Honor the American Flag by Discarding Relics of the Past

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America continues to shed its sad racial history as public support grows against display of the Confederate battle-flag (specifically, the battle-flag of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia). Tragically it took nine June 2015 racist murders in Charleston, South Carolina, home of the Confederacy, to really awaken Americans to the need to move on.

Although many Confederate soldiers fought proudly and bravely under the ANV and similar battle-flags, they have outlived their usefulness and serve only to divide Americans. It is sad, but true, that their popularity boomed as symbols of segregation (remember George Wallace, Strom Thurmond, and Orval Faubus?) during the long civil rights struggles of the mid-1900s. That history makes them negative, racial, and harmful.

The die-hard defense of displaying Confederate battle-flags is that doing so honors Confederate forbears who fought for the Confederacy. But do we really want to provide a means of honoring the Confederacy? Contrary to majority opinion, the Confederacy was not about states’ rights. Instead it was about preservation of slavery and white supremacy. As shown in my just-released book, The Myth of the Lost Cause: Why the South Fought the Civil War and Why the North Won, there is compelling evidence that secession and the Confederacy were the result of Southerners’ desire to preserve slavery and white supremacy – not to promote states’ rights.

Tying together the flag and Confederate motives was an 1863 Savannah, Georgia editorial supporting the Confederacy’s second national flag, which had a large white field with the ANV battle-flag in the corner: “As a people, we are fighting to maintain the heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored races. A white flag would thus be emblematical of our cause.” That rationale for secession and the Confederacy is why my book cover features a tattered version of the Confederate battle-flag. It is shattered by exposure of the Myth of the Lost Cause. (The cover was released before the Charleston tragedy.)

The evidence of the seceders’ motivations is clear-cut and convincing. Only slave states seceded, and the greater the percentage of slaves and the percentage of slave-owning families the more likely a slave state was to secede. Those states complained that the Federal Government was doing not too much but too little – Southerners wanted the central government to more aggressively enforce slavery, especially to return runaway slaves. They also were upset that other states were passing “liberty laws” to make it more difficult to retrieve runaways. The issue was not who had the power to do what but instead whether their powers were being used to promote slavery. Far from respecting individual states’ rights, they wanted to compel the Federal and other state governments to enforce slaveholders’ rights and preserve slavery.

The strongest evidence of seceders’ motivations is the language they used in their own secession documents. Their reasons included the election of Abraham Lincoln, who opposed extension of slavery into territories; the runaway slave issue; the threat to slavery’s existence with the possible loss of four to six billion dollars in slave property (the largest component of Southern wealth); the perceived end of white supremacy and the resultant political and social equality of blacks and whites, and desperate warnings of the effect all this change would have on Southern Womanhood.

Instigator South Carolina’s declaration of the reasons for secession said, “an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery, has led to a disregard of their obligations, and the laws of the General Government have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution [runaway slave return provision].”

As he called for a secession convention, Mississippi’s governor declared, “The existence or the abolition of African slavery in the Southern States is now up for a final settlement.” Citing only slavery-protection reasons, that state’s legislature convened a secession convention. The latter’s declaration of the causes of secession got right to the point in its opening line: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest of the world.”

Not only did their own secession resolutions reveal slavery and white supremacy as their causation, but the seven states who seceded before Lincoln’s inauguration immediately began an outreach campaign to other slave states. Their correspondence and speeches relied only on slavery-related issues to encourage other slave states’ secession.

Much other evidence demonstrates that slavery and white supremacy preservation were the causes of secession and even trumped possible Confederate victory in the war. All efforts to avoid war by compromise focused only on slavery issues. Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens said slavery was the “cornerstone” of the Confederacy and Thomas Jefferson and the Founding Fathers had erred in stating that all men were created equal.

Even though it had a tremendous manpower shortage, the Confederacy officially rejected the use of slaves as soldiers (as inconsistent with its white supremacy views) and rejected one-on-one prisoner exchanges for captured black Union soldiers. Just as American colonists needed European intervention to win the Revolutionary War, the Confederates were desperate for British and French intervention; however, they declined to end slavery in order to achieve involvement by the slavery-despising Europeans.

The Confederacy’s defeat ended slavery and kept America from being an international pariah. It also resulted in passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th constitutional amendments; these provided the legal basis for ending legal segregation and providing blacks with voting and other civil rights – after a hundred years of Jim Crow laws and nationwide segregation.

We should celebrate the demise of the Confederacy and slavery, as well as the decline of white supremacy, by ignoring Confederate symbols, such as its battle-flag, and instead relish, display and celebrate the flag of the United States of America. The U.S. flag represents equality and freedom that is only dreamed of in much of the world. Let’s use it.

Edward H. Bonekemper, III is a military historian, teacher and writer. He is the author of the recent book published by Regnery History, The Myth of the Lost Cause: Why the South Fought the Civil War and Why the North Won.