Tag Archives: Confederate States of America
Most Australians — aside from a few groups dedicated to reenacting American Civil War battles and history buffs including Bob Carr and Kim Beazley — were not familiar until recently with the charged history of the flag of the Confederate States of America.
Now the flag is in the Australian news with reports SAS military in Afghanistan in 2012 used the bold red, blue and white flag to guide in a US helicopter. Two SAS personnel also posed for a photograph with the flag.
Why do these images of Australian soldiers posing with a flag from another country’s long-ago war provoke such strong reactions? Because the flag has long symbolised defiance, rebellion, an ideal of whiteness and the social and political exclusion of non-white people — in a word, racism.
The Confederacy defeated, but not punished
The flag represents the Confederate States of America (CSA or Confederacy), created in 1861 when 11 states seceded from the 85-year-old nation. This rebellion was prompted by the election of Abraham Lincoln as president. Lincoln argued slavery should not be extended to new territories the United States was annexing in the west. Southern enslavers feared slavery in their established states would be Lincoln’s next target.
The ensuing four-year Civil War between the CSA and US was resolved in 1865 with the defeat of the Confederacy and the near-abolition of enslavement.
In the aftermath of the war, a longer battle began: how to interpret the war. For 155 years, this struggle has turned largely on the contradiction that although the US fought to end slavery, most white Americans, including in the North, had little commitment to ending racism.
After a decade of military occupation of the South, known as the period of Reconstruction, the US military withdrew its forces. White Southerners, who had retained their land, implemented unjust legal and labour systems, underpinned by violence and racist ideas about black people’s inferiority.
Memorials of war
The reembrace of white Southerners into the nation showed a desire to “heal” the nation by downplaying the horrors of enslavement and the struggle to end it.
New narratives depicted the war as a righteous, though tragic, struggle over “states’ rights”. By avoiding a conversation as to what those rights were about — that is, enslavement — by the 1890s, they remade the meaning of the war.
Confederate flags were a powerful symbol in reinterpreting the War of the Rebellion. In the 1915 box-office hit feature film, The Birth of a Nation, for example, the central battle scene involves a key character, Ben Cameron of South Carolina, ramming the pole of a Confederate flag down a United States army cannon.
In the very next shot, however, the injured Cameron is rescued from the no-man’s land between trenches by his longtime family friend, Northerner and US Army commander, Phil Stoneman.
The movie’s second half cemented the theme of reconciling white Southerners and white Northerners. As it stated in an intertitle, “The former enemies of North and South are united again in common defense of their Aryan birthright”. It even became a tool to recruit new members to the Ku Klux Klan.
The war, in this telling, was a struggle between white and Black Americans, not between the US and the rebel Confederacy.
Blowing in the wind
The Confederate flag featured prominently in Gone with the Wind (1939), another immensely popular film that again glorified the way of life of white Southerners during and immediately after slavery. In this case, however, Hollywood used the more visually striking Confederate Battle Flag, which General Robert E. Lee had flown during the war, rather than any of the CSA’s national flags.
As Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) arrives at a makeshift hospital, the camera pans back to a field of hundreds of wounded and dead soldiers. The scene shifts only once those soldiers are framed by a Confederate flag, blowing majestically in the breeze.
These two films buttressed a political economy that relied on a cheap labour force of disenfranchised Black Americans. But as African Americans began to make headway in the fight for civil rights, starting during World War II, symbols such as the Confederate flag became even more important to those who felt affronted by their gains.
Enter the ‘Dixiecrats’
These “Dixiecrats” adopted the Confederate battle flag as their party’s emblem. From that point, the flag was clearly associated with racist opposition to civil rights and with umbrage at perceived government intrusion into the lives of individuals.
When civil rights activism was at its most visible, in the 1950s and 1960s, many white Southerners became firmly attached to the flag.
A few years later, in 1961, neighbouring state South Carolina began flying the Confederate flag above its state Capitol.
Banning the flag
In 2000, after years of protest, South Carolina legislators moved the Confederate flag to the State House’s grounds. Then, after white supremacist Dylann Roof endorsed the Confederate flag and murdered nine black churchgoers in 2015, activist Bree Newsome shimmied up the pole and removed it in a galvanising act of civil disobedience.
Two weeks later, the flag in South Carolina’s house of government was finally removed for good. In the years since, hundreds of Confederate flags, statues and memorials have disappeared, including in the national Capitol.
In 2016, recognising the flag’s toxic history, major retailers announced they would no longer sell the flag.
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the removal of Confederate symbols has accelerated. In recent months, Southern company Nascar has banned the flag and the Department of Defense has effectively done so, too.
In a polarised political and media environment, many white Southerners continue to defend their allegiance to the Confederate flag.
They claim the battle flag represents their Southern heritage, as if that heritage comprises an innocent history of mint juleps and church-going. The problem with that claim, as the history of the use of the flag demonstrates, is that the heritage it symbolises is also that of enslavement, inequality, violence and gross injustice.
If the aim of statue removal is to build a more racially just South, then, as many analysts have pointed out, putting these monuments in storage is a lost opportunity. Simply unseating Confederate statues from highly visible public spaces is just the first step in a much longer process of understanding, grieving and mending the wounds of America’s violent past. Merely hiding away the monuments does not necessarily change the structural racism that birthed them.
