I’ve said this privately, but figure it is time to state so publicly. I don’t like the Confederate battle flag. It is something that I grew to dislike in my formative years. Notice that I did not say that I hate it. But just that I don’t like it. I also don’t like broccoli. Nor do I like smoked salmon. That said, I do not allow my dislike for those food stuffs or the decor of someone’s car govern my choices in life.
Generally, I only get my back up over issues with respect to this flag:
I’ve carried that flag (either on a staff in my hands or on my shoulder as part of my uniform) into some difficult situations. I know first hand of blood, sweat, and tears that go into that flag. So I am, by nature, rather protective of that flag. It is my flag. And, if you are reading this from the United States (and not to slight those reading this blog from outside the country… but this is after all an American Civil War history-themed blog), it is your flag. It is representative of us all.
But since the topic of the day and week is this flag:
Allow me to explain to you where I stand. And yes… there it is… if it offends you then please read on so you might be properly informed when composing your response. I don’t see much use for it as any expression of heritage. It is history. It is part of the history of the nation that I live in. But it is not OUR … as in my nation’s … heritage in the modern sense. I will say proudly that I was among the first to say… more years ago than I can count… that it belongs in a museum. That’s my opinion.
Now that is not to say I am bias against the Confederacy or in some way trying to cleanse that aspect of our history. It is just that over the years I’ve noticed that the majority of places the Confederate Battle Flag is displayed, the message is one that pushes more of the “heritage” and not so much of the “history.” I’ll study the history of the Civil War, to include the Confederacy, with zeal. I’ll honor my Confederate and Federal ancestors by telling their stories, and the story of their times, without trying to impose a “heritage” upon them.
The pivotal time in my approach to the CBF was in the early 1990s. At the time I was an Army officer stationed in Georgia. And at that time, there was much public debate over this particular version of the state flag:
With the Atlanta Olympics of 1996 around the corner, there were many calling for the emblem on the right side of the flag to be removed. I generally stayed away from the public discussion of that subject. I was only “sort of” a Georgia citizen at the time, being active duty military in the state. And to that point, as a uniformed service member, I didn’t feel my place was telling the civilians how to run things. Such would be frowned upon in professional circles.
But privately I was drawn into discussions. Being an avid and active Civil War historian, I had plenty of friends, acquaintances, and contacts who wanted to discuss the flag matter. So on a few occasions… more than a few actually… we discussed this flag. And most often that was with a fellow researcher whom I’ll simply call “Tom.” Tom lived in the Atlanta area and was very knowledgeable in the area’s Civil War history. And much of that connection was personal, as Tom could claim several ancestors who fought in the war. All Confederate of course (I used to tease him of finding his “long lost Federal ancestor” some day. To which he always countered, “I’d have to disown myself!”)
On one occasion, having heard Tom’s arguments for “heritage” and the underpinning need to retain some connection with the past by way of the state flag, I “aired out” my view. And I’ll summarize here. You see, that Georgia state flag seen above was adopted in 1956. If you have even a moderate understanding of American history, you know that was a troubled time in Georgia and the south in general. So the redesign of the flag incorporated some of that trouble.
Georgia’s flag has some ambiguous origins. The online Georgia Encyclopedia has the “short version” of this. As at the time Tom and I were well acquainted with what flags were carried around in 1860, my response to him started there. And using today’s resources, I can make a visual argument here and save a lot of typing about various components of these flags.
There was no “official” state flag, per-say, in 1860. In 1861, when the state was equipping regiments and sending them off to war, these units were issued, though not uniformly, flags that incorporated the state’s seal. I’ll go again to Wikipedia for a basic, general example:
Not very flashy. But I personally think we should save the flashy flags for car dealerships running Sunday specials.
That design was unofficially sufficient for most needs until 1879. In that year, legislation established this pattern for flags issued to the state militia:
Ok… still not flashy, but somewhat bland. Nothing to get excited about if you are a Georgian, wouldn’t you say? So over the years the state seal found its way into the blue field on the left, in several forms. By mid-20th century, this was the layout:
My argument to Tom, at that point, was if the state’s pledge called for “Wisdom, Justice, and Moderation” then wasn’t the circa 1950 flag a bit more “moderate” far more “wise” and indeed more indicative of “justice” than the one adopted in 1956?
More to the point, if we were going to talk about “history” and how that should manifest as part of “heritage” then which is the better option – a basic design from 1879 or a redesign made in 1956? I say, the “heritage” should follow the “history” in instances such as this. There shouldn’t have been the Confederate symbology in the flag.
Tom conceded points, but countered that the flag should be “evolving” and allow for incorporation of more recent history. My counter to that was the flag shouldn’t end up as a wall where “stickers” are posted. My example at the time was a silly notion of adding Vidalia onions and Alan Jackson’s stetson… as both were popular in those days. Years after the fact, I was somewhat vindicated by the reaction to the “compromise” flag of 2001:
That lasted but two years until the second compromise flag was approved:
Personally, I don’t like this compromise either. In its elements, the current flag incorporated, by design, components of the First National Confederate flag. I, being a purist in terms of history and heritage, would prefer the 1879 flag in its modified (with state seal) form. But I don’t live in Georgia. So my voice doesn’t matter much there.
But I’m getting ahead of my discussion with Tom as it stood in 1994. At that time he and I agreed to disagree. Us being good gentlemen,we respected that agreement. That being (unlike some bloggers who I could name here) a convention in which we did not open the subject, even by proxy, so as neither would have to revisit the discussion. We proceeded to collaborate for several more years. Unfortunately, with my overseas service and moves since leaving the Army, we’ve fallen out of touch. I do wish, today, that I could contact Tom and hear his opinions.
One thing that stands out from our discussion of the flags is Tom’s fear that “some day, people will be cleansing out all references to the Confederacy without regard to history.” For many years, I would have responded that no Taliban-like movement was ever going to start tearing down monuments. And please understand Tom’s word choice here and MY word choice here. History and heritage are two separate things. There is overlap, to be sure, but we should not merge the two arbitrarily in conversation.
Heritage can be misdirected … wrong… hateful…. But at the same time, if properly nurtured and cultivated, heritage can be a source of strength, pride, and fulfillment. Heritage can point us to a place where that “Tolerance, Wisdom, and Justice,” spoken of in the state oath of allegiance, are achieved.
To nurture and cultivate heritage, we must turn to the history. History is what was. Good… bad … or other. Regardless of good, bad, or other. And history is far too complicated for us pretend can be summarized with a simple public-facing symbol as a flag. If one finds history “offensive” then the problem is not with the history, but in the person’s understanding of the history. And, in saying that… didn’t I say history is complicated? One hundred and forty characters won’t do. In most cases, a blog post of 1500 words won’t do. Often, a scholarly work of 500 pages still won’t suffice. Indeed, for our small capacity brains to really grasp the magnitude of the entirety of human experience… which we call history… we must not only “crowd source” the task with those around us, but also lean on the study left behind by past generations. It’s called “have a discussion.” Not the one-sided, shrill, suck-all-the-air-out type we are having these days. A real, proper discussion.
We need to let history be complicated. We need to devote the time to studying that history with, and for, its complications. Only from there can we hold a heritage that is directed, correct, and inclusive of all.