This week, ECW historians are offering their thoughts and reactions to recent events related to Confederate memory. First up: Bert Dunkerly
While many historians saw the April event at Appomattox as the end of the Civil War Sesquicentennial, and quietly wondered among ourselves what the future held for Civil War interpretation, we were confident it was past us, and public interest in and discussion of all things Civil War would cease.
How wrong we were.
Two months after Appomattox’s 150th event, the shootings in Charleston propelled the Confederate flag, and issues of race, remembrance, and the Civil War, to the forefront in this country.
As many historians have noted, and much of the public acknowledged, there is no single ‘Confederate flag’ that we can point to as evil and banish forever. During the war, the Confederate government used three different national flags, and its armies used a variety of banners: the Hardee Pattern, the Polk Pattern, Van Dorn Pattern, Army of Tennessee Pattern and Army of Northern Virginia Pattern. This last version, the square battle flag, is the one commonly called ‘the’ Confederate flag. It was square, and the rectangular pattern similar to it was used by the Confederate naval forces.
In the one hundred and fifty years since the war, Confederate flags have seen a variety of uses. The flag was used by veteran groups like the United Confederate Veterans, and later, by descendant groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans and United Daughters of the Confederacy.
In the twentieth century, the battle flag gained popularity, and it was used in its rectangular version to fit the size and dimensions of most flags. It became a pop culture symbol, used by groups for protests, and of course, by racist groups. Like any symbol, it had different meanings depending on the views of the user, and it could have different meanings to those observing.
When the war ended, the nation gradually moved toward reunification. As Union and Confederate veterans held reunions, they came to recognize their shared experiences as soldiers: hunger, long marches, battle, etc. Gradually, but not always smoothly, the causes of the war and the issues that divided them became buried under the nostalgia of a shared experience.
Reunification came at a cost, however, and the cost was civil rights for African Americans. There are few examples in the world of defeated peoples having the ability to hold reunions, rallies, and parades; place monuments; and build museums to their cause. Yet this happened all across the American South in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Relegated to second-class citizens, African Americans were largely denied the right to vote or hold office. They came to develop their own separate communities as segregation became firmly entranced. With the white population dominating the political and economic landscape of the South, Confederate flags and monuments dotted the landscapes and it was not an issue.
The idea of a unified South was perhaps strongest in the early to mid-twentieth century. Yet society evolved—as it inevitably does—in the twentieth century. Republicans gradually shifted to become more conservative, and the Democratic Party took up the causes of civil rights issues.
Demographics shifted tremendously. The lower-populated South boomed in the 1970s and 80s, attracting northerners and northern industry. The Southwest also grew in population, and its economy boomed. Transplants mixed with natives in those early decades. Now, forty years later, there are second and third generation southerners who don’t have deep roots in the south.
Mainstream American society has generally become more liberal, more diverse, and more tolerant. Those who hold fast to the Confederacy are now in a minority, more than they have ever been.
The complexities are numerous. Simplifying the flag to represent only slavery or racism is superficial, just as it is to state that the Union army fought for freedom. Simplifying the argument to equate the Confederate flag with racism ignores the racism of the north, which is glossed over and forgotten, not only in American history at large, but specifically when dealing with the Civil War era. Abolitionism was a minority in the north, and the armies the North raised were composed of many who cared little for the black people they encountered.
Some African Americans fought for the Confederacy, and quite willingly. Many Southerners fought to simply defend their homes. Not all Northerners had an interest in freeing slaves.
Soldiers fight for numerous reasons, and to simplify them does an injustice to both their service and our current understanding of these issues.
Perspective is crucial: do we know what the intention is when we see a flag? Does the observer assume things that the displayer does not intend? How a symbol is seen may not be how it is intended.
This brings up the issue of the Confederacy itself. Many Southerners openly fought for slavery, many did not. Yet, at the end of the day, everyone who supported the Confederacy supported a system that included slavery. Is it possible to honor Confederates and at the same time acknowledge the connection with slavery?
Great passions are triggered when these issues come up. In acknowledging the ties to slavery and racism, we are not trying to demonize the ancestors of Confederate descendants. They were products of their time (and again, it is important to acknowledge that racism was just as strong in the north).
Violence and protests have propelled these issues, and social media has made them more visible and divisive than had this taken place, say, ten years ago.
Perhaps, more than any other event, the issues of slavery, race, the Civil War, civil rights, all intertwined, represent the most complex, divisive, brutally ugly, and imminently fascinating aspects of American history. Hopefully we can debate with respect, and acknowledge, learn, and advance greater understanding.