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:

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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.