Confederate Heritage: Getting it Wrong on Independence Day Weekend

Flag Display-Battery

The Confederate flag display at Charleston’s Battery on Independence Day weekend. Fort Sumter sits along the waterline in the right of the photo.

I generally try to be empathetic about Confederate heritage issues, but a lot of times, hardcore neo-Confederates make it hard for me. For every reasonable voice I hear, I run into a guy like this one: a lone flag bearer standing vigil at the very point of Charleston’s Battery on Independence Day weekend, with Fort Sumter in the background. Along with the single standard in his hand that shows off the national flags of the Confederate government, in the back of his Chevy pickup, a Confederate battle flag roughly the size of an area rug flies on a fifteen-foot tall pole mounted in the bed. Playing to stereotype, the pickup has a big NASCAR #3 in the back window.

I saw the flag from farther down Murray Blvd. while I was walking the dog. The size of the flag alone caught my attention, but considering the problems in Charleston last summer, my curiosity was naturally piqued. The dog and I walked down for a better look. The dog isn’t too friendly, too, so I didn’t want to get close enough to the flag bearer to talk with him, and the stiff wind that kept his flags stretched out also made it impossible for me to even yell across the street to him. I snapped a couple pictures and decided to take the dog home and come back to ask him a few questions: Namely, what are you doing out here?

By the time I got back, though, he’d packed up his flags and gone.

So, I can only speculate why he was out there, and I might be totally off-base in my suppositions. But assuming he was out there to make a statement, what statement might he have been making? Here, I don’t want to assume. All I can speak about is the message received, not any message he might have been trying to send. There’s a distinct difference, one that a lot of heritage folks seem to miss the point about when it comes to the Confederate flag.

Here’s the message I received: On the weekend most of America is celebrating the Fourth of July, this guy is giving America a big middle finger.

Let me break that down a little more: It’s independence Day weekend. We’re in the city where the first Secession vote took place. The site of the first battle for Confederate independence hunkers in the background. This guy is flying his Confederate national flags big and bold and proud.

Defenders of Charleston-Flag Display

The “Defenders of Charleston” monument looks out from White Point Gardens toward Fort Sumter

Maybe he had an ancestor killed in the war on July 3. Maybe he’s commemorating Pickett’s Charge. Maybe he’s bitter about Independence Day because Confederate independence failed. Who knows? It’s on me that I wasn’t able to ask him myself. All I can do is sit with the troubling mix of images and context and try to make what sense of them I can. (A little subsequent internet research shows that the South Carolina Secessionist Party has been doing weekly flag displays at the Battery.)

I would ask him to consider the statue that sits across the way from him in White Point Garden—not the “Defenders of Charleston” Civil War memorial but one tucked away along the park’s central pathway: a monument to the Revolution-Era defenders of Fort Moultrie. While he’s dissing Independence, those Charlestonians thought once upon a time that it was worth fighting and dying for. Ironically, an inscription on the back of the monument says, “Don’t let us fight without our flag.”

If this guy wants to give a big “F-You” to America, he has the right. Ironically, he has that right because the Constitution protects his right to free speech, even though his Confederacy turned its back on that Constitution.

However, there’s a time and place to exercise that free speech. If you’re bitter and pissed off, then perhaps Independence Day is the right time to show your defiance—but it’s hardly the way to win friends and influence people.If you want respect, you have to show respect, too. At a time when heritage groups should be engaging people in conversation, displays like this serve only to set their overall cause back, making it look more Lost than ever.

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22 Responses to Confederate Heritage: Getting it Wrong on Independence Day Weekend

  1. Rob Orrison says:

    One – you are in Charleston, where the Confederacy was basically born and tensions are still high from the incidents of over a year ago. Two – the fact he can do that is exactly what this country is all about. Three – The fact he has a NASCAR sticker on his truck has no bearing at all, that is just a stereotype.

    Finally…what would you say about the guy who lives across the street from me, born and raised in Wales, who flew his Great Britain flag yesterday on the front of his house? I thought it was funny…but isn’t it that a “middle finger” to America too?

    Just a thought, enjoy the beautiful city of Charleston

    • As I said, it’s all about time and place, and the story about your neighbor serves as a great illustration of my point. His flag display is funny in a self-consciously ironic (and very British) sort of way, but he’s also not displaying his flag in an area where tensions are running high over recent tragic events related to that flag. A British flag flown in Scotland or Northern Ireland might not be seen as quite so cheery in the wake of the “Brexit” vote, though.

      I know the NASCAR sticker has no bearing except, as I said, that it plays to stereotype–but that, in itself, is a relevant observation. It’s unfortunate that so many of these guys become caricatures of themselves because that makes it easier for critics to dismiss them.

  2. dwightshughes says:

    At a book fair in Virginia last winter, a distinguished elderly gentleman of African descent walked by the table where I was offering my new book for sale. He saw the title, which contains the word “Confederate,” looked me right in the eye and asked, “Do you like the Confederate flag?” I wanted to engaged him in conversation about why it is a worthy historical work concerning Confederates without in any way rationalizing or justifying the cause they served. But I sensed that was not his interest, so I locked eyes with him and said simply, “No.” He gave a slight nod, and turned and walked away.

