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In Defense Of The Stars And Bars

In that time Washington and Lee High School out of Arlington, Virginia, used to come to Philadelphia for the annual Stotesbury Regatta, a championship event in schoolboy rowing. They were a good crew, one of the best not based in or around Philadelphia. They were also distinguished by the fact that they sewed Confederate flags on the backs on their racing shirts.

At the time, there was a tradition in the sport of rowing of betting shirts. Losing crews would strip off their expensive racing shirts and, pulling the racing shells together, hand them over to the winners, right there on the water. Because they had the distinctive flags on the backs, Washington and Lee shirts were prized. Today it is not as common, partly because some people consider it a form of betting in a sport that prides itself on amateurism, but also because schools tend to buy cheaper shirts for betting purposes.

We bring up this arcane subject because at the time nobody took offense at the Confederate flag on the shirts of a high school crew. The W & L boys wore the Stars and Bars as a mark of regional pride, much as the Irish wear green on St. Patrick’s Day, or the various fans of college and pro football wear jerseys of their favorite teams. We certainly never thought of the Washington area crew as racists, or right-wing extremists.

Alas, that was almost 70 long years ago, and when it comes to things Confederate, the country has regressed. The recent mid-term elections brought that point home when opponents of black candidates in several southern states incorporated the flag and other memories of the Civil War into their campaign presentations. It was a not-so-subtle appeal to the declining number of voters who vote race over policy and principle.

At the same time, we see a growing movement to eliminate southern references to the Civil War. Changing streets named for southern generals in Hollywood, removing statues of Confederate leaders elsewhere, etc. As a student of Civil War history, we find all this disturbing, for it is a fundamental distortion of that bloody and nation-changing event. We have joked it off a bit, suggesting that instead of changing the street names, simply change the people they were named after. Lee Street for Spike Lee, Forrest Street for Forrest Gump, Jackson Street for Michael Jackson.

It is not amusing, however, to hear Confederate leaders uniformly branded as traitors and racists. Most were not; they were anything but. In the context of the times, they simply reflected prevailing moods in their states, where it was considered patriotic to be loyal to your state, rather than to a federal government that was still maturing. It is particularly disturbing to see Robert E. Lee dishonored by removing statues of that great military leader. Any serious historian regards him as a distinguished American, torn between his affection for the union and what he saw as a higher duty to his native Virginia. We wish some of our current leaders shared his moral qualities.

Slavery was obviously an economic cause of the war. Then, as now, major business interests (think Big Sugar in Florida) prevailed over popular sentiment. But the men who fought, from generals down to the grunts, were fighting for their states. The great Civil War historian Shelby Foote put it well: “No soldier on either side gave a damn about the slaves... Southerners thought they were fighting the second American revolution; northerners thought they were fighting to save the union.”

None understood this better than the leading figures in the war. The Union’s Ulysses Grant and Confederate James Longstreet were friends before the war, and friends after. Southern General Joseph Johnston attended the funeral of his adversary, William Tecumseh Sherman, where he stood in the rain on a cold day in New York City. He developed pneumonia and died shortly after.

Generals who fought against their states were so few that history notes them. George Thomas was considered a traitor in Virginia for staying with the Union. John Pemberton, from Philadelphia, married south and commanded Confederate forces at Vicksburg. He was shunned when he returned to Philadelphia post war.

That was the reality of the times. To see it misrepresented a century and a half later is disheartening. History, and those who learn from it, deserve better.