To a mother, who brought him her two sons, loudly expressing her hatred of the North, Lee said, “Madam, don’t bring up your sons to detest the United States Government. Recollect that we form but one country now. Abandon all these local animosities, and make your sons Americans.” – The Life and Campaigns of General Lee, Edward Lee Childe, 1875
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Here I sit, a second time newcomer to Pennsylvania after spending the better part of the last two decades in my beloved Virginia. Once again, I am called to be an ambassador of my home state.
So, we have this Confederate Battle Flag issue again. I have seen it all, you know; I am on social media. I have friends in the Northeast, friends in the Southeast, friends who are conservative, friends who are liberal. Post any meme or story you want to thump your chest and show off your position if it makes you feel better about yourself. Blame historians, blame the media, blame whoever the hell you want. But know this: there is nothing you can say or comment that I have not heard. Nothing.
I have friends and family who like the flag, identify with it, and see nothing wrong with it. I have other friends who see it as a bitter reminder of our country’s Original Sin.
I loved to watch The Dukes of Hazzard as a pre-teen in the late ’70s and early ’80s. The flag on the roof of the General Lee didn’t seem to matter as much then. Watch all of the episodes. The Duke family was welcoming of everyone.
When I first went to Penn State in 1987, I missed Virginia terribly. Ask anyone who spent time around me. In the last few weeks of my freshman year, I went to the Army Navy store in State College in search of a Virginia State Flag. I could not find one. But I did find a Confederate Battle Flag, so I bought it. I put it up in my apartment the next couple of years. Southern pride. I thought nothing else about it.
Flags, like most symbols, are deeply personal. And that is what it meant to me. When I moved back to Virginia in 1994, it got packed away. At some point in the last 20 years, it became tattered, and I discarded it.
The meanings of symbols change. This is a certainty of life. When I was at Appomattox Court House National Historic Park several years ago, I spoke with a ranger. He told me something I found wildly ironic: During the war, the Battle Flag was flown because it was considered less offensive than the Confederate States of America National Flag (below).
The meaning of the Battle Flag has evolved, which brings us to our current situation. Actually, one that has been bubbling for a century and a half. I cannot help but find the irony, given this past spring was the 150th anniversary of the Surrender at Appomattox.
Recall the swastika was not always a symbol of Nazism. They stole it, repurposed it, and promoted it into something sinister. It used to have much more positive connotations. No more. At least not in Western cultures.
Similarly, for me, the Battle Flag was stolen. Not that it was a benevolent symbol to begin with, but when I was younger, it seemed to be a harmless relic representing youth and rebellion. My demographic allowed me to think about it that way.
But white supremacists latched on to it. Made it a point to show it off. Screaming, intimidating, and terrorizing people as the flag was prominently displayed. Blathering on as if losing the Civil War were some travesty of history. Then there was the advent of television. Then the internet. Images of white supremacists with that flag over and over. And over and over. Ad nauseum. No more handsome pictures of the Duke Boys in the General Lee doing nice things for people. Those don’t make the news. Sorry. This is the 21st Century.
I love sweet tea and barbecue with cole slaw like most everyone else born in the South. My great-great grandfather, George Bland Sublett, fought for the CSA. So don’t lecture me about Heritage Not Hate, how I’m not Southern, or that I’m betraying my ancestors. Southern is not a heritage. Do some work and go back more than five or six generations. My heritage is from the north of France.
I have friends whose heritage is from Africa. The Battle Flag is deeply hurtful to them. Choosing not to display it is not political correctness, it is out of respect for my friends.
Having said that, if you want to fly the flag on your private property, go wild. You want it on your pickup truck? Rock on. No one should force you to take it down. But it has absolutely no business being displayed prominently at a government facility or on public property… federal, state, or local. Museums of course, being an obvious exception.
For a long time, I have worried about what people thought of me. In fact, in my last line of work, it was part of keeping my job. Perhaps this post has angered you or disappointed you. I have a thought about that.
Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.