I was concerned to see a large number of Confederate flags flying this past Memorial Day. Driving between Cohocton and Dansville I could not help but notice at least two dozen such flags, some of which were flying alongside the US flag and others flying alone. I am always bothered by the fact that so many seem so unconcerned with the feelings of their neighbors, but I am even more disturbed by the ignorance that apparently surrounds flying of the flag of the Confederacy. I should make it clear that anyone in this country is welcome to fly whatever flag they want or post whatever sign they want on their property (though public property would be another matter entirely) — that is our Constitutional right — but do not think that many of the people who fly this flag intend to make the statement that they are indeed making.
One of the most common points of ignorance has to do with what we use today as “the Confederate flag” was not really a symbol of the Confederacy at all. The design on the flag that is now in use was on the Confederate battle flag, which was almost always square rather than rectangular, but was never an official symbol of the Confederate states. The Confederate first national flag, or “Stars and Bars” had three stripes and a blue field with stars in the corner, while later national flags did have the battle flag design in the upper left corner, they were otherwise white to symbolize (racial) purity. The rectangular version of the battle flag was used by a western army, but was not widespread, until after the Civil War when it was adopted by white supremacist and nationalist groups like the Ku Klux Klan.
Though the modern “Confederate Flag” was not a symbol of the Confederacy, let us assume for the sake of argument that it was. If that were the case, then it would have represented the CSA for only four years, while it has been a symbol of hate and divisiveness for over 150 years. Despite efforts to “rebrand” its meaning, it continues to primarily represent sentiments of racism and national division, and that is overwhelmingly likely to remain the case.
Some modern fliers of the “Confederate Flag” claim that they are honoring ancestors who fought for the Confederacy. Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to use a flag that the ancestor would have actually valued? Perhaps the square battle flag, or better: one of the national flags of the Confederacy, or better yet: a period-appropriate state flag (none of which sported the battle flag design, by the way), since most soldiers and citizens of the South were much more loyal to their home states than to a loosely-bound federal government.
Memorial Day was specifically created in 1868 to honor the Union dead of the Civil War. Maybe the Confederate Memorial Day, which falls in late April, would be a good time to perform such honors for the Confederate dead. It is surely a grave insult to the nearly 400,000 Union soldiers who lost their lives in the Civil War to display the flag of their enemy on a day that was established to honor them. While some “Yankees” were fighting to end slavery, many were fighting to maintain the Union and the Confederate cause was the very antithesis of both of these goals. This is not to say that the Confederate soldiers should not be remembered, because they too were Americans with deeply-held beliefs, but there is an appropriate time and an appropriate way to do that. That time is not Memorial Day and that way is not with the modern “Confederate Flag.”
All of those who gave their lives for the United States of America since the Civil War have done so in the name of the entire nation, and their efforts are also demeaned by flying a flag that alienates many of our fellow Americans, of all races and creeds. Memorial Day is a time to honor those who gave “the last full measure,” not as "rebels"or "Yankees" but as Americans, and there is only one flag that truly represents this great nation today: the Stars and Stripes.
Former Confederate General James Longstreet said, after the war, “The passions of the titanic struggle will finally enter upon the sleep of oblivion, and only its splendid accomplishments for the cause of human freedom and a united nation, stronger and richer in patriotism because of great strife, will be remembered.”
Christopher Lynn lives in Dansville.