Amidst the pain that surrounded the recent church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, a heated discussion erupted over the nature of a symbol that has come to be synonymous with Southern culture: The battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia.
The flag, which is often referred to as just the battle flag of the Confederacy, or even more commonly (though erroneously) simply the Confederate flag, came into the spotlight when critics noticed that such a flag remained at full mast on the grounds of South Carolina’s Capitol in the days immediately after the shooting.
“Put it in a museum,” The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote the day after the shootings. “Inscribe beneath it the years 1861-2015,” he continued. “Move forward. Abandon this charlatanism. Drive out this cult of death and chains. Save your lovely souls. Move forward. Do it now.”
But as is often the case with any situation with a hint of political undertones, there were also those who disagreed. The battle flag of the Confederacy, they argued, was a symbol of Southern heritage and shouldn’t be removed from publicly owned land.
“If the goal of our shared civic experience was the avoidance of pain, then we’d take down that flag,” The National Review’s David French wrote. “But that’s of course not the goal. Rather, we use history to understand our nation in all its complexity — acknowledging uncomfortable realities and learning difficult truths.”
French’s argument was certainly a nuanced one. He countered Coates’ call to action by claiming removal of the flag could actually stop Americans from learning the painful history of the Confederacy. The flag helps us confront our history head-on, he argued, and removing it would only stunt our progress.
French’s argument is also interesting because he concedes many of the same points that Coates does. Namely, that the battle flag of the Confederacy “is a painful symbol to our African-American fellow citizens, especially given its recent history as a chosen totem of segregationists.” He also recognizes that the Confederacy was dedicated to the protection of slavery as an economic institution.
The big difference between Coates and French, it appears, is that French argues that the flag helps Americans remember “other difficult truths” about the war.
The North’s attitude toward slavery, according to French, is much more nuanced, and the purposes for fighting in the Confederate army were as varied as the soldiers themselves.
This more complicated view of the culture of the Confederacy isn’t uncommon. In fact, the Pew Research Center found in 2011 that only 38 percent of Americans believe the Civil War was “mainly about slavery.” The most common answer, according to Pew, was that the war was about “states’ rights,” an idea that commonly cropped up in public discussions of the South’s legacy in recent days.
This is despite the fact that historical consensus and understanding of the causes for the war has long held that, despite the existence of more nuanced elements highlighted by French, the primary cause of the War Between the States was indeed slavery. Whether it was disputes over the legality of the Fugitive Slave Act, the expansion of slavery into newly admitted states, or full-on abolition, the issue of slavery was constantly at front-and-center in the lead up to the war, and remained as such during the conflict.
So what changed? If the history is clear on the subject, why is the understanding of the war so fragmented (especially along geographic lines)? Why do so many Americans disagree on the history of what the flag represents?
According to James McPherson, one of the most renowned historians of the American Civil War, whose chronicle of the Civil War era “Battle Cry of Freedom” won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1989, the answer lies in the common urge of survival.
“It became a psychological necessity, I think, for them to deny that the war was about slavery,” McPherson said during a discussion at the Massachusetts School of Law at Andover in 2009, referring to Southern leaders in the direct aftermath of the war.
As part of becoming further integrated in American society, those who had once declared the government of the United States to be “fanatics” for seeking to end or otherwise weaken slavery in the South now sought to restructure their own history, erasing the less-savory elements for the preservation of their own culture.
There were other things at play, they began to argue, and when considering the history of the South, those “other things” deserve far more attention than what had initially caused the conflict.
In the age of the Internet, the documents that most clearly establish the purposes of the Civil War are more accessible than ever before. The transcription of Alexander Stephens’ “Cornerstone Speech,” for example, can be easily accessed. Stephens was the vice president of the Confederate States of America, and in this speech he clearly outlined the South’s passion for defending slavery. “African slavery as it exists amongst us,” he declared, “is the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization.”
One no longer needs to rely on history books or dusty library archives to have access to the most basic elements of American history.
And yet the difficult task of teaching a unified version of the history of the Confederacy remains elusive. As Tracy Thompson argued in her book “The New Mind of the South,” to many, the Civil War isn’t about objective history; it’s about a cultural identity.
“The Civil War is like a mountain range that guards all roads into the South: You can’t go there without encountering it,” Thompson wrote. “Specifically, you can’t go there without addressing a question that may seem as if it shouldn’t even be a question — to wit: what caused the war?”
Wrestling with culture is always a difficult task for historians. People have their idea of how the past worked, and the past is inextricably linked with our modern identities, so it’s no wonder we all struggle for the right to define our own story.
But what does that mean for education? As the Pew poll from 2011 shows, allowing — or even emphasizing — a more loose cultural interpretation of historical events can do some real harm. It’s not nuanced interpretation of complicated records that’s the problem. It’s misinformation.
“We in the United States have allowed our history to become so coated in cotton candy that it is difficult for some Americans to discern its true outlines,” Karin Chenoweth wrote in The Huffington Post on Wednesday while commenting on the dialogue surrounding the Charleston shooting. “As a result we continue to suffer from its baleful effects.”
The problem, according to Chenoweth, isn’t confined to the causes of the Civil War. American history is full of complicated and sometimes heartbreaking events that aren’t easy to digest, especially when the perception is that the U.S. has been a constant force for good in the world.
“Discomfort with history means that for the most part we as a country have allowed clouds of spun sugar to wrap around ugly truths,” Chenoweth continued, and recent events surrounding the history of the use of the battle flag of the Confederacy only highlight the problem.
As the aftermath of the Charleston shooting has shown, historical curriculum doesn’t only serve the curiosities of a student’s mind or facilitate some hollow academic assignment for professors. It informs the identity of a nation. Dealing with ugly truths is a vital part of growth, something that everyone from Coates, Chenoweth and French can agree on. The tricky part, it seems, is hammering out the details. Not the subjective, interpretive ones, but the documented facts.
JJ Feinauer is a writer for Deseret News National. Email: [email protected], Twitter: jjfeinauer.