Today the Confederate battle flag was finally lowered from its flagpole in front of the state capitol in Columbia, SC. The ceremony was brief and carried out with precision and decorum by a color guard of the South Carolina Highway Patrol. About the circumstances I have a couple of observations, but first some background.
This was the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, General Robert E. Lee’s army, never the national flag. The fact that it is a battle flag and not a state or national flag has some significance. True, it was incorporated into two subsequent versions of the Confederate States national flag, but for most of the war, until 1863, the national Confederate flag looked very much like the Union flag, a circle of thirteen stars representing the seceding states and three broad red and white stripes. Early in the war, troops in the smoke and fury of battle would easily confuse the Confederate national flag with the Stars and Stripes with disastrous results. To prevent this confusion, Lee’s army designed a flag to carry into battle which used the same colors of red white and blue and thirteen stars, incorporating them into a design similar to the British Union Jack.
It was this battle flag that was surrendered 150 years ago at Appomattox, Virginia. Battle flags are not flown from flagpoles. Their purpose is a narrow one, to locate and identify troops on the field of battle. That is what is significant about this flag. Soldiers who carried it in battle left their weapon behind and knew full well they were very likely to die. One can only imagine the feelings of these soldiers when they had to pile these flags with their weapons, never to be used again. Rather than being taken prisoners of war, they were allowed to return to their homes on nothing more than their word of honor, their parole, to never take up arms against the Union again.
Fast forward to April 11, 1961, the eve of the centennial of the battle of Fort Sumter which opened the Civil War. The battle flag that Lee furled and surrendered is raised again, this time over the capitol dome in Columbia, South Carolina, to commemorate the historic battle. But less than a year later the legislature made its display permanent. It is generally acknowledged by historians that the reason for continuing to fly it long after the commemoration lay in the state’s opposition to court ordered desegregation.
Fast forward 39 years to April 12, 2000, same anniversary. The South Carolina Senate votes 36 to 7 to remove the flag from the capitol dome. But the compromise simply moved it to a prominent spot directly in front of the capitol, over a soldiers memorial.
Which brings us to today, when it was finally lowered, folded and removed to be displayed in a nearby museum.
I would make two observations about this event.
The first is that the soldiers who fought and who saw their fellow soldiers die while carrying this flag gave their word of honor never to take up arms against the Union again. It very much surprises me that their descendants a hundred years later never considered this fact when they chose to raise that flag once more. I would call it dishonorable. I think that General Lee would agree.
The second observation is this. I share the feelings of the many people who have been pushing to have the flag taken down, particularly in light of the recent tragic shootings in Charleston, SC. There is no doubt in my mind that the flag, especially in the last sixty years, has become more a symbol of hate than the symbol of home and soldierly valor that Lee and his army held it to be. I too was happy to see it finally taken down. Yet at that same moment, I could not help but remember what General Grant said after the surrender had been signed at Appomattox. When he heard his troops begin firing their guns and whooping in celebration he issued orders to his staff that it cease. The following day, as the Confederate troops marched by and threw their weapons and their flags onto two piles, the Union troops stood silently at his orders and saluted their former enemies. We should remember what he said to them. “The war is over. The rebels are our countrymen again.”
There was something unseemly and unhappy about the cheering, and particularly the jeering and the singing of a rude song often sung at sporting events, that suggested that for some the war is still not over, and that they consider those with whom they disagree to be still not their “countrymen“.
Lee and his soldiers furled that flag, put aside the terrible feelings that only veterans of war can know, and gave their word. Grant and his soldiers also put down their arms and set aside their urge to gloat in victory. Perhaps today, 150 years later, we can learn from their example. Perhaps we too can put aside such feelings and acknowledge that we are all equally part of these United States. The final lowering of this flag is a symbolic start, but the change must happen in our hearts if the war is ever to be truly over.