I spent the last four days at a camp in rural northern Alabama learning some of the finer points of singing and leading songs in the Sacred Harp tradition. Part of camp included a field trip to the Winston County Courthouse in Double Springs where the above monument stands.
I was thinking about this today in the wake of the horrible incident of white supremacist terrorism that occurred in Charleston, SC, on Wednesday night and after reading my friend Steve Saideman’s blog post in which he argued that the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, typically but inaccurately called the Confederate Flag, is a simple hate symbol.
I’m not going to argue that Steve is wrong here, only that his characterization is incomplete, an over-simplification of a complex reality in which history, identity, memory, and commemoration are deeply intertwined. Steve is right when he contends that the flag has been embraced by unreconstructed racists and white supremacists, and is seen by the African-American community as a symbol of that racist bigotry. For Steve that settles it: When both the racists and their targets agree on the meaning of a symbol that meaning is set. Often this is where the debate over this particular symbol ends. I’d like to continue it for a moment.
Now to be fully transparent, I grew up in a small town in rural central Florida, a place where local lore had it that the Ku Klux Klan provided the color guard for the annual Labor Day Parade up until the 1970s (while I never saw it, I believe the tale). As the child of Yankee parents, I have long thought of myself as “from the South” though not necessarily “of the South,” if that makes any sense. I have no innate love for the Stars and Bars. And while I have never had the desire to fly one myself, I have never made the mistake of assuming that every display of that flag is intended as a statement of unashamed racial hatred or longing for a time in which “those people” knew their place.
Let me return then to the monument depicted at the top of the page and what it represents. Winston County* was, in 1860, home to fewer than 3,500 people, mostly poor white farmers. Of that total 122 were slaves. It was also a place where opposition to secession ran strong, where the Confederacy was viewed by many of the residents as intended to cement the political dominance of the state’s wealthy planter class over everyone else. When the Alabama Secession Convention in January 1861 voted by a two-to-one margin to secede from the Union, the county’s representative to the Alabama Secession Convention refused to sign. A vocal pro-Union supporter, he was arrested and spent most of the war in prison. At a meeting held back in Winston County, a resolution was passed declaring that if Alabama could secede from the Union, the county could secede from the state of Alabama.
Many of the county’s residents refused induction into the Confederate Army, and when the Union Army invaded northern Alabama in the spring of 1862, many who had refused to fight for the Confederacy enlisted in the Union Army’s 1st Alabama Cavalry Regiment, earning honors at the battles of Monroe’s Crossroads and Bentonville in Mississippi. The regiment lost 482 enlisted men and five officers killed in action before it was mustered out of service in 1865.
The monument, known as “Dual Destiny,” commemorates this history. Both Union and Confederate flags fly, and the soldier depicted, when you look closely, is seen to be wearing half a uniform from each army. The monument is about politics, that is true. But it is also about sacrifice, for causes both noble and ignoble. And here is where I think we need to think more broadly about the meaning of the Confederate Flag.
In my experience, that flag is flown across the South (and I will reserve my comments to that context rather than try to make sense of its use by, for example, Kid Rock and his legions of cutoffs-and-tank top sporting fans) for racist reasons, yes. But it is also often flown at cemeteries and battlefields and historic sites to honor men who are thought to have fought bravely and honorably even if the cause for which they fought and died was profoundly unjust. It is a recognition that good people may go to war for the worst of reasons and to fight to advance immoral policies made by men typically far removed from the realities of the battlefield. We should remind ourselves that such cases are not only found in the distant past.
In short this is more than just nostalgia. It should not be reimagined by the rest of us as no more than willful disregard for or ignorance of the complex reality that what the Confederacy was fighting to support was the enslavement of one group of humans by another.
The American South, like Northern Ireland, is a place where long memories lie buried too close to the surface. Symbols of heritage, identity, and sacrifice for one community are seen as symbols of oppression, hatred, and violence for another. What’s missing from both places, it seems to me, is the ability of each community to understand and acknowledge the perspective of the other. And until that happens these symbols, whether Confederate Flag, or Union Jack, or Irish Tricolor, will continue to inflame, incite, and divide.
*This history of the “Republic of Winston” is taken from the Wikipedia entry of the same name, as is the history of the 1st Alabama Cavalry. I’m not proud of taking this shortcut, but it’s nearly summer and the weather outside is lovely.