  3. Chris – I wish you could have chatted with him. Could be any of the reasons you mentioned. Could be he was manifesting his own “independence” as an ironic way of commemoration. Could be he was a nut job. But, like you, I would not assume any of these. And I would not be at all surprised if he was also a veteran.

    “it’s hardly the way to win friends and influence people.If you want respect, you have to show respect, too.”

    I agree wholeheartedly with that sentiment. Ironically, many who revere the CBF for the right reasons are its worst enemies.

    • I wish I’d had the chance to chat with him, too. That’s a failure on my part within this larger episode. If he shows up again while I’m in town, I’ll make a point to talk with him.

  4. Bob Ruth says:

    Chris:

    One thing that’s always stumped me about those who laud their so-called Southern Heritage: What was so darned great about antebellum South?

    Here are just a few conclusions I’ve drawn from reading extensively about the antebellum South:

    1) The South’s middle class was relatively small. The antebellum South consisted mainly of a tiny oligarchy of wealthy slave owners and a vast ocean of poor – and I mean dirt poor- whites.

    2) Four million slaves artificially depressed incomes for average white workers and farmers. Besides being a terribly brutal system, slavery was one of the main reasons for the antebellum South’s extreme poverty among the vast majority of whites.

    3) Because of property and income requirements for voting in many Southern states, many poor white men were not allowed to vote. The result: The interests of the average southerner were not reflected in their state governments.

    4) Public education was almost nonexistent in the antebellum South. The offspring of the wealthy were about the only ones who were educated.

    5) Almost all manufactured goods used in the South came from the North or from foreign countries. Its financial system was also weak. The South depended on Northern and foreign bankers and financiers to provide the loans necessary for its economy. Its road, railroad and
    canal infrastructure also was weak.

    6) The vast majority of the antebellum South’s economy was based on one product – cotton. This resulted in the South being over dependent on the vagaries of the worldwide cotton market. In the years prior to the Civil War, the cotton market boomed. But the South’s over-dependence on a one product made for its economy extremely fragile.

    Bottom Line:The antebellum South had a backward economic and political system controlled by a tiny but powerful oligarchy. So, why would anyone want honor antebellum Southern Heritage?

    • I suppose it’s the case with a lot of folks who long for “the good old days” without really understanding what the so-called good old days were really like. I always use the examples of antibiotics and indoor plumbing–two things that make today infinitely better than “the good old days.” That’s a somewhat extreme example, but I think it illustrates my point that folks seldom understand what they think they’re wishing for.

      I completely understand a person who’s into Southern heritage as a family thing. I understand the arguments related to big government vs. small government, too (since we still have that same argument as part of our modern political discourse). But everything goes off the rails when you get into the States Rights stuff and the economic stuff and the “simpler way of life” stuff, for all the reasons you point out. I know many Southern heritage advocates are versed in some of that, but I know many of them aren’t, too (and the same can be said for nearly any Civil War buff).

      I think you raise an important question, Bob–one that I think more folks should start asking: “What was so great about the Antebellum South?” I would be legitimately interested in the answers.

  5. Andy Hall says:

    He’s probably part of the South Carolina Secessionist Party, which has been flagging at the Battery in Charleston for a while now. There was an unpleasant incident involving them a couple of weeks ago. So yes, specifically, the guy was giving the United States the big middle finger. That’s what he does.

    • Poking around online this morning when I wrote this post, I came across a similar news article. The article said the Secessionist Party folks were only demonstrating on Saturdays, and my sighting came on Sunday, so I didn’t want to assume. But it’s probably a safe bet. If I see him there again before I leave, I’ll stop and ask.

  6. Meg Groeling says:

    So–we flew our Old Glory from the porch during the last weekend & Monday, even though, due to antiquated city infrastructure our street was closed all weekend. And, we had a little American flag on one of those deals that fits into the window of the car. We chose to get married last July 4th, and did so in a flurry of patriotic splendor. Does it matter that I have a sticker with number 14 on my car?

  7. Pingback: Donald Trump’s Confederate Flag – The Historic Struggle

  8. Roger Futrell says:

    Dr. Mackowski’s “Confederate Heritage….” post hit the proverbial nail on the head! Civil War buffs of all persuasions would do well to read it. Most Confederate troops took an Oath of Allegiance to the United States at the war’s end, and, in my mind restored their US citizenship.
    I personally love CW history, but am not into intentionally hurting others.

  9. Bob R
    again you so perfectly describe the south of the mid 1800 in your own view almost feel as if you were really there in time travel .!!!
    Yet again you were wearing your infamous blinders.and show your bias to the south as well .
    Every point you made could and should be turned on your northern paradise . wonder if all freed blacks and irish and german immigrants felt that they were in paradise with no class distinction
    Ah yes point 5 perhaps if your great do no wrong northerners would of been willing to pay a little more we may of not needed the system of slavery which sir they created.
    The disturbed person who started this conflict in Charleston had nothing to do with Southern Heritage.
    YOU ONLY USE THIS AS A EXCUSE TO WEAR YOUR TIGHT FITTING BINDERS.
    Study history and not your own personnel hates.