Studies show that the environment in which statues are displayed shapes how people understand their meaning. In that sense, relocating monuments, rather than eliminating them, can help people put this painful history into context.
For example, monuments to Confederate war heroes first appeared in cemeteries immediately following the Civil War. That likely evoked in visitors a direct and private honoring and grieving for the dead.
By the early 1900s, hundreds of Confederate statues dotted courthouse lawns and town squares across the South. This prominent, centrally located setting on government property sent an intentionally different message: that local officials endorsed the prevailing white social order.
So what should we do with rejected Confederate monuments? We have a modest proposal: a Confederate statue graveyard.
Lessons from the Soviet past
Our research as cultural geographers recognizes that Confederate monument controversies – while typically considered regional or national issues – are in fact part of global struggles to recognize and heal from the wounds of racism, white supremacy and anti-democratic regimes.
The idea of a Confederate monument graveyard is modeled after ways that the former communist bloc nations of Hungary, Lithuania and Estonia have dealt with statues of Soviet heroes like Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Lenin.
Under communist Soviet rule between 1945 and 1991, Eastern European countries suffered mass starvation, land theft, military rule and rigid censorship. An estimated 15 million people in the Soviet bloc died during this totalitarian reign.
Despite these horrors, many countries have opted not to destroy or hide their Soviet-era monuments, but they haven’t left them to rule over city hall or public plazas, either.
Rather, governments in Eastern Europe have altered the meaning of these politically charged Soviet statues by relocating them. Dozens of Soviet statues across Hungary, Lithuania and Estonia have been pulled from their pedestals and placed in open-air parks, where interested visitors can reflect on their new significance.
The idea behind relocating monuments is to dethrone dominant historical narratives that, in their traditional places of power, are tacitly endorsed.
A statue graveyard
The Eastern European effort to create a new memorial landscape has been met with mixed public reaction.
In Hungary, some see it as a step in the right direction. But, in Lithuania, people have expressed that re-erecting the statues of known dictators is in “poor taste” – an affront to those who suffered under totalitarianism.
The relocation of Soviet statues in Estonia has taken an even more interesting turn.
For the past decade, the Estonian History Museum has been collecting former Soviet monuments with the intention of making an outdoor exhibition out of them. For years it kept a decapitated Lenin and a noseless Stalin, among other degraded Soviet relics, in a field next to the museum.
The statues weathered Eastern European winters and languished in a defunct, toppled state. Weeds grew over them. The elements took their toll.
Travel writer Michael Turtle, who visited the museum in 2015, called the field a “statue graveyard.”
“Everything here seems to fit into some kind of purgatorial limbo,” he wrote on his blog. “The statues are not respected enough to be displayed as history but are culturally significant enough to not just be destroyed.”
To this we would add that these old statues, when repurposed thoughtfully and intentionally, have the potential to mend old wounds.
Confederate monument graveyard
What if the United States created its own graveyard for the distasteful relics of its own racist past?
We envision a cemetery for the American South where removed Confederate statues would be displayed, perhaps, in a felled position – a visual condemnation of the white supremacy they fought to uphold. Already crumpled monuments, like the statue to “The Boys Who Wore Grey” that was forcefully removed from downtown Durham, North Carolina, might be placed in the Confederate statue graveyard in their defunct state.
One art critic has even suggested that old monuments be physically buried under tombstones with epitaphs written by the descendants of those they enslaved.
We are not the first to suggest relocating Confederate statues.
That has proven challenging for curators.
When The University of Texas moved a statue of the Confederate President Jefferson Davis from its pedestal on campus to a campus museum, some students criticized the ensuing exhibit’s “lack of focus on racism and slavery.” One suggested that the statue’s new setting inadvertently glorified Davis, given the inherent value conferred on objects in museums.
And since statues in museums are typically exhibited in their original, upright position, Confederate generals like Robert E. Lee still tower over visitors – maintaining an imposing sense of authority.
We believe felled and crumpled monuments, in contrast, would create a somber commemorative atmosphere that encourages visitors to grieve – without revering – their legacy. A carefully-planned and aesthetically sensitive Confederate monument graveyard could openly and purposefully undermine the power these monuments once held, acknowledging, dissecting and ultimately rejecting the Confederacy’s roots in slavery.
Planning a Confederate monument graveyard will prompt many questions. Where should it be located? Will there be one central Confederate monument graveyard or many? Who will design and plan the graveyard?
Answering these questions would not just be part of a conversation about steel and stone but about the serious pursuit of peace, justice and racial healing in the nation — and about putting the Old South to rest.
Robert E. Lee: Turns Down Offer to Lead Union Troops
On this day in 1861, with the Civil War in the United States in its very early stages, Colonel Robert E. Lee was offered the role of Major General in the United States Army. Knowing that Virginia was likely to secede from the Union, Lee turned the offer down and resigned from the United States Army two days later. This despite having said to his son in a letter that ‘I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union.’ However, it was love for and loyalty to his home state of Virginia, that forced his hand to join the Confederacy. On the 23rd of April Lee took command of the armed forces of Virginia and began his role in the southern rebellion, in which he would rise to be the General-in-Chief of all Confederate forces. Almost four years later, on the 9th April 1865, his role in the war ended with his surrender to U.S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia.