“Ay, tear her tattered ensign down…”*

27 Jun


Let me be the first to admit it:  I have a Confederate flag at the bottom of my cedar chest;  there, under my once-worn handmade wedding dress, a couple of my late husband’s hand-knit sweaters, and a stack of old concert tees I keep meaning to turn into a quilt someday, hidden from view.  It has always been hidden, except for the one time I dug it out to use as a prop for a silly satirical melodrama my theatre class was performing.  Even then very few beyond the cast saw it—no one else came to the performance anyway. It’s probably still there, though I haven’t seen it for years.

It was just a souvenir a college boy from Louisiana gave me so I wouldn’t forget him or his Southernness, ages ago when we were much younger and didn’t know any better, I guess.  He wasn’t a racist, that Southern boy, at least not to my knowledge; in fact, if I remember correctly, his best friend and roommate was an African guy—not just African-American, but a 100% full-fledged man from Africa.  Recently someone innocently posted a TBT picture of him (my Southern friend, not the African one, though we were friends, too, for the record) and the flag in his dorm window on the college Facebook page and all hell broke loose.  People who didn’t even know him were calling him a racist and insisting the photographer take the picture down.  Guiltily, I felt I had to chime in, to uphold his honor and proclaim he wasn’t a racist, he was just a Southerner—a good ol’ boy from the Bayou—and that he had given that flag to me.  The one I have hidden in my cedar chest.  Much ado about nothing.  Right?  Right?

Well, maybe not.  For starters, that flag was introduced in the Civil War, which wasn’t much ado about nothing.  It was much ado about a lot of somethings.  First and foremost, as a Kentuckian with one foot on either side of the state line, I have to point out the war wasn’t about slavery in the strictest sense; it was about states’ rights and the conviction that a federal government couldn’t—shouldn’t—coerce individual citizens into supporting things they didn’t want to support.  Many of those who fought—and died—for the Southern “cause,” didn’t own slaves, didn’t even believe slavery was right.  But they didn’t think Northern bullies—abolitionists or unionists—who knew very little about the Southern way of life had any right to tell them how to handle their “white man’s burden,” a burden slave traders from the North had actually initiated.  General Robert E. Lee leads the roll call, in more ways than one.  Yes, his family owned slaves, slaves inherited from his wife’s family, descendents of President George Washington, no less.  He, like Thomas Jefferson, believed in systematically freeing his own slaves; unlike the third president, though, who never got around to letting any of his chattel go, even in his will, Lee and his wife were actually in the process of doing just that, following a carefully thought-out program that prepared his former slaves for independent living, something abolitionists did not consider in their horserace to the emancipation finish line.  Even Harriet Beecher Stowe, “the little lady whose book (Uncle Tom’s Cabin) started this great big war,” as President Lincoln supposedly claimed, protested war and abrupt abolition were not her purpose, citing the lack of preparation for immediate freedom could be as destructive as the institution itself.

It did become about slavery, however, when Lincoln realized he had to do something to rally reluctant Northerners to continue fighting for a Union they were beginning to fear was slipping away with Lee’s army.  Lincoln, himself no friend of slavery, had long considered the “African” question primarily from a shrewd political perspective.  If supporting slavery would win him the coveted office, he wasn’t going to speak against it; if emancipation would stuff his ballot box, he wasn’t above climbing on the campaign stump to rail against Southern slavery, either.  There’s a reason the Emancipation Proclamation wasn’t proclaimed from the White House until 1863, over two weary years into a seemingly endless conflict: partly because that’s what Lincoln needed to light a fire under his flagging patriots—and partly because he had grown over those debilitating years into someone who didn’t just not own slaves to one who believed no one should.  Frederick Douglass’ persistent arguments had not fallen on deaf presidential ears.  Lincoln proved above all else that he was a man willing to learn, willing to admit when he had been ignorant or just plain wrong—enough to fill a book from which modern presidents might take a chapter or two.

This secondary reason for the war—a cause after the effect, perhaps—became grander than merely whether or not separation between states was sanctioned by the Federal Lord God.  If nothing else, it gave purpose to the growing, growing, always growing piles of corpses carpeting both sides of the Mason-Dixon.  Now Yankees had a principle they could sink their teeth in; now Rebels knew their days were numbered, as even many a slave owner had come to question the righteousness (or profit?) of one man owning another, no matter how many preachers cited chapter and verse in support.  Mary Boykin Chestnut’s Diary From Dixie proves even the staunchest Rebel to the bitter end was more than willing to give up her husband’s plethora of dependents (i.e., slaves) if the North would just grant the divorce the South was seeking.

So the War was and wasn’t about slavery.  And the Confederate flag was and wasn’t a symbol of that way of life.  Like many symbols, what it started out representing and what it ended up standing for in the latter day may—or may not—be entirely different things.  It depends on who is flying it and why.  I used to babysit for a little girl whose entire bedroom was rainbows:  from rainbow-colored bedspread and curtains to a big gaudy multi-colored rainbow arcing from floor to ceiling across one entire wall.  She didn’t know she was proudly flying the colors for Gay Rights; she didn’t even know what homosexuality was.  To her the rainbow flag was pretty and popular.  It created a lovely fairy-tale world she liked to play and pretend in.  For some Southerners, I suspect the flag of the CSA isn’t much different:  it represents a gone-with-the-wind world they like to fantasize about, nothing more.  The fact that that world was held aloft on the whip-scarred backs of millions of slaves likely never enters their heads, or if it does, in only a Disney Song of the South sanitized kind of way.


