This year as a CWI Fellow, I’ve been doing a lot of research and thinking on Civil War memory, specifically that of Confederate memory. When doing this work, the question at the back of my mind is always: How should monuments, symbols, and other examples of Confederate memory be handled? This is a very difficult question, so up until now, I’ve left it alone, knowing that there would come a time in the future that I would sit down and wrestle with my conflicting opinions on the matter. A couple days ago, the Civil War Era Studies Department here at Gettysburg College sent out an email sharing the news that New Orleans had begun removing Confederate monuments and several other cities were thinking of doing the same. After reading this, I knew the time had come for me, and all of you, to join the discussion about Confederate Memory.
The first question that I ask myself when thinking about how to handle Confederate Memory is what the people want. Confederate monuments have a variety of owners. In some cases, the monuments are owned by a private organization or individual who put them up, in other cases, the city, state, or federal government may own them. The same goes for the land they are on. If owned by individuals or private groups, it’s their choice what happens. When the monument or land belongs to the local government, as is the case with the New Orleans monuments, it should be the people’s choice what happens. Although the city council of New Orleans voted 6 to 1 to remove several monuments, the residents didn’t get the chance to vote. For many issues, allowing the council to take care of matters on their own is fine; the people elected them because they trusted them to make the right decisions. In matters that generate a lot of public concern, though, residents are usually asked to vote. We vote on taxes, why not on monuments? If the majority of city residents agree with the removal of a Confederate symbol or monument, remove it and say no more. If the majority of residents are against the action, however, it doesn’t seem right to disrespect their wishes. The popular vote in New Orleans may have agreed with the removal of the monuments, but without that formal vote, we can’t know for sure.
This post is the fourth in a series about the Confederate flag in history, memory, and culture. It offers one Fellow’s individual perspective as she investigates different sources and opinions. Please feel free to engage with the author and the Civil War Institute community in the comments section. Read the first post here, the second post here, and the third post here.
Thus far we’ve talked about predominately white Union and Confederate views of the Confederate flag, so for my last piece on perspectives during the war I want to talk about the views of African Americans. For African Americans, especially, the Civil War was tightly intertwined with the matter of slavery. They realized that the outcome of the war would be instrumental in determining the fate of slavery as an institution and believed that a Confederate victory would be detrimental to the prospects of their freedom. If Southerners had their way, slavery would likely never die.
None express this better than Frederick Douglass, one of the most eloquent and influential African Americans of the time. In his newspaper, Douglass’ Monthly, Douglass printed a copy of a lecture he delivered on June 30, 1861. He stated that slaveholders “have written piracy and robbery upon every fold of the Confederate flag” and that “they are for slavery, and for all its kindred abominations.” Douglass leaves no room to doubt that the flag stands for human atrocities. He also sees no difference between slaveholders and Confederates. They are one and the same to Douglass and many other African Americans.
This past Saturday, I attended the very first Abolitionists Day here in Gettysburg. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived at the Seminary Ridge Refectory, but the crowded room seemed like a promising sight to me. When the event started, I was greeted with the words of famous abolitionists—William Loyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Beecher Stowe—being spoken by reenactors in period garb. As I listened, I couldn’t help wondering why now? This was a question I heard echoed by many of the other event goers. Why hold the first Abolitionist Day on March 4, 2017?
This post is the third in a series about the Confederate flag in history, memory, and culture. It offers one Fellow’s individual perspective as she investigates different sources and opinions. Please feel free to engage with the author and the Civil War Institute community in the comments section. Read the first post here and the second post here.
I’m sure that as fans of history, at some point in your pursuit of knowledge, you have either read or heard the phrase “language is key”. This is something my professors have harped on, class after class, explaining that the way we talk about things shapes the way they are viewed. This lesson holds true for the Union perspective of the Confederate flag during the war. In all the documents written by Northerners that I looked over for this post, I did not come across a single mention of the “Confederate flag.” This was because the flag was pretty consistently, and intentionally, known as the “rebel flag.” This term was used for each subsequent version of the flag, showing that each of the flags had the same meaning for Northerners, regardless of the changing design.
The language “rebel flag” is important for two reasons. The first is that by using the word “rebel,” Northerners gave Southern actions a negative connotation. These “rebels” were people throwing tantrums and acting out against the government. The second reason is that calling it the rebel flag gave the Confederacy an air of illegitimacy. The flags of established nations always have the country’s name in the title. Northerners refused to acknowledge the Confederacy as a true nation and that is reflected in their refusal to call the flag a Confederate flag. These ideas were illustrated in a stanza of a poem written by John Northrop.
“So up they hoist a Rebel flag;
They shake it in the Nation’s face —
An insolent old slavery rag —
To all the land disgrace!
Then Lincoln to the loyal said:
‘What will my brothers do?
You as the people, I the head,
To Justice must be true!
Come forth to meet this traitorous horde;
Defeat them where they stand;
They’d wreck the Nation with the sword,
Come and redeem the land!
