Wednesday, July 8, 2015

A letter: Confederate Symbols and Honoring Veterans

Confederate Rebel Flag.svg First National flag of the Confederate States of America
Left: The Battle Flag of the Confederate Army of Tennessee.
Right: The First National Flag of the Confederacy, the "Stars and Bars."

The Confederate battle flag was not a civil flag of the Confederacy (though its design was incorporated into the 2nd and 3rd national flags), but a battle flag for Confederate forces.   In a square shape, it was the flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, and as a rectangle, the flag of the Army of Tennessee.  During the war itself, the flag obviously symbolized the armed forces of the Confederate States.

It would become incorporated in the emblem of the Sons of Confederate Veterans in the 1890s; not unexpectedly, as it was a military flag, and the organization sought to commemorate military service.

Later, in the 20th century, the flag was used as a symbol of Southern resistance in the era of racial integration and the Civil Rights movement.

Hence, there are some racists that have used, and do use, the flag, to symbolize racism and white supremacy.  Others use it as a symbol of regional pride and autonomy.  Still others, like the Sons of Confederate Veterans, use it to honor those that sacrificed much for their home states.  Even the Anti-Defamation league, not an organization sympathetic to the memory of Confederate soldiers, notes regarding the flag: "because of the continued use of the flag by non-extremists, one should not automatically assume that display of the flag is racist or white supremacist in nature.  The symbol should only be judged in context." (Cf., ADL: Confederate Flag)

Like the era from which it came, the Confederate Battle Flag is a complex symbol.

Flag of Georgia
Flag of the State of Georgia.

In light of the recent controversy and calls for a kind of purge of symbols associated with the Southern Confederacy, I wrote this letter to my elected officials here in the State of Georgia:

Dear ------,

Greetings.  I hope this finds you well.

In the summer of 1864, my great-great grandfather, Thomas J. Cole, a lad of 16 years of age from Butts County, Georgia, joined the 3rd Georgia Reserve regiment.  He had never been far from his family’s farm in Middle Georgia – a family farm that did not include any slaves.  That same summer the State of Georgia was being invaded by the armies of US General William T. Sherman.  My great-great grandfather responded to the call of the State of Georgia in that moment of crisis.  While Thomas J. Cole never saw combat action, he did lose a leg to infection and gangrene. [Cf., William Marvel, Andersonville: The Last Depot, pgs. 209-210]

Today I hear calls for the Confederate battle flag and other symbols of the Southern Confederacy to be removed even from Confederate war memorials and cemeteries.  I hear folks call anyone associated with the Southern Confederacy a traitor and a racist.

I am painfully aware of the complex history of a symbol like the Confederate battle flag.  I know that it has been and is used by bigots and hateful men as a symbol of their warped world-view.  I also know that the flag has been and is used by honorable men remembering the sacrifices of their forefathers to home and state.  Indeed the Anti-Defamation League notes on its website: “because of the continued use of the flag by non-extremists, one should not automatically assume that display of the flag is racist or white supremacist in nature.  The symbol should only be judged in context.”  In sum, it is a complex symbol that has to be judged in context.

Regardless of the complexity of certain symbols, however, and the connection of the institution of slavery to the history of the Southern Confederacy, I believe the State of Georgia has a solemn responsibility to honor and defend the selfless service of men like my great-great grandfather.  He was not a slave-owner, and neither was his father.  He responded to a call for help from this state, served with honor, and lost a leg in service to Georgia.  He, while just a boy, responded to Georgia in her moment of need; surely the State of Georgia must continue to honor him, and others like him, who gave life and limb for their home.

We must reject the legacy of slavery and racism that has surely tainted the history of Georgia and the United States.  At the same time, we cannot ignore honor and sacrifice on behalf of this state, even if the cause is not all that it might have been or all that we would wish it to be today.  My great-great grandfather did what this state asked in a moment of crisis; will Georgia today call him a traitor for his service?

I appreciate your service to the State of Georgia, and trust that you will do what you can to ensure that the honor of men like my great-great grandfather doesn’t suffer from this frenzy to demonize everyone and everything associated with the Southern Confederacy.

Very Respectfully,

I think it might be worthwhile to include the account of my great-great grandfather, as told in the book I cited in my letter.

Here is the account from "Andersonville: The Last Depot," by William Marvel (pgs. 209-210):
"Nor were the prisoners the only victims. Sixteen-year-old Thomas J. Cole joined the 3rd Georgia Reserves during Rousseau's cavalry raid, in July [1864]. He had never wandered far from his father's farm in Butts County, midway between Macon and Atlanta, and shoes had never served as part of his daily wardrobe. He arrived at Andersonville with a pair of brogans on, however, and they irritated an insignificant scratch on his left foot, just below the ankle. The nearest he ever came to the stockade was the sentry box, and he did not approach the prisoners' hospital at all, but, just before the evacuation of prisoners began, his foot turned so sore that he had to be relieved from duty. A week later his comrades carried him from his tent over to Sumter Hospital -- the parallel pair of two-story barracks buildings alongside the railroad. In seven weeks the wound had grown to look like a carbuncle, but ten days in the hospital transformed it into a gaping, putrid lesion four inches in diameter. The flesh dropped away to reveal his ankle joint, his lower leg started to swell and ulcerate, and he wailed piteously whenever the doctors tried to touch it.

Cole would survive, however. He would live into the twentieth century and raise five children, but he would have to sacrifice the leg in order to save the rest of his hide."

Live well!

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