[Editor’s note: The question of whether the Confederate flag has an appropriate place in modern American society has become the focal point of a widespread debate in recent days, following the mass murder in Charleston, South Carolina. The debate has spread to the NFL, with the Carolina Panthers sharing their perspective. After writing the following item this morning and spending the balance of the day thinking about whether it made sense to share it here, I decided to do so. To the “this-isn’t-about-football-you-idiot” crowd, I know it’s not about football. And I’m aware that I’m an idiot.]
Saturday was the 152nd anniversary of the birth of West Virginia, a state that seceded from Virginia after Virginia seceded from the United States. I’ve lived here most of my life, with roughly 25 years in the Northern Panhandle and most of the last 25 roughly 100 miles farther south.
For five of the latter years, the office where I practiced law in Clarksburg was perched over the entrance to the Harrison County Courthouse. At the front of the plaza sits a large statue of Clarksburg native Thomas Jonathan Jackson. Also known as Stonewall. Also known as one of the most prominent generals in the failed rebellion against the United States.
Growing up in Wheeling and progressing through 12 years of Catholic school, I emerged with a very strong sense that the Civil War was just that: A failed rebellion against the United States, springing from the fundamental disagreement over whether the abomination of slavery should continue. Living for the past two decades in the community where Stonewall Jackson was born, that’s not quite the same message that comes through.
Beyond the statue honoring Jackson (as I once joked to a few locals, “Where’s the statue of Mussolini?”), there’s a nearby lake and a resort named for Stonewall Jackson. And Jackson’s Mill, the site of a sawmill and gristmill once owned by his family, is the site of the annual Stonewall Jackson Jubilee.
But what’s there to be jubilant about? Stonewall Jackson was a general in the failed rebellion against the United States, springing from the fundamental disagreement over whether the abomination of slavery should continue. Those who commit treason against the United States ordinarily are reviled; for some reason, Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and other key figures in a rebellion known far less notoriously (and far more romantically) as the Confederacy get a pass in some portions of a nation that was reunified a century and a half ago, after the rebellion against it failed.
Last Monday, while vacationing with my family at the Outer Banks of North Carolina, I saw a pair of pickup trucks flying large Confederate flags from poles planted in their beds. With that same banner openly flying over the capitol of the state’s southern twin, it’s no surprise that the symbol of the failed rebellion against the United States is met with honor and not shame in some portions of the country.
The fact that the symbol of the failed rebellion against the United States is still embraced in South Carolina and elsewhere sends the subtle yet distinct message that the rebellion wasn’t shameful, but honorable. Which sends the subtle yet distinct message that the ultimate reason for the rebellion — whether the abomination of slavery should continue — was also not shameful, but honorable.
While the monster who slaughtered nine innocents in a House of God and traumatized millions of others of every race and creed quite possibly would have found a way through his warped and twisted brain to justify taking innocent life for whatever cause with which that warped and twisted brain connected, he didn’t have to look very far for one. With the symbol of a failed rebellion against the United States brazenly flying over the capitol of the state in which he lived, his warped and twisted brain connected the symbol of the rebellion to the reasons for the rebellion to the persons whom the rebellion, if successful, would have continued to enslave.
I’ve seen some justify the ongoing embrace of the symbol of the failed rebellion against the United States by pointing to the fact that their ancestors fought and died in the failed rebellion against the United States. I can’t relate to that concept, because my ancestors were living in Italy at the time.
But there’s a very good chance I had some lingering relatives who were on the wrong side of World War II. I have zero inclination to honor any of them. Today, 150 years after it ended, why don’t we feel the same way about the wrong side of the Civil War?
[Photo credit: Wikipedia]