Confederate flags, re-enactors, complex symbols

by Matt Gallman

About six weeks ago two high school students from North Carolina found themselves in the center of a minor kerfuffle when they posted an Instagram picture from their recent class trip to Gettysburg.

The two girls had just finished walking the ground at Pickett’s Charge and posed waving Confederate flags. A friend of mine who is a popular blogger wrote that it was a particular desecration to wave the Confederate flag on the sacred ground at Gettysburg.

I could not resist responding that it seemed to me an actual Civil War battlefield might be the only place such flag displays were appropriate.

That was a more innocent time … back in May of 2015.

Now we have seen an unspeakable horror in Charleston, South Carolina, and the nation’s eyes have turned to the awkward – and sometimes unfathomable – display of Confederate flags on state houses, license plates, and state flags. (Never mind that this worthy pursuit of unsavory symbols seems to have distracted attention from the perhaps more worthy pursuit of improved gun control legislation.)

There is no space here for more than a quick summary of some basic facts.

Yes, the Confederacy was formed largely to protect the institution of slavery.

No, most southern soldiers were not slave holders and their motivations might have been quite mixed, although nearly all were strongly pro-slavery.

The modern display of Confederate flags on public buildings and as part of state flags does not date to the 1860s but rather to a much later resistance to desegregation and racial equality. The wartime flag was appropriated by a different generation of unambiguous white supremacists.

There is absolutely no reason to believe that most folks who display a Confederate flag license plate know anything at all about history.

Then there are the Civil War re-enactors.

Folks like to dress as Civil War soldiers, learn 19th century military maneuvers, camp out using rustic equipment, and occasionally “reenact” Civil War battles. Other folks like to mock them or be outraged by them.

Most of the Civil War re-enactors I have known or observed (not a small number) strike me as dedicated social historians, who are most interested in the daily life of the Civil War soldier. They are interested in the authenticity of clothing, food, and weaponry. They read the letters and diaries of infantrymen. They enjoy the camaraderie of their re-enactor companies. In my observation they are not idiots. They do not believe that they are “playing war,” nor do they believe that they are somehow “experiencing the real thing.” They have a hobby that involves studying the past, and they seem to enjoy it.

Here in Florida we have a fairly large annual reenacting event commemorating the Battle of Olustee, and – more recently – a smaller annual event marking the much smaller Battle at Gainesville.

Civil War reenactments almost by definition raise rather inconvenient truths. The guys with the Confederate flags are reenacting men who were fighting for a society built upon human bondage.

Moreover, the actual narrative of the Battle of Olustee (a Confederate victory) adds more complex layers. The Union army put three black regiments into the field that day, including the famed 54th Massachusetts. After battle reports make it clear that some black Union soldiers who were captured on the field were summarily executed rather than being taken prisoner. These sorts of racial atrocities occurred on other battlefields as well. (I do not know that the annual Olustee event acknowledges these atrocities, but the excellent official web page does.)

So, we are back to Confederate flags and symbols. I do not wish to tell other people how to think, but here is how I look at it.

People who devote long hours in their spare time to studying and reenacting the lives of Confederate soldiers may in fact be crazed white supremacists, but their hobby is not evidence of that. They do not celebrate slavery, and the good ones understand the horrors of this war.

Meanwhile, folks who defend the flying of Confederate flags on today’s public buildings are – whether they fully get it or not – engaged in a very different sort of symbolic action, mired in a long history of violent racism.

Politicians who cater to those sentiments are engaged in a special sort of divisive evil.

But when those same politicians put their fingers in the air and shift positions because the wind blows in the opposite direction, I find it hard to give them too much credit.

Get rid of those flags, but then get back to me when you do something serious about those guns.

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