Lowering the fallen flag

by Bernard McCormick Tuesday, June 30, 2015 No Comment(s)

Grandfather Sweeney probably never went beyond grade school, but he managed to become a publisher more than a hundred years ago. None of his books dealt with the Civil War, but he saved some beautiful volumes on American history. In them, before we even started grade school, we admired the detailed lithographs of battle scenes of the Civil War. Confederate flags flew over neat rows of even neater soldiers, all uniformed splendidly in gray. The pictures were not in color, but that did not make any difference when it came to gray. The Confederate flags, of course, in real life were red.

And in real life, those neat uniforms on Confederate soldiers were often not gray, and often not even uniforms. Many Southern soldiers wore what they had worn on their farms. And those who had gray uniforms often found that the sun quickly turned them into the natural color of the fabric. "Butternut scarecrows" is the term historian Shelby Foote used to describe the underfed, poorly dressed Southern soldiers. And in real life—this was in the 1950s—there was nothing sinister about the Confederate flag. It was just a memory from the Civil War, like the little gray replica caps we bought in Woolworth’s. It even had entertainment value, as when the rowing teams from Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Virginia showed up in Philadelphia with Confederate flags on the backs of their rowing shirts.

We hardly noticed it, but that all changed a decade later when the red flag—The Stars and Bars it was nicknamed—began assuming a new sense of rebellion, showing up in the livery of motorcycle gangs and license plates on pickup trucks. It said, “We’re looking for trouble.” It was the time of the civil rights movement, and to many, the flag symbolized resistance to change. To blacks especially, it became a racist symbol. So much so that during the recent debate on the flag one black TV commentator likened it to the swastika—the symbol of Nazi horror in World War II.

Under the circumstances, who can argue with taking the flag down on official state grounds, or deleting it from the Mississippi state flag? But one wonders about calls to change the Florida state flag, which is the St. Andrew’s Cross, the same X as on the Confederate flag. The cross was often used throughout history. It is part of the British Union Jack, for instance. It showed up on some colonial flags of Spain and Russia.

What is also disturbing, however, is the tendency among the anti-flaggers to distort the whole background of the Civil War, in an effort to change history. For years some Southerners contend it was about states' rights. To others, it was all about slavery. In fact, it was both. Slavery was the economic cause for that great conflict, but it is not the reason most men fought. They fought, as men have done for centuries, for their neighborhood, and for country—right or wrong.  It is easy to forget that until that war, there was a real conflict between federal and state priorities. Many thought their state loyalty superior to a national interest. Robert E. Lee, a moral man as our history has produced, said he could not fight against his native Virginia.

Lee, who was wealthy, owned slaves, but was in the process of setting them free. Most soldiers, on both sides, did not own slaves and may have had no opinion on the issue, one way or the other. Especially in the South, where much of the war was fought, people considered themselves invaded. They fought for family and home.

How else can you explain the notable contribution of Irish soldiers in that war? Most of the Irish—who were practically all immigrants—were in the North, but there were strong pockets of Irish in the older Southern cities. They had all come to America at about the same time, and for the same reason—to escape oppression and famine in their homeland, which was under the rule of the British flag. In fact, many were not far from slaves in Ireland. They lost their land, and during the famine could not even eat the food they grew on the owners' farms. When the Civil War broke out, the famed Irish Brigade went to battle for the North flying the same green flag they had flown in revolt against British rule.

Although far fewer in numbers, and in much smaller units, the Southern Irish waved the same flag and exhibited similar valor in battle after battle. Very few moved north or south out of moral conviction. They simply fought for their new homeland, for identical motives. The classic example was Irish-born Confederate general Patrick Cleburne, who had prospered in Arkansas and died fighting in gratitude for that state, even though he became unpopular with politicians when he said he favored freeing slaves.

It was a great irony of our history, that a war meant to set men free had so many combatants on both sides fighting in appreciation of their own newfound freedom. Those in the South fought with honor under the Stars and Bars, and most of them, if alive today, would probably understand the lowering of that flag.


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