How does one process the image of a Confederate battle flag in the United States Capitol?
“Trump did what Lee, Jackson, and Davis couldn’t in four years,” a colleague texted me as the first images of insurrectionists started appearing on social media.
“Overthrow democracy?” I replied, only half-kidding. I hadn’t yet tuned in to the full extent of what was happening in D.C. but that text got my attention. I started paying close attention. Like most of America—like much of the world—I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The Capitol building was being stormed for the first time since British troops torched the place in 1814.
A little while later, I saw images of insurrectionists atop part of the Grant Memorial in front of the Capitol. Like the image of the battle flag inside the Capitol, the image raised a lot of complex emotions in me, none of them good.
Those of us who study military history know how important flags are on a battlefield, and what it means to “plant the flag” somewhere. (Heck, anyone who’s seen Neil Armstrong’s photo on the moon knows how powerfully symbolic a flag planting is.)
Knowing what Grant went through—and what he put the United States Army through—to win the Civil War, I was deeply offended that anyone pretending to be a patriotic American would show such disrespect to our soldiers and the general who commanded them. Such “lip-service patriots” dishonor actual patriotism and our servicemen and women.
I use the phrase “insurrectionists” intentionally because there’s no excusing Wednesday’s event as anything but. In no uncertain terms, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), in comments from the Senate floor, referred to the event as a “failed insurrection.”
“The Constitution protects peaceful protest, but violence—from Left or Right—is ALWAYS wrong,” tweeted Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). “And those engaged in violence are hurting the cause they say they support.”
Cruz, who’s been accused by political opponents of “abetting sedition and inspiring pro-Trump riot,” knows of what he speaks. The violence undercut his effort to contest the results of the Electoral College, which some critics cite as a major factor in inciting the violence in the first place.
But he’s right. Those engaged in violence hurt the causes they say they support. It was true last summer during protests for racial justice, and it was true Wednesday in Washington.
The presence of the Confederate flag in the midst of chaos didn’t help advocates of Confederate monuments or Confederate heritage groups. “One of the f*ckers was carrying a Confederate flag and screaming at a black police office in the Capitol Building,” a friend texted me. He also said there was a gallows outside, erected ostensibly to scare the politicians but eerily reminiscent of Jim Crow “justice.” It looked like they were trying to hang democracy my friend said.
“The term ‘Confederate’ is trending big time on Twitter,” another text said. “I am disgusted by this. Kiss the Lost Cause goodbye.”
Not every supporter of Confederate heritage is a Lost Causer, for sure. But I saw plenty of conscientious folks lamenting the damage being done by those flags.
“This will have grave consequences on our reenactments,” one person wrote—“that is, if we have any at all.”
Another agreed that the entire Civil War reenactment community would be hurt. “This flag was never meant to be used in this fashion…” he wrote. “I doubt if Civil War reenactment will ever come back ’cause of these fools.’
Someone countered with a great question: “What was the flag meant to be used for? What did the Confederacy stand for?”
“The flag was used for states’ rights,” came the reply.
“Which rights? And it was used in an attempt to separate from the US government, so I could see a connection. But I agree it has no place in those halls.”
Even in the best of times, the Confederate battle flag raises important questions. In the middle of an insurrection, its original symbolism came into pretty sharp focus.
Anyone who has pointed to the flag and said, “Heritage, not hate” had that argument undercut by the insurrectionists, who reminded everyone that, for some, the Confederate flag is a tool for intimidation and, for others, a symbol of repression and hate. On the battlefield, it was used by soldiers fighting against the lawful government of the United States “to separate from the US government.”
And so it was used again, not by an army but a mob, engaged in an insurrection of their own.
* * *
Click here for some of my previous discussions about the Confederate flag.
From Steward Henderson, here are “My Thoughts on the Confederate Flag”
* * *
Other Civil War-related items I saw online yesterday:
“Historical resources to contextualize the storming of the U.S. Capitol” from the American Civil War Museum
* * *
* * *
A friend of mine who’s both a historian and a proud Texan wrote, “I now identify much more easily with George Thomas and his decision.”
* * *
* * *
“The only real winner yesterday was James Buchanan’s presidential ranking.”
— Dan V.
* * *
“On January 6th, 1853, president elect Franklin Pierce was on a train near Boston when it derailed. He and his wife were not hurt but they lost their young son in the accident. Fighting his own depression, the new chief executive promised the country peace while asking citizens to “sustain me by your strength.” We had a different kind of “train wreck” on January 6, 2021. Pierce, who faced the complex questions of slavery and expansion, feared what the future might hold. We have the advantage of having the chance to come together on issues much more solvable than those Pierce faced. Let’s hope our national “train wreck” spurs better solutions than what followed Pierce a few years later.”
— Greg W.