instead been used for remembering heritage. The battle flag is not the “Stars and Bars” flag, although it is often referred as such, and was used in Civil War battles.
In the 20th century, the battle flag was used as a symbol of hate. It had been tarnished by the fact that it was used by white hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan. More importantly, it was brought back by the Southern states in opposition to the civil rights movement, when blacks were fighting for the rights attained by virtue of the Union victory in the Civil War and the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, ratified after the war was over, guaranteeing those rights.
That flag is still used in the North as well as the South by people who are intolerant of diversity and equal rights in this country. So, to African Americans, Hispanics, Jews, and others, the battle flag represents white supremacy and hate.
As a Civil War historian, I think all of the Confederate flags—the first national flag, second national, third national, and yes, the battle flag—must be represented in all of the American Civil War battlefields in museums. The Civil War was fought between the United States and the Confederacy, and we must educate our countrymen and the world about the actual history of the war—not in political correctness.
If all of the Civil War documents are read from before the Civil War until 1865, you will learn the true reasons of the war. If not for slavery, the Civil War would not have been fought.
The National Park Service and the various sesquicentennial organizations held hundreds of events in this country over the past six years, exploring this in depth, going into details about the events leading up to the war, the politics, and the cultures of the opposing sides. There were also plenty of battle reenactments.
The flags of the Confederacy are symbols that defended slavery. The actual soldiers may have had a variety of reasons why they fought the war, but the Confederacy fought for the right to maintain and expand slavery. There were many Union soldiers who believed in slavery, as well, so it was not just Southerners who wanted slavery.
I give tours and presentations on the Civil War often, and I talk about the bravery of soldiers—both Union and Confederate. I have to be objective and give both armies their due on and off of the battlefields. I admire the qualities of many soldiers—both Northern and Southern—and there are some that I do not admire in either army. However, I try with the utmost of my ability and knowledge, to tell the true story of all involved in that war. So, in the context of the Civil War, I can honestly see why people respect the symbols of the Confederacy.
However, it has to remain in the context of the war and not now.
Finally, I will recount a conversation with a German visitor that I spoke with on the Chancellorsville Battlefield one day after my “Stonewall Jackson Wounding tour.” He asked me why Americans still fly the Confederate battle flag after the war was lost. “In Germany, we cannot fly the Nazi flag,” he said.
I explained that during the surrenders of the Confederate armies, President Abraham Lincoln wanted surrenders that would welcome back fellow Americans to the country. He wanted the soldiers and people to reconcile the differences between the two halves of the country. After some time, led by the Civil War veterans, a period of reconciliation took place.
Around then, the former Confederate soldiers first told their stories of the war, which were then and now grouped into what is called “the Lost Cause.” They talked about how they overcame so many obstacles to fight so long and valiantly. As part of that, many Southerners wanted to honor their heritage and the country allowed it. Therefore, the flags were flown here.
I did not bring up to him that the other reason: there is still some racism in this country, and many still fly the flag because they do not want equality.
I did not give that explanation because the overwhelming number of Americans have worked hard to make this country a land of freedom, regardless of race! To me, this country is still the best country in the world. Still, we can do better by having honest discussions with each other—but every day, we try and get to be better!