Commentary Magazine


Topic: American Civil War

As the Flag Comes Down, the Civil War May Finally Be Over

Let’s hope South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley finally put an end to the debate over the Confederate flag Monday afternoon with her announcement that, “It’s time to move the flag from the Capitol grounds.” Long viewed by African Americans and others as an offensive symbol of racism, the flag became an issue again last week when a lone wolf racist terrorist entered the Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston and killed nine black Americans at prayer. Alleged murderer Dylann Roof had embraced the flag and other symbols of the Confederacy on his website where he also spewed racist and anti-Semitic hate. The response from some was that we should respect the flag as part of Southern heritage and a piece of history. But, fortunately, the impulse among some in South Carolina to reject these calls as Yankee interference was overcome both by grief over the murders and common sense. But beyond the imperative of the moment to make some symbolic gesture against hate (that also simplifies things for Republicans who feared to cross conservatives who might still revere the flag), the governor’s decision signals that, even in some parts of the Southern imagination, the Civil War is finally over. This isn’t political correctness or revisionism; it’s closure that was long overdue. And it’s absolutely vital if we are to rise above a persistent racism that President Obama cited in an interview that, like many of his pronouncements on race, seemed designed more to inflame sentiments than heal them.

Read More

Let’s hope South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley finally put an end to the debate over the Confederate flag Monday afternoon with her announcement that, “It’s time to move the flag from the Capitol grounds.” Long viewed by African Americans and others as an offensive symbol of racism, the flag became an issue again last week when a lone wolf racist terrorist entered the Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston and killed nine black Americans at prayer. Alleged murderer Dylann Roof had embraced the flag and other symbols of the Confederacy on his website where he also spewed racist and anti-Semitic hate. The response from some was that we should respect the flag as part of Southern heritage and a piece of history. But, fortunately, the impulse among some in South Carolina to reject these calls as Yankee interference was overcome both by grief over the murders and common sense. But beyond the imperative of the moment to make some symbolic gesture against hate (that also simplifies things for Republicans who feared to cross conservatives who might still revere the flag), the governor’s decision signals that, even in some parts of the Southern imagination, the Civil War is finally over. This isn’t political correctness or revisionism; it’s closure that was long overdue. And it’s absolutely vital if we are to rise above a persistent racism that President Obama cited in an interview that, like many of his pronouncements on race, seemed designed more to inflame sentiments than heal them.

One must respect the respect for history on the part of those who, like our John Steele Gordon, see honoring the legacy of those who fought for the Confederacy as distinct from the pro-slavery cause or the post-war atrocities committed in the name of the so-called “lost cause.” As our Max Boot rightly pointed out earlier today, the myths about the Confederacy helped fuel a political culture that created despicable Jim Crow laws and segregationist practices that were a blot on America’s honor for a century.

Part of the debate about the symbols of the Confederacy was an attempt to paint the Civil War as being a conflict primarily motivated by the defense of state’s rights as opposed to slavery. That was always dubious history, but it fed the idea that that two sides to the war were essentially both justified or at least not involved in a conflict between good and evil. It is true that the North had no monopoly on righteousness, especially when one takes into account the crucial role those in the free states had in keeping slavery alive and even profitable. But lost in the attempt to bridge the divide between the two sides and make them both equally heroic, if not right, was the fact that those who fought for the Confederacy were fighting to keep slavery even if they were not slaveholders. Though we cannot judge them by the standards of our own day (a scrutiny that even Lincoln might not withstand), neither should we accept the conceit that both sides were engaged in an equally glorious endeavor. African-Americans rightly believed that the embrace of the Confederacy was not only offensive but also a denial of the basic truth that in a war over slavery. We should not be honoring both sides equally.

For a century, some southerners kept the war alive. At first, it was to rationalize their mad decision to destroy their region in a war that couldn’t be won. Then, it was to justify Jim Crow. As Max wrote, that South is dead. It lives on only in the fever swamps where extremists like Roof rage and neo-Confederates confuse legitimate contemporary arguments about the abuse of power by the federal government with illegitimate ones against the efforts of the Lincoln administration to preserve the Union. Those who want to celebrate the heritage of the South might do well in the future to refocus their hero-worship on the many Southerners that kept their oaths to the United States and fought for the Union rather than to destroy it to preserve an evil that still should still horrify us.

