Flags over Fort Sumter… in their new locations

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:

Fort Sumter 4 Aug 11 1670

To this:

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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:

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The stands for these flags are a temporary arrangement, I’m told, pending a permanent configuration.

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There is an interpretive marker between the flags providing context to the display:

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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:

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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.

 

Fort Sumter flag display update … Flags staying, moving to new section of fort

Yesterday Fort Sumter National Monument posted this update to their Facebook page:

I haven’t found the corresponding “official” press release on their website.  Probably because Facebook is easier to update than the website (darn you “company who outbid the company I used to work for” and your clunky user interface!!!!).  But let me pull the text for the Facebook update here:

Press Release Regarding Fort Sumter National Monument’s Historical Flag Display:

Fort Sumter National Monument Moves Historical Flag Display to Original Parade Ground

Charleston, SC – Fort Sumter National Monument officials announced today that the historical flag interpretive display flying over Fort Sumter will be moved to the fort’s original parade ground. The new display will include every national flag that flew over the fort during the Civil War. It will be located on the same ground and near the same location where the original flags flew 150 years ago.

“As a focal point of Charleston Harbor, it is important that the only flag seen flying atop Fort Sumter National Monument is the current United States flag,” said Superintendent Tim Stone. “The historical flag display will be in the fort so visitors can learn about the fort’s history and the history of the flags that flew here.”

The new display will feature the 33-star United States flag, the First National Flag of the Confederacy, the Second National Flag of the Confederacy, and the 35-star United States flag. These flags represent the national flags that flew over the fort during the Civil War between 1861 and 1865.

Since the tragedy at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston only the current 50-star United States flag has flown above Fort Sumter. The National Park Service is looking closely at how interpretive displays featuring flags of the Confederacy help visitors understand the Civil War. As part of this process, Fort Sumter National Monument reviewed its historical flag interpretive display. The park determined that the display would be modified and moved and only national flags flown at the fort during the Civil War will be part of the new display.

The park uses interpretive displays, museum exhibits, signs, brochures, a website and social media platforms to tell the story of Fort Sumter. Many of these feature flags or reproductions of flags used during the Civil War. These displays change from time to time as new tools become available and more information is learned about the war and the fort. Only the historical flag interpretive display at Fort Sumter is being changed at this time.

Short version – the flag display pictured here….

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… which were taken down earlier this summer (the photo below is from a bad weather day in 2010, and a trick on my part)….

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… minus the large flagpole where the current 50-star US flag is flown, will relocate onto the Endicott Era Battery Huger…

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…  onto the area near the railings to the far left of the photo above.  Basically, cut and paste the smaller flag poles on the right to a place on the left.

That is, in my opinion, good placement.  That will require no small expenditure, which some might call into question.  But the outcome is to retain the interpretive display, which I think is for the best.

I would point out that during the Federal bombardments of Fort Sumter, the Confederates placed their flag at the left corners of the fort.  This was captured in Conrad Wise Chapman’s paintings:

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And in wartime photos from Morris Island:

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And as indicated on the NPS diagram from Facebook, the fort’s original flagpole stood on the parade ground.  Neither of those historical locations would work within the fort’s layout today.  I applaud the decision to retain the display, and think the placement is actually better for interpretive needs.

My opinion: Fort Sumter’s Confederate flags should stay

Fort Sumter is, for better or worse, in the news again this season.  And the news centers around this flag display:

Fort Sumter 4 Aug 11 1670A

In response to recent events, the National Park Service announced it was taking down flags in that display which were related to the Confederacy.  The Post-Courier covered this last week (I posted this to my Facebook page, but held off discussing here until full details came public):

Tim Stone, superintendent of the Fort Sumter-Fort Moultrie National Monument, said Fort Sumter’s four flags were lowered the day after the shooting.

“The tragedy has made all of us re-evaluate our role in the community and in the nation,” he said.

