My spring break vacation was great. How was yours?
We managed to mix in several stops at historical sites in addition to some “sporty” venues. Our ultimate destination was Florida. The logical driving break was Charleston, South Carolina, and we allocated time there. The aide-de-Camp, like me, has a special affinity for Fort Sumter. We cannot get enough of the old fort. So a boat ride out was part of the schedule. This would be the aide’s third such visit to the fort, but the first since 2011.
Since our last visit, the fort’s staff had updated some interpretive markers. Nothing major. Just mostly updated graphics. But there was one important change to the public display. Something I’d mentioned last summer. The fort’s flag displays changed from this:
Just the one, lone flagpole with the current United States flag visible as one approaches the fort.
But once in the fort, there are four historical flags on display:
The stands for these flags are a temporary arrangement, I’m told, pending a permanent configuration.
There is an interpretive marker between the flags providing context to the display:
As I said back in the summer, it is my opinion this is a good move.
I would point out that the display includes the four flags known to have flown over Sumter during the war – 33-Star United States Flag, the Confederate “First National” flag, the Confederate “Second National” flag, and finally the 35-Star United States Flag. Each of those flags is an object speaking to specific periods of the fort’s history during those four troubled years. And each serves as a point of departure for us to explore that rich history.
Indeed, beyond just simply having a historical flag display at Fort Sumter, I was struck by the reaction among those in the audience. From the questions and conversation, there were a number who simply did not know about the historical flags. Most recognized the convention of stars on the blue field of the United States flag. But few realized that the 35-Star flag used at the end of the Civil War was missing Nevada, which had not been added as a state until October 1864 and thus didn’t get its star until July 4, 1865. Some “flag trivia” if you please.
But, as one might expect, the Confederate flags were the subject of more questions and comments. There are still a lot of misconceptions and assumptions about those flags. Such has not dissipated with the experience of the last twelve months. In fact, I think it has actually gotten worse. As I’ve said before, I don’t “like” the Confederate flag (like as in I also don’t like sushi, Downtown Abby, or the Beatles.. and that is not hate or rejection, but rather a preference, that others may or may not share). But just as I don’t like some elements of history or connected historical objects, I don’t ignore the facts. Fact is that Confederate flags flew over Fort Sumter. And having that display at Fort Sumter allowed the staff to provide a connection to the fort’s past.
Context… you see, not condemnation. Maybe if all Americans knew the difference between the First National, Second National, and the Battle Flags of the Confederacy then that period of our nation’s history would be easier to come to terms with. Call me an idealist here, but I find complex subjects are often conquered by study in detail.
Since we were the last tour of the day, the Rangers provided a short program discussing the four flags, prior to bringing them down for the night. Then we all got to participate in a retiring of the colors for the day. That became a wonderful “hands on” experience. So… file that away if you are visiting Fort Sumter, and plan on either taking the first or last boat of the day. A chance to join the list of those having raised or retired the colors at Fort Sumter.
As we made our way back to port, we passed another of Charleston’s old defenses:
Castle Pinckney sports the Irish flag of late (. Harry has the rest of the story, should you be interested to know why.
As I sat on the stern of our boat, listening to the rhythms of the engine and waves, my mind wondered to thought of flags, symbols, and how we use them. I’m sure there’s someone out there who takes offense to the Irish flag. After all, the Irish flag was born of conflict and rebellion. It was carried into war and blood has been shed in its defense and in opposition. Maybe a minority. Maybe even a spot of a minority. But it wouldn’t be hard to conceive a person who feels ill over the sight of that flag.
Not that we need to take down the Irish flag, flying to express some cultural solidarity, over a brick edifice placed on a sandbar in front of the cradle of secession. Not that at all.
Rather, that I think that symbols are symbols. As a historian I seek the stories which they relate to. From that I find it easier to break down the ideas and causes for which these banners fronted. It’s the ideas and causes, you see, that tend to need the most care when handled.