It took 150 years but Governor Haley’s promise that as of the next July 4th, only the flags of the United States and South Carolina would fly over state property was a much needed official acknowledgement in the place where the Civil War started that any governmental embrace of these symbols is outdated and harmful. While individuals have as much right to wave the Confederate flag as they do to burn an American one, let this be the end of the argument as well as an end to any idea of treating the Confederacy as anything but an embarrassing stain on American history.

June-2015-Promotion_animation

Read Less

RE: A Flag and the Fatal Intersection of Heritage and Hate

I certainly agree with Jonathan that the Confederate battle flag is a symbol of racial oppression and has no business flying on government property, even over the Confederate Soldier Monument on the grounds of the South Carolina state capitol. But it became that symbol in the civil rights era, when the South resisted desegregation, not in the 1860’s, when it fought for independence.

Read More

I certainly agree with Jonathan that the Confederate battle flag is a symbol of racial oppression and has no business flying on government property, even over the Confederate Soldier Monument on the grounds of the South Carolina state capitol. But it became that symbol in the civil rights era, when the South resisted desegregation, not in the 1860’s, when it fought for independence.

I also agree that slavery was the real cause of the Civil War. As Jonathan explains:

Without slavery, there would have been no war. The South seceded because it feared limits on the expansion of slavery would eventually doom the institution. To protect a heritage built on the uncompensated labor of slaves and their vast investment in human “property,” the states that formed the Confederacy waged a bloody war that costs hundreds of thousands of American lives and left the South in ruins.

But about 90 percent of white Southerners did not own slaves in 1860. They fought for their homes and their land and, yes, for “states’ rights.”

Although both my parents and I were born and raised in New York City, three of my four grandparents were Southern and all had ancestors and near relatives who fought, and sometimes died, for the Confederacy. None of them were slaveholders. While I am profoundly grateful that they lost the war and that the scourge of slavery was finally banished from this country, I honor them for their courage and sacrifice. They were fighting for something they deeply believed in and it wasn’t slavery, it was home and hearth and family.

The flag that flies over the Confederate Soldier Monument is the Confederate battle flag, not the Confederate flag. The Confederacy had three national flags in its short existence. The first (from March 1861 to May 1863), known as the “stars and bars,” was often confused with the American flag in the heat of battle, and so it was replaced by “the stainless banner.” But it, in calm winds, could look like a surrender flag, and so in March 1865, as the Confederacy was rapidly collapsing, it was replaced with the “blood-stained banner.”

I would recommend that the battle flag—today only a symbol of racism—be replaced by the “stars and bars,” a symbol only of “the lost cause” for which so many fought and died. It should fly at half-staff.

Flags are powerful symbols. And they can be symbolic of both a cause and of reconciliation. Consider this poem, written in 1909, about a flag, captured by Union forces in a battle in the Civil War, that was returned to the 2nd Maryland Infantry, CSA:

Recovered relic of those stirring days,

Long lost, but ne’er surrendered, now restored,

We greet thee, to thy donors give the praise

For loving-kindness, not to be ignored.

 

We hail thee: “Hallowed Banner!” and we love

To con o’er fields where thou wast proudly borne

Straight to the front, which did the prowess prove

Of those great souls, all, save a few, now gone!

 

We honor that brave band, whose every breath

Marked deep devotion to the holy cause.

Wherein they struggled, even unto death,

Defending homes! Upholding righteous laws!

 

And here, dear flag, we place thee now to rest

Among thy fellows, evermore to be

Entombed in state, amid the sacred, blest

Emblems of blood-bought immortality!

The author was Major William Meade Pegram, an aide-de-camp to Confederate Cavalry General J. E. B. Stuart. He had three horses shot out from under him before being wounded at the battle of Brandy Station, June 9th, 1863, the greatest cavalry battle of the war. He was my great great grandfather.

Read Less

The Meaning of Gettysburg

Today is the 150th anniversary of the start of the Battle of Gettysburg, widely judged to be the turning point of the American Civil War, its pivotal moment, and the bloodiest battle ever in North America. Fought by more than 158,000 men on both sides over three days, 51,000 were killed, wounded or went missing. 

