CONFEDERATE BATTLE FLAGS, NAZI SALUTES, AND CAUSES
Are we stuck with the hatred unleashed by Donald Trump’s success? Are we seeing something that has always been there, but repressed, bubbling to the surface?
I don’t think it’s quite so simple. Or as necessarily permanent as it now may seem.
Let me say this at the outset: All four of my great-great-grandfathers on my mother’s side fought for the Confederacy. One was invalided out just months after entering the army, carrying a bullet in his head for the rest of his life. Another was captured during the Union breakthrough at Petersburg, spending the final weeks of the war in a POW camp in Maryland. Another was a cavalry private who probably fought at Gettysburg. I have less information on the fourth: Other than the fact that he entered the army in the middle of 1862, I know little about him. I wish I knew more.
Yet I want nothing to do with the Confederate battle flag. I suspect many of the millions of other descendants feel exactly the same.
Use of the flag today has little to do with a war 150 years past but comes from anger today and a need to strike out, at least symbolically, against perceived oppressors. Similarly, few of those supposed Adolph Hitler fans in America today have much knowledge of him. They don’t care to. Their point has little to do with Nazi Germany but a great deal to do with annoying people they believe are holding them back.
These adopted symbols are used with little concern for history; they are chosen for impact, not meaning. Yes, there’s something infantile in their use, wanting to stir things up for the satisfaction of seeing one’s antagonists agonize. But there’s little real understanding.
Though my father’s family were also Appalachian, they were mostly on the state of Ohio side of that river. Like the West Virginians directly across, they stayed with the Union, my great-grandfather fighting in West Virginia and then in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. None of my other direct ancestors on that side was of an age to fight though, after the war, my great-grandfather and his uncle discovered, at a family gathering, that they had been on opposite sides during a skirmish at Gauley Bridge in West Virginia. They may even have shot at each other, for that particular incident involved only some hundred men (or so family lore has it).
Still, I’ve an excellent Confederate pedigree—even with the fact of divided ancestry. It was a divisive war, that Civil War. Many families had sons, fathers and husbands fighting—and many had some of them on the other side. But families, after the war, made their peace—even if many of the problems that caused the war had only been transformed . During the First World War, both of my grandfathers, one from a fully Confederate family and the other true to the Union, fought willingly for the United States.
In the mid-1920s, my northern grandfather spoke out strongly against the KKK as it tried to organize in Ohio. In 1968, my southern grandfather stated than no one in his family would vote for George Wallace. Yet both of them had grown up in strongly racist and anti-Semitic cultures and both had reflected the attitudes of their time.
But both of them showed that people and cultures can change. Eating with my southern grandfather in a North Carolina café in the furniture-mill town he had lived in for half a century, I watched him recognize the family name on the server’s lapel then ask her if she were related to so-and-so. Young and African-American, she was cold to this elderly white man in a three-piece suit. He was hurt, though he tried to hide it, for he was sure he knew her family. He didn’t understand the extent of the divide the situation represented. Race, age and class (though he had grown up in the rural part of one of the poorest counties in the country at that time, he had prospered) were so entrenched in their relative positions that there was no way a bridge could have been created by simple banter.
Though he was well aware of race and carried racist attitudes to his grave, my grandfather never hated black people and had learned to accept a changing role for African-Americans in the society of the United States. A large part of his prosperity came from treating them honestly as an insurance agent. Actually, he treated allof his customers honestly, making no differentiation based on race. Claims were scrupulously and honestly filled, bringing him more and more clients. He learned Confederate Battle Flags, Nazi Salutes, and Causes | One Flew East: