My Thoughts on the Confederate Flag

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!

About stewardthenderson

Civil War historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park and living historian with the 23rd Regiment USCT and 54th Massachusetts Infantry Co. B. I am also a member of the Trail to Freedom Committee in the Fredericksburg, VA area and a member of the John J. Wright Museum in Spotsylvania, VA.
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15 Responses to My Thoughts on the Confederate Flag

  1. George Hettenhouse says:

    Excellent commentary! I support your views 100%. As a country we need to move on as a united nation. …..George

  2. The subject is broader than the Confederate flag. I agree with what Stewart Henderson wrote, but the nation needs to have a conversation about the evils of slavery and admit to the world and to our own black people that slavery was the most heinous crime committed in our history, stemming in large measure from our constitution and most lofty institutions, e.g. our church denominations. My sense is that Henderson is inferring such, but limiting his purview to Civil War battlefields for the most part, which are his beat.

  3. Agree on most fronts, very strong post.
    I’m a white man, but my wife is African American. My whole life, I could see that rebel flag and not even blink. She says when she sees it, she gets a real ominous chill down her spine, a sense of impending violence. If I was married to someone else, I would have a very different viewpoint on this, as I used to hang the flag up every once in a while for what I thought were harmless reasons (a backyard football game with my college friends up in Pennsylvania — we divided up into “north and south” and we “Southrons” brought out our “team banner.”)

    I wouldn’t do that today — keep the flag on memorials and museums, but I personally would consider it insensitive and a breach of good manners for me to fly it.

    But I have a hard time telling another man the same thing. When I see it flying in odd places, like rural Michigan or upstate NY, I think it’s likely to be out of racism, but more likely just a “middle finger” aimed at society, wealthy elites, cities, etc. Just another way of saying “screw New York.”

    When I see it during my frequent trips to the Shenandoah Valley, I’ve had people look me in the eye and tell me it’s a statement of defiance against the government that sent Phil Sheridan to destroy everything they had, even though they wanted no part of the war to begin with.

    The good news is America has always had a genius for change. We go overboard usually (the CW itself being the biggest example of that), but we are getting better and better on most fronts. I’ve seen really vicious, personal racism in almost every country I’ve visited, from Europe to Brazil. And tragically, there is still mass scale human slavery going on. Considering how different our 300 million people are in so many ways, we’re doing okay.

  4. Ronald Lawrence says:

    I disagree totally. The removal of the flag has nothing to do with hate and everything to do with politics and the effort to divide Americans. Does anyone think that if the flag is removed to battlefields and museums that will end the call for further removal? The haters want Gone WithThe Wind removed. Apple had remove strategy games with the flag showing. How long till there are those that want the Confederate graveyards plowed under and The Museum of the Confederacy torn down. If this is allowed to continue the South (if we are allowed to still call it that) will undergo a second Reconstruction where all our history is removed and anyone born today will have no idea that there was a Civil War. Our response should be to the haters that when all items glorifying Che Guevara, Stalin, Mao, the CCCP, the swastika and the SS are gone, we will think about moving the battle flags.

    How long till Ancestry.com is forced to remove all information about southern veterans so that the Sons of Confederate Veterans will dwindle and die?

    • Ralph Siegel says:

      Your reaction is excessive. Perhaps your forecast will be correct, but not yet. The question at hand is whether state and government agencies should exhibit — and therefore tacitly legitimize — the 13-star Confederate battle flag on their grounds or on their license plates. Clearly they are free to choose to say “NO.” But such government decisions in South Carolina or anywhere else have no bearing at all on private display or on museum, cemetery or battlefield display. However, as noted by the columnist, perhaps the Stars and Bars would be a better choice for battlefield display because it represents the Confederate government more accurately and because it was not adopted in the 20th Century as a symbol of segregation and racial hatred.

      • Steve says:

        I would dissent in the aspect that the flag under the current dispute is flying on a war memorial, and it is the state’s role to maintain appropriate memorials to the soldiers who defended it. The ANV flag is a soldier’s flag and therefore an appropriate choice, but perhaps the Stars & Bars would be a less disputatious one, as Mr. Henderson suggests. I have a feeling that even that choice will eventually cause controversy, however. The Confederate Cleansing seems to be spiraling out of control.

        Really appreciate Mr. Henderson’s efforts to be accurate and truthful in his teaching of our history. We do live in the greatest country ever.

    • Using the slippery slope to argue a slippery slope.

  5. Rob Orrison says:

    I have no problem with taking the flag down on public buildings and such. But removing stain glass windows from the National Cathedral, stop selling it at Natl Parks, Amazon and Ebay pulling it and anything with it on the front (like books! – true story) and all the other over the top craziness is not called for.

    As for a national conversation on slavery…I think we have done that and are doing that. No one today was alive when slavery existed and if you think slavery was an American invention or American only system, you are wrong. It was world wide and still exists in areas today. The best way to deal with slavery is to work hard TODAY to end it where it exists. Learn from the past…don’t dwell on it.