On Thursday, the National Park Service, which runs the fort, issued a directive to remove Confederate flag items such as banners, belt buckles and other souvenirs from its gift shops, though books, DVDs and other materials showing the flag in a historical context may remain for sale.

On the same day, the Park Service also instructed its parks and related sites to not fly flags other than the U.S. flag and respective state flags outside their historic context….

Stone said the fort’s wayside markers explaining the history behind the fort’s various flags will remain, “but we probably won’t be re-raising them per the director’s policy.”

The removed flags include the first and second national flags of the Confederate States of America as well as two earlier versions of the U.S. flag. Stone said the four banners had historical ties to the fort, which was surrendered by Union forces in 1861 as the war began but retaken by them as the war wound to an end.

The series of flags were first raised in 1972, and Stone said they brought few complaints. “There was on occasion some comment of why we were flying the Confederate flags,” he said. “We explained the historical context of that.”

The marker he mentioned is this one:

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Please consult the HMDB entry for the transcribed text.   The article continued with some explanation of the move by the park:

But Stone said he grew more sympathetic to concerns about the flags when he noted some boaters entering Charleston Harbor would pass by them without any interpretation explaining why they were there.

“I think that concern has some legitimacy, and we need to be sensitive to the community and the American people,” he said. “I hadn’t thought of it in that perspective.”

Stone said it is unclear what will become of the four flagpoles that were improved as recently as 2007 in preparation for the Civil War’s sesquicentennial but now no longer serve a purpose.

“A lot of this is happening very quickly,” he said.

Indeed, all happened very quickly.  Perhaps too quickly.  Yesterday the Post-Courier ran a story indicating the park is re-examining the decision and contemplating changes:

Linda Friar, a National Park Service spokesperson, said on Wednesday that the park has received a lot of calls about the decision to remove the flag, but they have not yet reached a decision on if the flags will be raised again….

“The National Park Service has many historic sites, and some of our history has a lot of different emotions attached to it by whoever’s looking at it,” Friar said. “Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie are about a particular part of our history and a lot of folks still have opposing views.”

First off, if you interpreted my post from last week to mean I wanted to purge all traces of the Confederacy, then you may have read something into the writing that was not there.  There are proper venues and reasons to display the Confederate flags.  And I contend that Fort Sumter is one of them.  I find the explanation for the flag removals lacking.   The action was in response to a blanket, knee-jerk reaction by government officials.  To categorize this as a problem for boaters passing the fort is to bend the limits of credibility here.  Should we also be worried that boaters might sense some danger with all the cannons pointed at them from Fort Moultrie and Sumter?  Please, we are adults here….

This is a great example of how complicated our history is.  As such, it is a perfect location for the public to be introduced to the story that is our history, for all of its complications, in order to gain a full, rich, and, dare I say, proper, understanding.  If we are to steer the public away from “emotional” displays, then our National Park system is going to be a very bland, joyless, and lonely place.  If we are going to go out of our way to address every “sensitivity” then our National Park system is going to resemble the intellectual equivalent to a kindergarten play room.

Are there “dangers” associated with the display of Confederate flags at a location, such as Fort Sumter, where historical context actually fits?  Yes.  Several dangers in fact…. two that come directly to mind are – that those pushing their version of heritage might actually have to confront the realities of history… and that some historians will have to admit the history trumps their political agendas.   We would do better at dispelling the former if the latter stop treating the audience as some naive lot.

Again, we are adults here. “Emotional” displays should not deter us from the history.  I’m pretty sure we can confront the “scary” side of the Confederate flag.

POSTSCRIPT: I meant to include mention of the sesquicentennial display done at Fort Pulaski over the last five years.  If you missed note of that, Fort Pulaski flew, at times to coincide with the sesquicentennial events associated with the fort, different historical flags.  Those included Confederate flags.  The display was very powerful, mature, meaningful… and positive.

This flag nonsense from my point of view

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.