Contrary to what a Confederate sympathizer would tell you, it is not an erasure of history to remove a Confederate monument. It is the opposite: a long-overdue acknowledgment of history and an attempt to make that history known to the public, in defiance of a long and successful campaign to suppress it.
Those Confederate sympathizers, who still dominate legislatures and alumni donor lists across the country, may yet reinstall Silent Sam, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s solemn monument to a slack-jawed, long-dead loser, but the students who toppled him this month are a credit to the modern South and, we can hope, a glimpse of its future. And as we in the enlightened North hope, we ought to also take a look around and ask if we’re living up to the example set by those students.
Confederate iconography has infested the North. There’s no Confederate flag census to tell us exactly how many there are and when they arrived, but the explosion of proudly displayed Confederate flags feels, to this lifelong Northerner, fairly recent — a development of the last 25 years that accelerated in the 2000s. NPR’s “Morning Edition” reported on it last year, writing that one Confederate tchotchke peddler estimated that “only about 5 percent of his customers were Northerners when he started his business three decades ago; now they make up about 20 percent.”
The spread has had predictable effects. In April several white students of Bay City Western High School in Auburn, Michigan, flew Confederate flags from trucks parked outside the school as a demonstration against the alleged removal of one student’s flag from his truck by a black student the week before. More Confederate-flag-festooned vehicles joined the demonstration the next day. By the end of the week, with school closed for a day because of unspecified threats, the Confederate flag demonstration ― by that point consisting largely of nonstudent adults ― moved to a nearby park.
What message, precisely, were these demonstrators seeking to send via their proudly displayed banners? “It doesn’t mean anything,” an organizer told WJRT. “It means a country boy thing to us.”
Here’s some history: 90,000 Michiganders served the Union in the Civil War. Nearly 15,000 of them died. Most of them were country boys. After Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender, Jefferson Davis, the president of the former Confederate States of America, fled into the Deep South, hoping to find passage to a sympathetic foreign country. A member of the 4th Michigan Volunteer Cavalry Regiment captured him in a pine forest in Irwin County, Georgia, on May 10, 1865. Davis was wearing his wife’s shawl at the time, for which he became a figure of national mockery.
“Every Confederate flag flown outside the slave states is as close as we will get to an admission that the flag represents whiteness, not Southernness.”
It was far from Michigan’s only moment of distinction in the conflict. Two years earlier, on the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg, Lee sent Gen. J.E.B. Stuart and his cavalry forces to get around the rear of the Army of the Potomac and wreak havoc on its supplies and communication lines as the bulk of the rebels attacked the center of the Union line. Union Brig. Gen. George Armstrong Custer’s Michigan Cavalry Brigade, known as the Wolverines, was a few miles east of Gettysburg, guarding the Union Army’s flank. Custer was 23 and had been a general for just a few days. He had 2,700 men to Stuart’s 6,000.
In the midst of the ensuing fight, Custer famously drew his sword and led the Michigan brigade in a charge with the cry “Come on, you Wolverines!” The Union cavalry forces held. Stuart withdrew. The Union won Gettysburg. The Michigan Brigade went on to fight in every major battle in the war, all the way to Appomattox. Custer — as you might predict of a young general who dressed flamboyantly and scored a decisive win against a respected Confederate general in a pivotal battle while shouting a catchphrase — became an American folk hero.
But the real heroes of the Civil War were ordinary people who fought and died in obscurity. Many of them were from white immigrant communities then considered ethnic — German, Irish and Scandinavian — and many of them, especially those from the Midwest, were volunteers, fighting sometimes for personal glory but often for genuine patriotism. Those who returned home and those who did not were honored in town squares and military cemeteries across the North, in Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, in New Hampshire, Massachusetts and New York. Many of their descendants now fly the flag of the cause their great-great-great-grandparents spilled blood to stamp out.
There are monuments to Union units and commanders across the North. Once upon a time, the acts of heroism they commemorated were part of every good citizen’s civic education. It is normal for a war and its heroes to fade from living memory. But we still sing a national anthem about a meaningless bit of symbolism from an even more forgotten war, and we as a nation still tell ourselves comforting stories about how we beat the Nazis and freed Europe. At a certain point, we stopped telling ourselves about how we freed the United States.
Like most civic religions, the erstwhile Northern celebration of its Civil War victory oversimplified and sometimes distorted history in the service of mythmaking and the inculcation of loyalty. Some of the men Custer led in defense of the Union would follow him in his postwar mission of ethnic cleansing against American Indians. For years, the histories ignored black soldiers and left out or justified the shameful Northern abandonment of the Reconstruction project and the great betrayal of freed black Americans. But the self-serving stories that white America told itself were at least in the service of convincing Northerners they had been on the side of liberty and justice, and if those are the values you’re told your ancestors fought for — if those are the ideals you think your group stands for — it’s possible to persuade you to try to live up to them. If you identify instead with an amorphous, whites-only “rebellion,” nothing will appeal to you but pure reactionary resentment.
“The Northern Confederate flag ... filled the vacuum left by Northern white community leaders who failed to inculcate in their offspring a sense of pride in anything other than the race they were lucky enough to be born into.”
Every Confederate flag in the North is a confession. Each one gives away the entire charade. How can it possibly be about heritage or the other tired euphemisms its Southern defenders trot out? There is no Confederate history to remember, let alone honor, in Minneapolis. Every Confederate flag flown outside the slave states is as close as we will get to an admission that the flag represents whiteness, not Southernness. It is a symbol of white solidarity and an announcement that the flyer’s allegiance to white identity trumps all the other possible allegiances ― to country, region, religion and class ― they might otherwise honor.
This was allowed to happen. The Northern Confederate flag is an invasive species that was invited in. Rather, it filled the vacuum left by Northern white community leaders who failed to inculcate in their offspring a sense of pride in anything other than the race they were lucky enough to be born into.
This is white pathology, a profound cultural failure. No one taught these kids any way to think of who their people are or were or how to be proud of them, except for white race hustlers pushing toxic identity politics.
I went to a good public high school in Minneapolis. We didn’t do the battles-and-generals history. I could write an AP history essay on the causes of the Civil War and the politics of the era. We read Howard Zinn. I developed an affinity for a great American tradition of radicalism and social justice. It worked for me. Maybe it wouldn’t work for everyone. But there is space between John Brown and Kid Rock for an American self-conception that emphasizes the times in our history when ordinary people helped dismantle an unjust system, even if that victory was not as definitive as it should have been.
If I don’t mind having missed out in high school history on the maneuvers and stratagems of the generals, I do regret not learning more about the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry. On the second day of Gettysburg, the 262 men of the regiment charged more than a thousand advancing Confederates to buy the Union Army a few minutes; 215 of them died.
On the third day of Gettysburg, one of the 1st Minnesota’s survivors, Pvt. Marshall Sherman, captured the flag of the 28th Virginia Infantry in battle. Virginia has wanted the flag back for a century. To this day, it is at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul. In 2000, Virginia state legislators passed a resolution requesting (not for the first time) its return. Minnesota’s then-Gov. Jesse Ventura, a celebrity candidate who won an unexpected victory as an unapologetic populist, was not moved. “We took it,” he said. “That makes it our heritage.” In this, as in a few other moments of his governorship, Ventura showed some hint of promise, never to be realized, of a better kind of American populism. “How many Minnesota boys spilled their guts and blood on that same battlefield?” he asked. “We won the flag.”
That’s a heritage worth celebrating. The failure to inculcate pride for it in the rowdy white boys of the modern North is inexcusable.