Earlier this week I was driving north on Boulevard. (For those of you from outside of Richmond, that is the full name of this street.) As I passed the art museum, I saw them—several people standing out front carrying Confederate flags. These people have been picketing the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) for two years. What is their beef? In 2011, the VMFA removed the Confederate flags that had been displayed in front of the Confederate Memorial Chapel, a church that stands on VMFA property. The VMFA says it did so to be historically accurate—the Chapel did not fly the Confederate flag during its early years. The protesters, who became known as Flaggers, considered the removal an affront to the Confederate heritage of Richmond and asserted that it was dishonoring their ancestors who had fought for the Confederacy.
This summer, when they found that they were mostly being ignored, the flaggers announced that they were going to erect the biggest Confederate flag they could find on private property abutting Interstate 95 south of Richmond. The announcement drew international attention and scorn to the City of Richmond. (Not to worry, we Richmonders are used to scorn—mainly based on the actions of the Virginia General Assembly, which meets in our fair city on the James). In any event, the erection turned out to be a bust, since this largest of Confederate flags could hardly be seen from the Interstate; at least while there was foliage on the trees. But, I wasn’t thinking of that as I passed the protesters. I was just trying to figure out what kind of mindset would have them picketing in support of the symbol of a lost cause.
If you are not from this city, perhaps you don’t know how significant is the four years—from the spring of 1861, when Virginia purported to secede from the United States, until April 1865, when the Confederate government abandoned this city—during which Richmond was the capital of the aborted Confederacy. There is a significant portion of our citizenry who look on those four years as Richmond’s golden days. We have a major thoroughfare with monuments to our pantheon of Confederate gods. (Other cities may have statues; in Richmond we have monuments.) These structures honor those we hold most sacred—(from East to West) James Ewell Brown (JEB) Stuart, Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. (Further to the west there is a structure dedicated to Mathew Fontaine Maury, “Pathfinder of the Seas,” and another one for Arthur Ashe, a tennis star, but these were afterthoughts). And, on one of Richmond’s highest hills, visible for many blocks, we have erected a monolith with a statute atop it dedicated to Confederate soldiers and sailors. We also have an ordinary statue honoring A. P. Hill, a lesser Confederate officer*, and in Hollywood Cemetery we have another monument to Jefferson Davis, at the sight of his grave.
For many people in Richmond, the period of the Confederacy is a part of Richmond’s heritage that must be celebrated. They think there is something romantic about the “Lost Cause,” and that those four years, in which the Confederate flag flew above the General Assembly building, were among Richmond’s finest hours. I assume that the flaggers are among that group.
I certainly agree that the Confederate years are part of Richmond’s history and that we must not forget them. But, these were not great years. These four years were among the darkest in Richmond’s history. These four years ended in disaster. During these four years the residents of Richmond suffered death, disease, famine and destruction. Is there something really romantic about this? Of course these years are part of our history, but they are nothing to be proud of.
And what about the members of the United States Congress, who left their posts and went south to serve in the Confederate government or in the governments of the seceding states? And the soldiers who fought on the side of the Confederacy against the United States? Are we to honor them as heroes?
This is the hard part to talk about. I know there are many people whose ancestors did serve in those capacities. I would like to honor those who lost their lives fighting for what they believed in. I do not want to condemn them. But, reader, history has been very cruel to the soldiers, sailors and civilian leaders of the Confederacy. Their actions, which may have been considered heroic and patriotic from 1861 to 1865, suddenly underwent a change in character when Lee and other Confederate generals surrendered and when the Confederate government disbanded. Because what these Confederates—military and civilian—believed in turned out to be an insurrection against the United States. What is more, their behavior constituted treason. Article III, Section 3, of the United States Constitution provides:
Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.
From the time that the first cannon shots were fired against the United States installation at Fort Sumter, the civilian leaders and the soldiers and sailors of the Confederate States of America were “levying war” against the United States. They may have thought they were only defending their states but in fact they were attacking and killing soldiers wearing the uniform of the United States and who were fighting under its flag. This constituted treason. Under President Lincoln’s “malice toward none”, “charity for all” policy, which continued for a time after his death, Confederate civilian and military leaders were not tried for treason. This fact, however, does not change the nature of their behavior.
Reader, I recently heard an interview of the head of the Sons of Confederate Veterans by local historians. He argued that we must look at the Confederate cause no differently than we look at the American cause in our War of Independence. He said that the Confederate leaders were no different than our revolutionary leaders; they were each fighting for freedom from an oppressive government located in a distant capital. Confederate soldiers, just like American soldiers in the Revolutionary War were fighting to protect themselves and their families from tyranny; they must be honored and celebrated.
The leader of the Sons of Confederate Veterans made a very persuasive argument. However, he fails to recognize the reality of history. The simple fact is that those who fought for the cause of American freedom won their war; those who fought for Confederate freedom lost theirs. And, reader, there lies the difference. Had the militias of the southern states and the army of the Confederacy been victorious in their insurrection, they would indeed be heroes of a valiant cause. Had the Confederacy won, Jefferson Davis would be the father of his country, and towns and cities throughout the south would be named Davis. But, loyal reader, history is not what some people wish had happened. History is what actually happened. **
On occasion, I visit Shockoe Hill Cemetery or Hollywood Cemetery here in Richmond. Each contains the graves of many soldiers who fought on both sides of the Civil War. In both cemeteries I have seen the graves of Union soldiers identified by an American flag and the graves of Confederate soldiers indentified by a Confederate flag. These are the flags under which they fought and died and I think it is appropriate that their graves be adorned in this way. I also have no problem with Confederate (or British or Mexican or French flags) being flown at historic sites to recreate things as they were.
But this maven cannot agree with those who feel that the Confederate flag should be flown as a symbol of our glorious heritage and to honor those who fought on the southern side in the Civil War. When a cause has ended; when a rebellion has failed; when an attempted new nation has been destroyed; it is time to acknowledge the realities of history and bury its symbols.
*Let us not feel sorry about General Hill. After all, he does have an American military base named after him. Maybe someday the maven will write about the curious custom we have in this country of naming military bases after people who fought against the United States.
** And, had history been different in the 1770s and 1780s—had the British armies crushed our militias and the United States Army—things certainly would be different. We would be singing “God Save the Queen” and saluting the Union Jack. George Washington might be remembered as is Guy Fawkes as the treasonous leader of an unsuccessful rebellion. But, that also is not what happened.