Today the outcome of the Civil War seems to many people to have been inevitable, but that was hardly the case. The first two years of the war–1861 and 1862–were a stalemate. Hopes of an early victory by the North were dashed. Both sides absorbed huge losses, but the South was making more headway than hardly anyone in the North imagined at the outset of the war. Abraham Lincoln was going through generals one after the other. And in May 1863 General Robert E. Lee, head of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, had triumphed at the Battle of Chancellorsville. His goal was to move north to Pennsylvania, where he hoped to draw the Union troops into a battle he expected to win. 

Before the battle Lee laid his hand on a map, over Gettysburg, and said, “Hereabout we shall probably meet the enemy and fight a great battle, and if God gives us the victory, the war will be over and we shall achieve the recognition of our independence.”

Instead, it was a crushing defeat, quickly followed by Grant’s victory at Vicksburg on July 4, allowing the Union to control the Mississippi River and essentially splitting the Confederate Army in two. So what we’re commemorating this week was arguably the crucial week in American history–the week in which the Civil War winds shifted from direction to another. It paved the way for the North’s eventual victory in April 1865.

Read More

Today is the 150th anniversary of the start of the Battle of Gettysburg, widely judged to be the turning point of the American Civil War, its pivotal moment, and the bloodiest battle ever in North America. Fought by more than 158,000 men on both sides over three days, 51,000 were killed, wounded or went missing. 

Today the outcome of the Civil War seems to many people to have been inevitable, but that was hardly the case. The first two years of the war–1861 and 1862–were a stalemate. Hopes of an early victory by the North were dashed. Both sides absorbed huge losses, but the South was making more headway than hardly anyone in the North imagined at the outset of the war. Abraham Lincoln was going through generals one after the other. And in May 1863 General Robert E. Lee, head of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, had triumphed at the Battle of Chancellorsville. His goal was to move north to Pennsylvania, where he hoped to draw the Union troops into a battle he expected to win. 

Before the battle Lee laid his hand on a map, over Gettysburg, and said, “Hereabout we shall probably meet the enemy and fight a great battle, and if God gives us the victory, the war will be over and we shall achieve the recognition of our independence.”

Instead, it was a crushing defeat, quickly followed by Grant’s victory at Vicksburg on July 4, allowing the Union to control the Mississippi River and essentially splitting the Confederate Army in two. So what we’re commemorating this week was arguably the crucial week in American history–the week in which the Civil War winds shifted from direction to another. It paved the way for the North’s eventual victory in April 1865.

“The results of this victory are priceless,” George Templeton Strong wrote in his diary. “The charm of Robert E. Lee’s invincibility is broken. The Army of the Potomac has at last found a general that can handle it, and has stood nobly up to its terrible work in spite of its long disheartening list of hard-fought failures…. Copperheads are palsied and dumb for the moment at least. … Government is strengthened four-fold at home and abroad.”

The human carnage of the Battle of Gettysburg is almost impossible for us to comprehend. In the entire Civil War, the number of deaths has been revised upward from 618,000 to 750,000 in a nation of roughly 30 million, with more than one in five men aged 20 to 24 dying as a result of the war. And as Joel K. Bourne, Jr. has written, “For every man killed or who died from wounds in the Civil War, two more died of diseases like typhoid, diarrhea, and dysentery in crowded tent camps plagued by poor food and awful sanitation.”

But these horrific losses were hardly in vain. The Civil War, after all, achieved two monumentally important things: It ended slavery and it preserved the Union, which meant it preserved and extended liberty in America and the world. George Will refers to the Battle of Gettysburg as “the hinge of American, and hence world, history.” That seems to me to be a fair judgment–and today is a good day not only to remember the annihilation that began 150 years ago but also to give thanks for the courage and purpose that was on display on the grassy hills, the consecrated ground, of Gettysburg. If the North had lost instead of won at Gettysburg, America, as we know it, would have ended. And everything would be different. Instead this nation experienced a new birth of freedom–and a government of the people, by the people and for the people did not perish from the earth.

Read Less




Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.