They challenge us; shall we be brave,
Or cowards shall we be?
From basest treason shall we save
What God proclaimed was free?” Continue reading “Finding Meaning in the Flag: Rebel Flag”
This post is the second in a series about the Confederate flag in history, memory, and culture. It offers one Fellow’s individual perspective as she investigates different sources and opinions. Please feel free to engage with the author and the Civil War Institute community in the comments section. Read the first post here.
The only logical place to start our journey with the Confederate flag is at its birth to examine meanings bestowed upon it by the Confederate soldiers. To do this, we must look at the history of flags within the Confederate nation. Upon its creation in 1861, the Confederate nation immediately set out to design a new flag. Headed by South Carolina’s former state representative, William Porcher Miles, a committee was formed to choose a design that would be original to the Confederacy while remaining reminiscent of the U.S. flag. Although Southerners had split from the Union itself, they were not splitting from their shared history. Southerners were very proud of the founding fathers and the rights they had guaranteed, particularly property rights and the rights of the people to choose their government. It was these very rights and the legacy of the founding fathers that Southerners saw themselves defending when they made the decision to secede. This led to the acceptance of a design known as the Stars and Bars, which mimicked the original United States flag in color and arrangement. George Pickett emphasized the importance of this connection when he wrote in a letter in May, 1862 that he would fight “till our Stars and Bars wave over the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
However, the connection to the U.S. design was also the Confederate flag’s doom. Very quickly after its adoption as the national flag, generals began complaining that it was causing confusion on the battlefield by being indistinguishable from the enemy’s. On the battlefield, the flag was instrumental as a communication device. It was a way to denote advance or retreat and friend or foe. Confederate Soldier George Lee wrote on December 9, 1861, “the enemy knows our national flag and had already tried to deceive us by hoisting it at their head.” He did not clarify at which battle the enemy had supposedly done this, and it is possible that he mistook the Union flag for the Stars and Bars, seeing as how similar they were. For these reasons, it was imperative for the flags on the field to be easily distinguishable from the enemy’s. Continue reading “Finding Meaning in the Flag: Birth of a Symbol”
This post is the first in a series about the Confederate flag in history, memory, and culture. It offers one Fellow’s individual perspective as she investigates different sources and opinions. Please feel free to engage with the author and the Civil War Institute community in the comments section.
When I first learned about the removal of the Confederate flag from South Carolina’s state building in July of 2015, I was angry like many other people. For me, it wasn’t about the actual removal of the flag, but rather the arguments sparked around it. I understood not flying the flag on a state building; as such a building represents state and country, and the Confederate flag symbolizes neither the United States nor South Carolina. However, I didn’t understand the public hatred towards the flag.
People were demanding the flag’s removal from all public spaces on the grounds of the flag inspiring racism and violence, and I didn’t agree with this demand. I had read a very vague reference in the article I was perusing that connected the decision to remove the flag with a mass shooting in a historically black church, but I didn’t see how this incident made the flag inherently evil. The Christian cross has inspired far more cruelty and death, yet we still openly accept it. The flag is just a piece of history, a memorial to the Southern men who died fighting in the Civil War. It occasionally gets misused, as was the case with the mass shooting, but the blame with that should lie with the misguided shooter, not the object he may have been carrying. Removing the Confederate flag from all public spaces would only be a destruction of history, and that was inexcusable to me. Continue reading “Finding Meaning in the Flag: Contextualizing the Confederate Flag”
In Special Collections here at Gettysburg College is a compilation of letters by Civil War officers responding to an invitation to attend the very first reunion of the Battle of Gettysburg. The reunion was initiated by David McConaughy–a lawyer in Adams County, PA who had organized a group of local men to fight for the Union during the war–and was meant to be a time for the officers who had fought here to come together and walk the battlefield. On this walk, they would point out the locations their troops had occupied during the fight so that McConaughy and his committee could put up markers. When I saw this collection, I knew I had to dig in.
I looked at a total of 102 responses sent by the officers and cataloged them by which side the officer fought for and whether he had agreed to attend. I also reviewed the content of each letter, wondering what the men thought about rehashing the battle, especially since only five years had gone. Was it perhaps too soon to reopen the wounds of this bloody battle and ask men to recount what had happened here?
The response from former Union officers was exactly what I had predicted. 91 union officers replied to McConaughy’s invitation and 71 of them said that they would take “great pleasure” in being present for such an important event. In his letter, A. Von Steinweir wrote, “I anticipate much pleasure from the renewal of former associations and from meeting with you & the members of your association, by whose disinterested labors many historical facts, relating to the great contest, will be rescued from oblivion.” Many of the officers even spoke of bringing their wives with them for the event. This was a chance for these men to relive a moment of glory, and they all wanted to take advantage of it. Although twenty men ultimately had to decline the offer to revisit the battlefield, many of them cited current military obligations, in great detail, that kept them from attending. All would have gone if it had been possible. Continue reading “All For Honor: Officer Responses to the McConaughy Letters”