Versions of this article were published as the Guest Column: “Why Does the Confederate Flag Still Fly” in The Register Citizen and The Middletown Press - June 30, 2015
Have you ever wondered why the Confederate flag still flies over state capitols, cities and cemeteries in the South? The Stars and Bars was the war flag of the Confederacy during the Civil War, a misnomer if there ever was one. “War” is a state of armed conflict between nations. “Civil” is a state of affairs defined by courtesy and politeness. Put them together and you get “civil war” the antonym to the bloodbath that was the United States between 1861 and 1865.
Civil wars usually end with summary executions of the leaders of the rebellion followed with reprisals aimed at the rank of file. The reprisals - massacres and brutal suppression with economic sanctions ranging from confiscation to expulsion – are administered with unchecked fury. Justice in the eyes of the victors is absolute and without mercy.
Secession and armed insurrection started the Civil War. Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis and the South were all guilty of treason - “levying war” against the United States as defined by and in the Constitution. Yet after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox and Lincoln’s assassination his successor Andrew Johnson, a southerner by birth, issued a number of Presidential Proclamations granting first amnesty then full universal pardons to the rebels. As a result not one man guilty of treason was ever arrested much less prosecuted.
Pragmatism and self-interest had intervened – justice was denied. There were too many guilty men to be dealt with, to be brought to justice and punished for acts of treason that had cost one million lives and millions of dollars. The South had been given a free get out of jail card; amnesty and pardons had washed away the sins of the South and its rebels.
By avoiding retribution the South side stepped the need to face the grim reality of defeat. It could honor its military heroes, the Jeb Stuarts and Jubal Earlys and erect statues in their name in town squares. It could celebrate the victories of the Battles of Bull Run and Carthage and mark Confederate Memorial Day in ten states. The men who had participated in rebellion had been granted full Presidential pardons and were now cast as defenders of home and hearth. The South came to believe that it had not lost the war and continued to fly that rebel flag with pride and impunity.
Amnesty, the base pragmatic solution that prevented further bloodshed, had trumped justice and the rule of law. The display of the Confederate flag, the symbol of the rebellion, could not be prohibited once the acts of treason forgiven and crimes rendered null and void.
If at the end of the Second World War Germany’s political and military leaders [Hitler, Ribbentrop and Himmler], the Waffen SS and concentration camp prison guards had been granted amnesty and full pardons the use of the National Flag of Germany [1935-1945], the blood red one with a black swastika in a white circle, would not be prohibited as it is in many countries and could well be displayed in some German cities and towns. It is not because our moral compass worked in 1945 while it did not in 1865.
Before you bristle at my mention of Nazi concentration camps let me remind you of Andersonville, the Georgia prisoner of war camp where 13,000 men died of starvation and exposure and the Elmira, New York hell hole where many more perished. Trials for treason, war crimes and crimes against humanity – Sherman’s “Marching through Georgia” for one – would have done our country some good.
The time to lower the Confederate flag is long past. It has acquired secondary meanings - it was adopted by the Klu Klux Klan in the 1910’s and by stupid ignorant assholes today. So let people display the Confederate flag if they will, as some misguided fools do the Nazi one, but not on public property, not as government speech or by public officials, not on our watch.