LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Confederate flag should be confined to history

Shortly after the end of the Civil War, an unusual event occurred one Sunday at the elite St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia.

Traditionally, at this church and others in the area, whites came up first to take communion, followed by the black congregants, who otherwise sat far back in the balcony. On this date, instead of waiting for the whites to all come up, a former slave strode to the front of the church and knelt, and calmly waited for the Eucharist.

The congregation froze, and no one knew what would happen next. Suddenly, a lone, dignified white man in a gray suit stood, walked down the aisle, and knelt down next to the young African American. The older man was Robert E. Lee, and soon, other whites and blacks joined both men and took Holy Communion together.

After 1865, Gen. Lee summed up his thinking when he said, “I think it wiser moreover not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered.”

On the day after he became president of Washington College, now Washington and Lee University, Robert E. Lee took an oath to support the U.S. Constitution, and for him, the war was over. Reflecting his wishes, Robert E. Lee was not buried in his uniform, and no Southern flags of any kind were displayed. Also in response to his expressed wishes, the faithful troops who attended the funeral did not wear the emblems or colors of his vanquished army.

At war, Robert E. Lee always wore impressive tailor-made uniforms and was known to be proud of his military bearing and traditions. Besides supporting national reunification, were there any other reasons he turned his back on the battle flag and other Southern symbols?

The general must have heard of how Southern troops had massacred surrendering black Union soldiers and their officers at Fort Pillow, Poison Creek and other battles. Lee, a scholar at West Point, could hardly disagree when Lincoln denounced the Confederate Army of Tennessee for crimes “Against all the rules of war.” Lee lived long enough after the war to see the battle flag further used by nightriders and Klansmen as they killed blacks and whites who, like him, labored to build a new South.

Indeed, Lee’s vision was rejected by adherence of a competing Southern view. According to supporters of the “Lost Cause,” it was the South that was victimized, and claimed that the wrong side won the war. They proudly displayed the battle flag at parades and civic events, and also in actual attacks on federal forces, newly enfranchised voters, and Republican candidates.

It also was often prominently displayed at black beatings and lynchings. After the school-integration controversy in the early 50s, a defiant South flew the battle flag in their state capitols. A flag is a symbol, and for many, this one gradually changed from rallying point for the lost cause and became to many a symbol of disrespect, defiance and hate.

There are many who would respond that the American flag has also flown over atrocities, and that it had similarly flown longer than Confederate flags over a slave nation, and they would be correct. The difference is that the Star-Spangled Banner has always aspired to be the symbol of freedom and American ideals. That was what it meant during the March on Washington, the liberation of Europe and the concentration camps.

The Confederate banner, on the other hand, might have once only represented a regional banner or glorious military tradition, but now, even its most devoted adherents must admit that, for many, it also represents intolerance and terror.

Do I call for the Confederate Battle Flag to be outlawed? Absolutely not! Knowing how America works, that will make it, in some quarters, to be raised higher and become with some even more popular.

Instead, I would favor that it not, as much as possible, be displayed and honored in state capitols, and at public events, and be disavowed, especially when used to enforce the negative causes of racism it has become associated with. At every opportunity, I would remind its adherents of Robert E. Lee, whose wisdom, bravery and dedication, to my mind, were greater after the war than when this military genius legendarily led Southern armies.

Remember forever, I would tell them, the story of the brave man who stood up in church and knelt with his brother in the cause of American freedom.

Many people believe that the state flags that have included replicas of the Confederate Battle Flag dated back to the end of the Civil War. In fact, their designs were more recent, dating back to the Supreme Court decision about integrating schools. The states’ flags’ defenders will claim that this is a coincidence, that it was adopted to commemorate the end of the Civil War, but many other anniversaries have passed unobserved without flag revisions.

Yes, I know. The battle flag has also been used at high school rallies and parades. And yes, I know, the U.S. flag has also flown over embarrassing events.

Larry Koch

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