Contrary to many opinions, the one flying from the capitol building in South Carolina actually isn’t one that represented the Confederate States of America or the fight against Black emancipation.  By now, everyone realizes this particular flag—and the one most commonly associated with the South, the Confederacy, slavery, Dixieland, and the Dukes of Hazard—was merely a battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, General Lee’s band.  To many a Southerner, it continues to stand as merely a symbol of past sympathies, something to hold onto long after the actual flag was torn from their ancestors’ cold, dead hands.  Something to assuage the shame of defeat no other region of America has been forced to face, a generous concession from the winners to the losers. A  capricious pennant that continues to fly from the turrets of Camelot, reminding Romantics there was, for one brief shining moment…..

Because for many, Romance is really what it’s all about.  Even Southern Civil Rights Activists like me (not trying to wave any bloody shirts, but my husband and I did our bit for the “cause” back in the day…) can understand an ache for a “past that’s not dead, not even past,” as our most articulate spokesman William Faulkner put it.  There’s a reason Gone With the Wind is still one of the most popular movies ever made, and it’s not just Rhett Butler’s looking like he knows what we look like without a chemise.  Romance—that destructive desire for what isn’t, regardless what that “what” is.  To them, those who want to remove the flag are just party poopers, wanting to take the romance out of everything like air from a balloon, forcing the fingers of the blinded down on the red-hot Braille of reality, as another Southern spokesman (Tennessee Williams) so eloquently phrased it.

But this living in a fantasy world really does need to come to an end.  Not only do adults need to face up to realistic responsibilities, they especially need to do so when their whimsical world is propped up by the rotting remnants of an existence that caused and continues to cause great pain to others.  As the adage says, “It’s all fun and games—until somebody gets hurt.”  It may be ok to live in a Romantic daydream, as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody.  Or maybe it isn’t even ok then.  No one would expect Jews to tolerate others running around dressed like Nazis, for example; in fact, the swastika, purloined insignia of hate and evil, is banned in Germany where its party once ruled with an iron fist.  Had the Nazis won, I’m sure that angry black spider sprawled across its bloody background would continue to intimidate all who cower beneath its arrogance.  Had they won.  But they didn’t.  And their flag has been taken down.  And banned.  No, it isn’t erased from the history books or removed from museum display cases, but it isn’t allowed to flourish from official government buildings or even grace (disgrace?) the fronts of souvenir t-shirts, at least not there.  Even as a Southerner I admit I am amazed we’ve allowed the Confederate flag to fly so long, if for no other reason than the concession that it represents a treasonous act against the united States of America.  That has really been “letting ‘em down easy,” as Lincoln implored, to a fault.

So, in spite of my souvenir Rebel flag (probably moth-eaten by now) and my Kentucky-rooted ambivalence, let me lift up my voice with the others singing out to furl the flag of Southern sympathies.  Misty visions of mint juleps, magnolias, and moonlight can’t hold up against the stark black and white photographs of the Emmitt Tills, Medgar Everses, the four little girls in Birmingham, or, now, the nine dead members of the Charleston Emanuel A.M.E Church.  Not that the flag itself necessarily prompted this massacre of the beautiful and innocent; likely Dylann Roof would have developed and attempted to carry out his evil racist agenda regardless of what flag was flying from his government’s capitol cupola.  But we have to start somewhere, even if it’s as innocuous and symbolic as removing a rag from a pole.  Maybe we didn’t mean anything by it.  Or maybe we did.  Maybe no one cares.  Or maybe someone does. Whatever. We need to grow up, in the South and all over the United States.

Amazingly, Charleston, once the scene of the largest slave assembly, not to mention the opening act of the Civil War, is leading the way by reacting to its recent episode of senseless, deplorable violence, not with more violence as in Ferguson or Baltimore, but by forgiving, praying, and embracing.  And its state’s governor, the political descendent of the first to declare his state’s secession from the Union, has opened the dialogue for change by calling for the removal of that symbol from their government’s official buildings. That’s how adults respond, regardless of their race or sensibilities.  We all look small and childish if we don’t follow suit.

To paraphrase St. Paul’s I Corinthians 13 message, when we are children, maybe it’s ok to think as children; but now we are no longer children, we need to put away our childish things, in a cedar chest or a history museum.  And get on with it.

Rebecca Luttrell Briley, Ph.D.

Midway, Kentucky

June 24, 2015

*Oliver Wendell Holmes, “Old Ironsides”



2 Responses to ““Ay, tear her tattered ensign down…”*”

  1. Caroline E. Murphy June 28, 2015 at 1:47 am #

    Beautiful. As a Northern woman, wife and mother I have always weeped at Southern battlefields and thought “how sad to have lost what it was to be a Southerner “. But, after all these years true Southern charm and gentile manners,as demonstrated by Charlestonians, represent a Southerner more than a flag.

  2. Rhonda Gilmour June 30, 2015 at 10:58 pm #

    Beautifully written.

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