    Lastly…how a lone crazy kid killing 9 innocent people has led to this over defamation of a Civil War flag is beyond me. If there was no Confederate battle flag..these terrible massacres would still take place.

    • Will Hickox says:

      “Lastly…how a lone crazy kid killing 9 innocent people has led to this over defamation of a Civil War flag is beyond me. If there was no Confederate battle flag..these terrible massacres would still take place.”

      I think it’s pretty clear that it stems from the fact that the flag features prominently in the killer’s online presence and photos–that and the truly bizarre custom of flying it at the statehouse.

  6. Graham says:

    Unfortunately the ban is affecting games simulating Civil War Battles. Apple has demanded that the games makers remove the Confederate flag and replace it, or else. This article has the details:

    http://toucharcade.com/2015/06/25/apple-removes-confederate-flag/

    • Ralph Siegel says:

      The word “ban” is inappropriate — and it is getting tossed around quite loosely in many venues. No one has “banned” anything. Some government agencies are choosing to remove the flag from their jurisdictions and artifacts. Citizens are unaffected. Their 1st Amendment rights are secure. The US is not going to become Germany or France, where the display of prohibited symbols is a crime. Walmart, Amazon and Apple have not “banned” the Confederate flag. They have removed it from their shelves, so to speak, as is their right. It’s their store. The 1st Amendment does not protect your right to buy anything you want at a store or demand that every private business exhibit products you consider desirable. What if I were to search the country far and wide for a nice Nazi flag? (Internet doesn’t count.) I will likely never find one for sale. Yet my 1st Amendment rights remain intact. No one has “banned” the Nazi flag in the US. It is just that everyone has chosen to NOT display it or to sell it.

  7. Like I said, Americans go overboard.

    The weird irony is that the larger corporations get, the more cowardly they behave. So Apple, Ebay and Amazon will be terrified by a relatively small number of militant leftists whose hobby seems to be organizing a new Twitter mob every week, directed at whatever the new trendy outrage is.

    Of course, this will serve as just a stick in the eye to people who otherwise agree that the flag should not be flown on official government property. So CW enthusiasts, collectors of old currency/stamps etc, and gamers get drawn in to this and say “wait, what the heck are you idiots doing? You’re just going to purge a historical flag from our whole collective memory?” And then, people on both sides just want to draw a line that can’t be crossed, because they know the other side will go too far.

    With any hope, the majority will come to their senses and move on, with harmless video games and memorabilia free to be traded and enjoyed.

    And yes, it is more than a little hypocritical for these same corporations to sell communist imagery (even if it’s supposed to be ironic or “kitchy”) considering the tens of millions dead, and the countless Americans who are here in this country right now after fleeing brutal commie regimes.

  8. I am glad that we have this dialogue on the Confederate flag. I want the flag to remain in the history of the Civil War, as it should always be used in the context that it was in the actual war. I do not believe that it should be removed from Civil War games, toys and museums. We should not try to make our history politically correct for our present time. Civil War history should be studied and remembered for its own time period.

    As for me, I have supported the Museum of the Confederacy for years – both in Richmond and in Appomattox. My regiments, the 23rd USCT and the 54th Massachusetts Co. B, participated in the grand opening of the Museum of the Confederacy in Appomattox, as the honor guard for General Grant. I also gave a presentation on the United States Colored Troops at the Museum of the Confederacy in Appomattox. I believe that it is a fine museum and now that it is merged with the American Civil War Center, it will continue to be in existence.

    I also support the African American Civil War Monument and Museum. I have participated in living history events, reenactments, and given presentations in several National Park Service Civil War battlefields and sites, as well as state and county Civil War sites. I have also given presentations for several Civil War and history groups, which have members whose ancestors served on both sides in the Civil War.

    I mention these facts to show that I try to be objective in my speaking of the history of the Civil War. I love Civil War history and I honor and respect both armies! We should remember what our ancestors did in the war and the politics and culture surrounding the war!

    As for the Confederate Battle flag, I grew up in an era, when it was used to promote hate by groups in this country who did not want civil rights for African Americans. So, I experienced this history, it was people in this country that tarnished the remembrance of that flag. I can separate the two different views – heritage or hate -of the battle flag, but there are many people who cannot.

    Again, I am happy for the dialogue but I would hope that everyone remembers that the flag was a symbol of Southern heritage in the Civil War, but became a symbol of hate during the 1950s and 60s. Even so, the flag must remain in the context of Civil War history, and in games, toys, and museums depicting Civil War history!

  9. ncatty says:

    I do not try to offend people if I can help it. If you have any black friends, or even acquaintances, would you invite them over to your house and fly the battle flag on your front porch? Of course not. It is a matter of common courtesy. Courtesy is a lesser form of love.

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