“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds.” – Abraham Lincoln
Great line, huh? That was delivered on March 4, 1865, during Lincoln’s second inaugural address. You could have said that Lincoln was counting his chickens before they were hatched because the war wasn’t technically over yet. But after a good two years of running rings around Union Generals who simply weren’t that good, Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was meeting the Army of the Potomac again, but this time it was General Ulysses S. Grant calling the shots. It wasn’t that Grant had a particularly amazing tactical mind. He just knew that he had more men, food, and bullets than Lee’s army, and was not at all squeamish about winning by way of attrition.
Grant fought Lee all the way down Virginia, experiencing terrible losses, but they were losses that he could afford. Lee experienced the same terrible losses, and he couldn’t afford them at all. So on April 9th, a little over one month after Lincoln’s second inaugural address, Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse.
Lincoln probably meant what he said about binding the nation’s wounds and extending the olive branch, and generally not being dicks about winning the war. It would hardly be a country worth living in if half the states acted as conquerors instead of fellow citizens. Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing how things would have turned out, because Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theater in Washington, DC five days after Lee surrendered, and all that “Malice Towards None” shit went right out the window.
Interestingly enough, Robert E. Lee was born in Alexandria, Virginia, which is my home town. You can go see his boyhood home, which is lovingly preserved in Old Town. You can also see his palatial estate at Arlington, right across the Potomac River from DC. But nobody ever goes to see the mansion. They go to visit the graves of U.S. war dead, because Robert E. Lee’s palatial estate at Arlington became Arlington National Cemetery. After Lee surrendered and Lincoln was shot, U.S. Quartermaster General M.C. Meigs thought Robert E. Lee’s property would be a perfectly appropriate place to bury those tens of thousands of dead Union soldiers that were coming back from southern Virginia. How’s that for “binding up the wounds?” Arlington Cemetery is in the front yard of the best general the Confederacy had.
Here’s another interesting Civil War tidbit: The so-called “Confederate Flag” was actually not the official flag of the Confederacy. It was the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia. As I mentioned, I grew up in Northern Virginia. I still live here. And nobody here ever flies that flag.
But if you go down south it’s another story. Up until the recent massacre in Charleston, South Carolina, that flag either flew or is still flying over the state houses of the Carolinas, Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia. Hell, it’s even part of the design of the Mississippi state flag, and up until 2001 it was part of Georgia’s.
Now, did these states fly the flag of the Army of Northern Virginia because they all really like Northern Virginia? Absolutely not. They hate Northern Virginia with the power of 1000 suns. They think we are liberal wimps and atheist government stooges. They believe us to be communists, as red as a baboon’s ass. Hell, even Southern Virginia doesn’t like us one bit, and we share the same state with them. So obviously an abiding love for the region of Northern Virginia is not what that flag is about.
So what then is this flag about? That’s complicated, believe it or not. It stated gaining popularity in the South at a particularly noxious time in American history. It became a symbol for the so-called “Dixiecrats,” which was the southern branch of the Democratic Party in 1948. Georgia incorporated the flag into their own state flag in 1956, and lots of other Southern States either followed suit with their own state flags or just flew the banner itself over their own state houses. That the raising of these flags coincided with the advent of the American civil rights movement was not something that was lost on anyone at the time.
But it did get lost on people eventually. Over the years, as the memory of both the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement faded from our collective memories, the Confederate Flag was presented as a sort of totem of regional pride. “The Confederate Flag? Oh, you mean like Lynyrd Skynyrd or Molly Hatchet? You mean the thing on that TV show where the two affable and handsome hillbilly gearheads are jumping a Pontiac over a ravine while yelling YEEEEEEE-HAAAAAAA! Well that’s simply charming!”
But it also became a totem to other people. People who weren’t charming. People who were pretty fucked up. The Aryan Brotherhood, the Klan, and all those mouth-breathing dipshits who congregate on the Stormfront website. You know, those guys who claim to be defenders of the superiority of the white race while simultaneously being the sorriest imaginable examples of it. As of right now, those guys are clowns out on the fringe. Total self-parodies that everyone laughs at. But for about 100 years after the Civil War, these guys weren’t on the fringe. They were in city councils. County boards. Police departments. School Boards. Leagues of “concerned citizens” who had a tendency to ride the back roads at night. Hell, they were in Congress and the White House. And when that bowl-cut wearing shit-for-brains walked into a church that has real meaning to all of Black America and killed 9 people, everybody remembered just what that flag used to symbolize.
See, that’s where the “regional pride” thing falls apart. I love the Washington Nationals. I often wear a Nationals hat. When I wear it, people can tell that I am a baseball fan, and they can assume that I quite like living in the Washington, DC area. But if Nationals fans had a long history of pulling fans of the Miami Marlins off of the street and lynching them, or if Washington Nationals fans passed legislation preventing supporters of the Milwaukee Brewers from voting, and burned down churches where Brewers fans congregated just to teach them a thing or two, or if Nationals fans beat teenage Pittsburgh Pirates fans to death for making eye contact with a Nationals fans girlfriend, and if no Nationals fan ever seemed to get convicted for doing all of these horrible things, then that Nationals hat would mean something completely different, particularly to fans of all the other teams that were brutalized and murdered.
Southerners are not uniformly racist, and we need to be really careful about fertilizing that particular stereotype. It isn’t fair at all. And it’s not like the other regions of the country have spotless pasts on race. The Rodney King riots in Los Angeles didn’t happen because of the long lines at Disneyland. White people in Boston didn’t exactly give golf claps when they started busing in black kids to their schools. The Klan had higher membership numbers in Michigan and Ohio than they did in Virginia. There isn’t one section of the map here that has an entirely clean record.
But that flag has to go. I don’t mean “banned,” because that’s impossible. The 1st Amendment trumps everything in that regard. But it shouldn’t be flying over state houses. It shouldn’t be on state flags. It shouldn’t be made available to display on license plates. That’s the same as a government endorsement, and considering what the flag used to endorse, any right thinking government shouldn’t want to come within a million miles of that thing. It might mean regional pride to some, but to others it means “If we had our way we’d go right back to the good old days.” It shows an appalling lack of empathy, at best.
Why focus on a flag that, to many people, symbolizes a wrong-headed war based on slavery, and 100 years of oppression, disenfranchisement, brutality, and murder? There are so many amazing things about the South. If you guys ever come here, go to New Orleans. Go to Savannah. Go to Asheville. Go to Galveston. Go to Nashville. Go to Memphis. Go to Dallas. Go to San Antonio. You’ll see what I mean. And there are so many aspects of southern culture that just beat the shit out of the north. Tennessee Williams. William Faulkner. Flannery O’Connor. Jazz. The Blues. Hank Williams. Buddy Holly. Tom Petty. Johnny Cash. The Allman Brothers. Merle Haggard. Willie Nelson. Dolly Parton. ZZ Top. The food (oh holy shit, the food.) Find a way to symbolize what makes the south great, put that on a flag, and run that over your statehouses. Hell, I’ll fly it myself.