The Curious Story of the Captured Confederate Battle Flags

Abraham Lincoln


“Yet , if God wills that it continues …..until every drop of blood drawn with the lash , shall be paid by another drawn with the sword , as was said three thousand years ago …
‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”

                   Abraham Lincoln

In this, his Second Inaugural Address, President Lincoln laid it down that the Civil War was God’s retribution for two hundred and fifty years of “unrequited toil” ….slavery. It was certainly the cause for the war and the secession four years earlier, as the Declarations of the seceding Confederate States and their constitutions explicitly state: the maintenance of slavery  in the South; the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act; the expansion of slavery into the territories; and the enshrinement of the Dred Scott   decision.

The Thirteenth , Fourteenth , and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution were enacted between 1865- 1870 in connection with the abolition of slavery and in response to the nearly 650,000 war- dead.

It is one of the wonders of American history, however, that this truth was not so slowly replaced by the mythology of the Lost Cause: that the Civil War was not really about slavery; that Confederate soldiers had no slaves; that it was really a war about governance  and a way of life.  It was in effect a rip -roaring spat between brother against brother… A War Between The States. This mythology of the Lost Cause in fact prevailed for a full century after the Civil War not only in the South but in the country at large. I grew up on it.

In the immediate aftermath of the War, the Ku Klux Klan sprung up to terrorize African-Americans and White Republicans who were attempting to implement Reconstruction; the first Grand Wizard being the legendary Confederate General  Nathan B. Forest. Then,  in 1877, in order to secure the Electoral Votes for Rutherford B . Hayes  over Democrat Samuel B. Tilden, the Republican Party made a deal with Southern Democrats in Florida , South Carolina, and Louisiana to pull Federal troops out of the South thereby effectively abandoning African-Americans and disempowering and disenfranchising them by the turn of the century. So within a dozen years of the War’s end and Lincoln’s death, the true purpose of the War – the lifting of those formerly in horrific servitude from that hell to a place of dignity envisioned by those Civil War Amendments set forth above – was forgotten.

And while all of this retrenchment and revisionism is ongoing, the curious story of the captured Confederate Battle Flags unfolds.

In the Civil War, battle flags of military units, North and South, were of paramount importance for leading men into battle and for giving commanders knowledge of the flow of battle. Glory attached to them. Capturing the enemy’s battle flag was an heroic act which, in the Union Army, was rewarded with the Congressional Medal Of Honor, the highest of all honors. These captured Confederate battle flags were housed in Federal and State armories and other safe places throughout the North after the war.

In 1887 , President Grover Cleveland , a New York Democrat elected with Southern support, proposed returning the captured Confederate battle flags to the states from whence they came. The leadership of the veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) vigorously protested, saying such conduct would be treasonous. Cleveland relented.

In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican and Spanish – American War hero , ordered a Federal armory in the War Department to release its captured flags to various Southern states. There was no protest this time from the now aging  GAR. So, the captured Confederate battle flags for which Congressional Medals of Honor were awarded were returned ; the battle flags which represented the Confederate States of America that had split the Union and fought for the preservation of slavery were honored by being sent back home. The Civil War had ended only forty years beforehand. A great Re-Union was held at Gettysburg in 1913, the fiftieth anniversary of the battle.

America was moving on.

And move on it did to all kinds of crimes and lynchings against black people and to a massive revival of the Ku Klux Klan throughout the nation in the 1920s.

The Great Depression and World War II gave birth to a psychic change in America, a change embodied in The Greatest Generation; the greatest among them being Martin Luther King Jr. Born of these times were the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 ; fully one hundred years after the Civil War . A century.

Some might say that this tortured story demonstrates there is a “ moral arc to history which bends slowly but bends toward justice.”  Others might not be so sure and look at our politics today and of the overt appeals to racism and white nationalism by a sitting President of the United Stated and question whether we are as a nation forever to be ensnared by this curse until we are finally broken; that a Democracy in a nation of such vast diversity is loaded with impossibility; that our core principle of equality under the law is unspeakably under siege.

If Abraham Lincoln were with us today, he would, I think, say it is unknowable to man whether there is a moral arc to history. It is beyond our power to discern it but it is within us to earn it, to believe it. And he might say again:

“Let us have faith that right makes might; and in that faith let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.”

Bernie Kenny is the former 33rd District from Hoboken.

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