One of the best explications I’ve seen yet of us Southr’en boys’ bone-deep affinity for the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia:
If the goal of our shared civic experience was the avoidance of pain, then we’d take down that flag. But that’s of course not the goal. Rather, we use history to understand our nation in all its complexity — acknowledging uncomfortable realities and learning difficult truths. For white southerners — especially those with deep roots in the South — those difficult truths are presented front and center throughout our lives. Yes, the South seceded in large part to preserve slavery. Yes, had the South prevailed, slavery not only would have been preserved for the indefinite future, it may have even spread to new nations and territories. And no, while some southerners were kinder than others, there was nothing “humane” about the fundamental institution of slavery itself. As Coates and others have often and eloquently explained, it was a system built on plunder and pain.
But there are other difficult truths. Among them, when the war began, it was not explicitly a war to end slavery. Indeed, had the Union quickly accomplished its war aims, slavery would have endured, at least for a time. When hundreds of thousands of southern men took up arms (most of them non-slave-owning), many of them fought with the explicit belief that they were standing in the shoes of the Founding Fathers, men who’d exercised their own right of self-determination to separate from the mother Country. Others simply saw an invading army marching into their state — into their towns and across their farms — and chose to resist.
And no one can doubt their valor. Both sides displayed breathtaking courage, but the South poured itself into the fight to an extent the modern American mind simply can’t comprehend. If you extrapolated Southern losses into our current American population, the war would cost the lives of a staggering 9 million men, with at least an equivalent number injured. To understand the impact of that human loss, I’d urge you to read Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust’s Republic of Suffering — a book that explores the psychological impact of omnipresent, mass-scale death on southern culture.
Those men fought against a larger, better-supplied force, yet — under some of history’s more brilliant military commanders — were arguably a few better-timed attacks away from prevailing in America’s deadliest conflict. Then, the defeated survivors came home to the consequences of total war. Large sections of the South were simply devastated — crops burned, homes burned, and livestock slaughtered or scattered. Entire cities lay in ruin.
The South had to rebuild — under military occupation — and it had to rebuild more than just its physical infrastructure. It had to reimagine itself. It ultimately did so for good and ill. The worst of that new South was obvious: the gradually tightening grip of a new and different era of racial oppression, one that culminated in Jim Crow, lynching, and systematic segregation. This is the side of history that is now taught clearly and unflinchingly — and should be taught. But that wasn’t the whole story, not by any means. The region also rebuilt by honoring its war dead and extolling a culture of military valor. Through this reverence for valor, the defeated South, ironically enough, soon supplied the newly reunified nation with many of its greatest warriors — men who were indispensable in preserving our democracy against the existential threats of fascism and communism. To this day, the South supplies more than its fair share of soldiers, men and women who lay down their lives to protect us from the deadly threat of jihad.
It is telling that the South’s chosen, enduring symbol of the Confederacy wasn’t the flag of the Confederate States of America — the slave state itself — but the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, Robert E. Lee’s army. Lee was the reluctant Confederate, the brilliant commander, the man who called slavery a “moral and political evil,” and the architect — by his example — of much of the reconciliation between North and South. His virtue grew in the retelling — and modern historians still argue about his true character — but the symbolism was clear. If the South was to rebuild, it would rebuild under Lee’s banner.
Since that time, the battle flag has grown to mean many things, including evil things. Flying it as a symbol of white racial supremacy is undeniably vile, and any official use of the flag for that purpose should end, immediately. Flying it over monuments to Confederate war dead is simply history. States should no more remove a Confederate battle flag from a Confederate memorial than they should chisel away the words on the granite or bulldoze the memorials themselves.
Long may it wave; no amount of misplaced liberal white guilt will suffice to remove the tattoo of it from my right bicep, one of the earliest tattoos I got, nor will the true meaning of it to me personally (nothing whatever to do with racism, I assure you) ever be usurped or tainted by some race-baiting huckster or double-talking Leftist scoundrel. Read all of this one too; every word’s a gem, and the closing is not only poignant but crucial. Kudos, David, and lots of ’em.