America, Family History, Politics, Privilege, Racism

A Culture of Remembrance – Take Down the Flag

I grew up in a house in which hung a print of “The Last Meeting of Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson Before the Battle of Chancellorsville” (engraved by Frederick Halpin, after Everett Julio), that classic emblem of the Lost Cause. This was common then in my neighborhood in Old Town Portsmouth, Virginia. My father, a Civil War buff who would tell me about the battles as we drove around Virginia, never indicated that the cause was just, but honored both men as soldiers, tacticians, human beings, Virginians. Yet in his political life he angered people including his own political party, to the point of death threats, by his political stands against the institutionally-protected racism of Massive Resistance.

I’m not sure how to reconcile these things.

I still have the print, no longer hanging anywhere, but I don’t quite know what to do with it. I don’t want to send it out into the world, nor do I want to destroy it, simply because it reminds me of my dad. Let me be clear; he was a soft-spoken intellectual, not a gun-toting guy with a truck bearing Confederate flag decals. I told you, in his time, he was considered radical in his politics. Well, radical for Virginia.

Yet, we have this heritage, this culture of remembrance of the men who gave their gifts to what was in every way the wrong side of a terrible war, evil as war always tends to be and doubly evil in pitting, as I learned in school, brother against brother, and even brother against sister in the case of the Jackson family, and ultimately evil in the lies people told themselves and the world about the reasons, praising chivalry and states’ rights, denying that the profit to be found in owning other people and considering them to be less than human drove the cause so rightly lost.

Lee and Jackson on a plate
Lee and Jackson on a plate

Somewhere among my books is a large pictorial biography of General Lee, awarded to me for outstanding work in Social Studies in the 5th grade at an Episcopal girls’ school, St. Agnes, in Alexandria, Virginia. It was presented by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. What about the stack of Lenox commemorative dinner plates sold in the 1970s to fundraise for the restoration of the White House of the Confederacy? I never saw them used, never knew they existed until after my parents were dead. I can picture him writing a check for the sake of historical preservation.

Is it defensible because we should not forget?

Can we remember without glorifying?

What to do with these things?

As a child, I remember sitting on the rug, playing with a figure of Lee seated on his horse, Traveller. That at least is long gone.

I am not the only one who doesn’t know what to do with all the things that carry the taint of revolution and racism. I don’t want to get rid of them and thereby circulate them.

I do know what *not* to do with them, not to celebrate them, not to display them in our homes or our cars or our public monuments, not to imbue them with some holy power.  

Please, South Carolina, take down the flag.

9 thoughts on “A Culture of Remembrance – Take Down the Flag”

  1. Since you expressed it well, I understand your nostalgia. It’s like one of those naked on a rug baby pictures. You can contemplate its existence with affection, but you don’t want it hanging on the living room wall.

    As I expect you’re aware, the nostalgia associated with this particular flag is a historically inaccurate fantasy. It’s a battle flag, not the one used for CSA government. And no one cared enough to run it up a public flagpole until the damn Yankee gubmint decreed that integrating schools was mandatory. There was no need for “remembrance” between 1865 and 1956.

    1. Yes, I am aware of that flag’s history. I’m also conscious of the genteel weirdness in my own history and hope it helps make a point. Thanks for commenting.

  2. Keep the symbols. You only want to get rid of them because of today’s political correctness. That is a disease that can be cured. Future generations will not be plagued by it, if at some point, rationality again enters the human experience.

    1. If by “political correctness” we mean “speaking and acting as if all human beings are equally human” then I sincerely hope all future generations are far more plagued by it than we are. Too often the only people using that term are people who want to be able to openly and without accountability demean and degrade other people on account of their skin color/gender/sexuality/mental capacity/nationality/weight/etc.

  3. Martha–you make many interesting points, and articulate well (which does NOT surprise me) the dilemma we experience with objects that were intended to show the superiority, the “rightness” or some such, of the makers of the objects or even monuments or buildings. Your focus is on individually owned items, but many of the complexities apply too to public items.
    I think it is important to keep certain things–e.g. some of the Nazis’ death camps. For example Auschwitz is falling apart, and that has sparked a firestorm of controversy: let it crumble? or keep it? On that issue, I can argue both sides–the evil that it represents is so horrific, so objectionable, so never-to-be-repeated that the destruction of that death camp would be fitting. And yet…yet, I realize that we humans are plagued with such short term memory that keeping something tangible to remind us–not to celebrate–but remind us that this is the evil of which we are all capable, in our darkest times. Remove the physical structure and perhaps remove the memory.
    So, your family mementos–probably these don’t rise to “for the sake of history” keeping. But they still serve a purpose. So, I think there’s a difference between keeping something, such as you describe, and intentionally collecting the same. Only a museum or some other institution of learning should collect such.
    But as for the Confederate battle flag…yes, absolutely, take it down.

  4. OK you may not like what I have to say, but the Confederate flag to me is a sign of treason pure and simple-to say nothing of racism and evil. We are Americans. Take that thing down.

  5. Keep the plate as it is a family heirloom. I was able to feel the warm feelings it brings about your dad. I think I would even have it on display. As to the flag I feel it should never be flown on public grounds. It is a symbol of treason and should never be flown near the American flag. I do not know if your ancestors fought in the Civil War or on which side if they did. My advice is not to judge them for their actions which we will never understand fully. My ancestors as far I know were all in the Union army. However if I go back to the Revolutionary War they were on both sides of that issue. I feel that your Father’s enlighten views came from the knowledge he had of the Civil War and his understanding of human nature. Now that I think about it I would hang that plate with a picture of your Father right next to it.

    1. It’s really not a family heirloom. It’s a 1970s era decorative plate, part of a set from Franklin Mint. It certainly illustrates the tension between remembering family and national history as opposed to glorifying it.

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