The Veterans Administration has recently issued a declaration stating that no Confederate flags will be flown at any national cemetery.
Writing in the Washington Post, reporter Joe Davidson offered this commentary:
The offensive sight of the familiar Northern Virginia Battle Flag, the Stars and Bars or other rebel pennants flying high above the graves of American soldiers will soon be gone. That’s appropriate, since the Union troops fought to preserve the nation, unlike the traitors who would have broken it in defense of slavery.The policy, dictated by revisionist historians wishing away the nasty bits of the Civil War and hoping to cast it cleanly as a battle between heroes and traitors, is part of the current movement to expunge all unpleasant bits of American history by viewing every ancestor of the Republic within a very shortsighted lens.
Many US army installations in the North are still named after Confederate officers - Forts Benning, Bragg, Hill, Hood, Lee, Pickett, Polk, and Rucker. The names have been retained because they were not ‘traitors’ as the Post journalist suggests, but because they were professional soldiers many of whom were trained at West Point along with their future Northern adversaries.
These men were honorable, courageous soldiers who accepted the duty imposed upon them by the truly traitorous politicians of the South who refused to accept the conditions of Union membership demanded by the North. They were no different from today’s high-ranking officers who might have disagreed with politicians who determined that the war against Saddam Hussein was necessary. They might have disagreed with the Washington politics behind the invasion/liberation, the strategies designed by their superiors, or battlefield operations; but as loyal soldiers taught to obey orders, they complied.
The military culture of antebellum America was quite different than that of today, however. The fact that both Southern and Northern officers shared a common parade ground, mess, and companions cannot be overlooked. World War I is often referred to as the end of patrician gentility – the honor and respect that military officers had for each other because of common breeding, culture, and heritage; and West Point in mid-century was still pre-Victorian, respectful, and filled with the spirit of camaraderie of fellow officers.
It was normal that military bases were named for Southern officers who distinguished themselves in battle.
Even more deserving of recognition are the enlisted men of the Civil War, most of whom were conscripted and fought because they had to not because they believed in the Northern cause. Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage more than any other work of fiction described the carnage and horror of the war, a conflict where more men died than in any other war (as a function of population).
The regiment bled extravagantly. Grunting bundles of blue began to drop. The orderly sergeant of the youth's company was shot through the cheeks. Its supports being injured, his jaw hung afar down, disclosing in the wide cavern of his mouth a pulsing mass of blood and teeth. And with it all he made attempts to cry out. In his endeavor there was a dreadful earnestness, as if he conceived that one great shriek would make him well.
From the earth, from the air, sustaining forces pour into us--mostly from the earth. To no man does the earth mean so much as to the soldier. When he presses himself down upon her long and powerfully, when he buries his face and his limbs deep in her from the fear of death by shell-fire, then she is his only friend, his brother, his mother; he stifles his terror and his cries in her silence and her security; she shelters him and releases him for ten seconds to live, to run, ten seconds of life; receives him again and often for ever.
Earth with thy folds, and hollows, and holes, into which a man may fling himself and crouch down. In the spasm of terror, under the hailing of annihilation, in the bellowing death of the explosions, O Earth, thou grantest us the great resisting surge of new-won life. Our being, almost utterly carried away by the fury of the storm, streams back through our hands from thee, and we, thy redeemed ones, bury ourselves in thee, and through the long minutes in a mute agony of hope bite into thee with our lips!
The militiamen carried Prince Andrew to dressing station by the wood, where wagons were stationed. The dressing station consisted of three tents with flaps turned back, pitched at the edge of a birch wood. In the wood, wagons and horses were standing. The horses were eating oats from their movable troughs and sparrows flew down and pecked the grains that fell. Some crows, scenting blood, flew among the birch trees cawing impatiently.
Around the tents, over more than five acres, bloodstained men in various garbs stood, sat, or lay. Around the wounded stood crowds of soldier stretcher-bearers with dismal and attentive faces, whom the officers keeping order tried in vain to drive from the spot. Disregarding the officers' orders, the soldiers stood leaning against their stretchers and gazing intently, as if trying to comprehend the difficult problem of what was taking place before them.
From the tents came now loud angry cries and now plaintive groans. Occasionally dressers ran out to fetch water, or to point out those who were to be brought in next. The wounded men awaiting their turn outside the tents groaned, sighed, wept, screamed, swore, or asked for vodka. Some were delirious.
As in the American Civil War, most soldiers were conscripts, forced to fight for Napoleon regardless of the legitimacy of his imperialist claims. The fought for France, for the comrades, and to stay alive.
The boys who fought under the Confederate flag were not traitors nor heroes; but young men thrown into battle thanks to no wish of their own. They did not die for a cause but because they had the misfortune of being men in 1863 sent to be slaughtered in a war which may or may not have been foreordained. Historians debate to this day whether slavery would have collapsed under its own weight, buried by the North’s industry and enterprise.
The Confederate flags that fly in most Southern cemeteries belong there, for they honor those young men who died not for a cause but who simply died young. They died heroically because they were forced to fight. They had no preeminent will or purpose to fight, but fought nobly; and it is this sacrifice – the sacrifice of youth in unwilling but obedient service. They are as much veterans of the Civil War as their Northern brothers.
The same is true of any war. Those young men – some as young as 14 - who fought and died in Hitler’s army also deserve respect and honor. They didn’t choose to fight. They were not the architects of concentration camps nor of The Final Solution. They did not make the decision to invade Czechoslovakia and Poland. They simply fought and died.
Cemeteries are hallowed ground. The Byway of Hallowed Ground passing through Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania honors all those who died in the Civil War. The ground is hallowed because American boys’ blood was shed on it.
Using the word ‘traitor’ for fallen Confederate soldiers is misguided and wrong. There is plenty of guilt to go around when assessing the causes of the Civil War both in the North and the South. Let the term, if absolutely necessary, be applied to those who through their politics, ambition, and misguided sense of destiny made the Civil War happen.