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The Confederate Flag and the Story of Our Past: A Final Reflection

In response to Speaking of Cruelty to Cats…

I appreciate Jason taking the time to write again expanding on his views on the flag. I’m not going to respond point-by-point on secession and the flag (at this point, we’re likely talking past each other) but instead pull back a bit to discuss how we learn about history – and how that informs our present and future.

Let me be clear about my perspective: History should not be taught through a framework that first (or even materially) considers how a student or citizen feels about that history. Nor should it be taught through the closely related framework of dictating the teaching of particular point of view. Rather, the teaching of history should acknowledge – as much as human beings can – the truth of the past in all its complexity. That complexity can be difficult and painful to process. Yet it can also be revealing and inspiring, with the same set of facts playing on human emotions and knowledge in distinct and often contradictory ways.

This approach can be upsetting if the goal of a nation or a political movement is to guarantee the growth and development of a particular ideology. The modern campus culture represents the apex of this mindset, despising truly free speech and debate because students might come to the conclusion that the dominant view of “social justice” is deeply flawed and – even worse – actively oppose their progressive aims. Contrary ideas can be emotionally hurtful to ideological allies. Contrary ideas can even be evil. Thus, free speech is all downside, containing only risks and pain for a movement that has determined all that it needs to determine about truth and justice.

I detect more than a whiff of a similar mindset in comments about the flag and about monuments, memorials, and other historical markers acknowledging or honoring Confederate soldiers and leaders. To the critic, their existence is all downside, no upside – hurting many (but not all) African-American citizens and sending deeply mixed messages about American attitudes towards the Confederacy. Never mind that these mixed messages have been part of American life for more than 150 years. Never mind that the memorials themselves are part of an important history of grief and healing that reflected the South’s immense loss of life, a loss we can’t comprehend in modern times. Never mind that the memorials cannot wipe away the horrible truths of slavery and Jim Crow. Never mind that the memorials and monuments have memorialized valor in a way that has helped motivate generations of Southerners to fight for freedom under the Stars and Stripes. The flags must come down, and the memorials must be transformed.

The contemporary cultural view of the Confederacy, its soldiers, and citizens is now fixed – there is absolutely nothing about their lives and legacy that’s worth remembering if it at all complicates the narrative of evil rebellion followed by evil resistance to integration and inclusion, not even when that complication involves a legacy of not just valor but also of charity and appreciation from many of the men who spilled their own blood and faced the agony of loss in their long fight against the South.

I’ve said this before – in my initial essay about the flag – my daughter is African-American, and the thought that she could be held (if born at a different time) in slavery or subjected to second-class-citizenship through Jim Crow is horrifying. I’m grateful beyond words that our nation culturally and legally embraces equal rights for all its citizens. As I also said in my essay, my forefathers wore gray in the Civil War, fighting at Shiloh, Vicksburg, Franklin, and Nashville. It is an aspect of God’s wonderful and mysterious grace that a descendant of Confederates is raising a bi-racial family. Yet my story is hardly unusual in the South. This transformation is both in spite – and because of – my deeply Christian ancestors. To change the South so that memorials are now re-cast as symbols of their eternal shame is to treat them worse than their Union adversaries did in the immediate aftermath of bloody conflict.

I’ll end my part of this discussion with, forgive me, a long quotation from Union hero Joshua Chamberlain – a better man than I’ll ever be – reflecting his own view of the defeated Confederate Army at Appomattox:

Ah, but it was a most impressive sight, a most striking picture, to see that whole army in motion to lay down the symbols of war and strife, that army which had fought for four terrible years after a fashion but infrequently known in war.

At such a time and under such conditions I thought it eminently fitting to show some token of our feeling, and I therefore instructed my subordinate officers to come to the position of ’salute’ in the manual of arms as each body of the Confederates passed before us.It was not a ‘present arms,’ however, not a ‘present,’ which then as now was the highest possible honor to be paid even to a president. It was the ‘carry arms,’ as it was then known, with musket held by the right hand and perpendicular to the shoulder. I may best describe it as a marching salute in review.

When General Gordon came opposite me I had the bugle blown and the entire line came to ‘attention,’ preparatory to executing this movement of the manual successively and by regiments as Gordon’s columns should pass before our front, each in turn.

The General was riding in advance of his troops, his chin drooped to his breast, downhearted and dejected in appearance almost beyond description. At the sound of that machine like snap of arms, however, General Gordon started, caught in a moment its significance, and instantly assumed the finest attitude of a soldier. He wheeled his horse facing me, touching him gently with the spur, so that the animal slightly reared, and as he wheeled, horse and rider made one motion, the horse’s head swung down with a graceful bow, and General Gordon dropped his swordpoint to his toe in salutation.

By word of mouth General Gordon sent back orders to the rear that his own troops take the same position of the manual in the march past as did our line. That was done, and a truly imposing sight was the mutual salutation and farewell.

At a distance of possibly twelve feet from our line, the Confederates halted and turned face towards us. Their lines were formed with the greatest care, with every officer in his appointed position, and thereupon began the formality of surrender.

Bayonets were affixed to muskets, arms stacked, and cartridge boxes unslung and hung upon the stacks. Then, slowly and with a reluctance that was appealingly pathetic, the torn and tattered battleflags were either leaned against the stacks or laid upon the ground. The emotion of the conquered soldiery was really sad to witness. Some of the men who had carried and followed those ragged standards through the four long years of strife, rushed, regardless of all discipline, from the ranks, bent about their old flags, and pressed them to their lips with burning tears.

And it can well be imagined, too, that there was no lack of emotion on our side, but the Union men were held steady in their lines, without the least show of demonstration by word or by motion. There was, though, a twitching of the muscles of their faces, and, be it said, their battle-bronzed cheeks were not altogether dry. Our men felt the import of the occasion, and realized fully how they would have been affected if defeat and surrender had been their lot after such a fearful struggle.

Contrary to the wishes of Abraham Lincoln, this latest battle over Confederate symbols has been fought with much malice and little charity. Americans have proven they are capable of making immense progress towards true racial reconciliation without trying to dictate how our citizens view and understand the past. Leave the Civil War memorials and monuments alone.

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