    • Bob Ruth says:

      Thomas:

      I agree with you that the pre-Civil War North was no workers paradise, especially for immigrants in large cities and women in New England textile mills. But it was Camelot, compared to the hardships of the average antebellum southerner.

      And unlike neo-Confedereates, we Yankees don’t obsess on so-called Northern Heritage and have a non-American flag to honor “our ancestors and our way of life.”

      But we digress. Let me apply my earlier six points to the pe-Civil War North:

      1) While there was extreme poverty in the North, especially (as I’ve mentioned above) among immigrants in large cities, the North had a substantial middle class made up of artisans, small businessmen, etc. And economic opportunity in the North was far, far superior to the South. You’ve heard the phrase “Yankee ingenuity,” I assume.

      Wealth in the North was nowhere near as concentrated as it was in the South. The era of the Robber Barons and the widespread abuse of millions of blue-collar workers would not become widespread until 15 to 20 years AFTER the Civil War.

      2) Of course, there was no slavery in the North to artificially depress workers wages and income.

      3) While the franchise was not perfect in the North, the restrictions on voting were far fewer than in the South. I agree that Northern state legislatures often were in the hip pockets of bankers, mine owners, railroad magnates, etc. But sometimes – and far more often than in the South – the voice of the average person in the North would be heard in the halls of statehouses.

      4) Public education, especially in New England and the rest of the Northeast, was pretty widespread in the North. Education for youngsters in many parts of the North was compulsory, something that was unheard of in the South. (Fun Fact: I believe the first compulsory public education system in the South was created on Hilton Head Island, S.C., during the Civil War. It was instituted by runaway slaves who founded their own town while the island was occupied by Union troops. Compulsory public education – for both African-American and white children – was one of the hallmarks many Reconstruction states in the South. Former slaves, who during their bondage were prohibited from learning to read and write, knew the value of education far more than most of their white counterparts.)

      5) Of course, the North’s manufacturing sector and infrastructure were many times greater than the South’s. This imbalance is one of the main excuses given by Lost Causers for the South’s defeat. (Thomas, did I understand your post correctly that you blame greedy Northern industrialists for Southern slavery? I’m completely flummoxed by that one. I confess that I haven’t read up on this novel concept. But as I understand the free-enterprise system, people pay as much for products and services as the market will bear. It’s called capitalism, Thomas.)

      6) The North’s economy was far more diverse than the South’s. Food products (the North’s wheat exports fed much of Europe), manufacturing goods, shipbuilding, iron mills, banking and financing, etc. were all part of the North’s multi-faceted economy, an economy that grew tremendously during the war.

      As I wrote in my earlier post, the antebellum South’s “way of life” is something Neo-Confederates would do well to forget rather than honor. That’s especially true when the South’s “way of life” is compared to the North.

      Of course, those who believe in such fantasies as “Gone With the Wind” and “Song of the South (Uncle Remus)” might disagree with me.

      • Meg Groeling says:

        Just FYI–“Uncle Remus” might soon be coming in for a re-eval in historical & literary circles. Seems Brer Rabbit just might be a cautionary tale, and much based in African tradition. I am really interested in this–more info to come!

  10. Bob Ruth says:

    Meg:

    Interesting.

    I doubt that a similar re-eval of Gone With the Wind is in the offing. A few nights ago, TMC ran the movie again. I hadn’t viewed the film in its entirety in decades. I had forgotten that it is a comedy. I couldn’t stop laughing, especially at its farcical depiction of Georgia during Reconstruction.

  11. “Whether as a symbol of national liberation or of individual expression and rebelliousness, in Europe the Confederate battle flag is associated typically with American values and American culture. From a vantage point beyond our shores, the Confederate battle flag is an American symbol . . . the Europeans have grasped something that Americans take for granted: the Confederate flag is fundamentally an American flag.” ~ John Coski writing in “The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem”

    “The capacity of the battle flag to express both American patriotism and often strident opposition to mainstream American ideals is further confirmation of its status as the second American flag. It shares the ambidextrous quality with the Stars and Stripes, which has stood in symbolic opposition to and unity with the battle flag. The Ku Klux Klan has used the Stars and Stripes far longer and far more often than they have the St. Andrew’s cross. . . . In other words, the Stars and Stripes has proven perfectly capable of expressing the thoughts and values that critics of the Confederate flag fear and loathe.” ~ John Coski writing in “The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem”

    “It is a fundamental mistake to believe – as Carol Moseley-Braun suggested in her 1993 speech in the U.S. Senate – that one’s own perception of a flag’s meaning is the flag’s only legitimate meaning. . . . People must not impose their interpretation of the flag on others or project their interpretation of the flag’s meaning onto others’ motives for displaying it. Just because someone views the flag as a symbol of racism does not give him the ethical right to assume that someone who displays it is a racist. To make such a judgment is an exercise in prejudice.” ~ John Coski writing in “The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem”

  12. Jojo says:

    Right on Chris! To all people who fly this flag: If your pappy’s grand-pappy fought for this flag, they fought for the wrong idea. Imagine calling someone master and having your family ripped apart. You are pathetic.

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