Quora Question: Why the Rebel Flag Should be Put Away for Good

confederate flag
A demonstration at the South Carolina statehouse grounds in Columbia. Jason Miczek/Reuters

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Answer from Ben Waggoner:

What do white people think when they see the "The Confederate Flag"? You mean this flag?

That’s the battle flag of the 19th Mississippi Infantry, with honors attached for two battles in which the regiment especially distinguished itself. Both battles, Williamsburg and Seven Pines, were part of the 1862 Peninsula campaign, in which Robert E. Lee foiled McClellan’s attempt to capture Richmond.

My great-great-grandfather fought in the 19th Mississippi Infantry, Company A—the “President Davis Guards,” they called themselves. The regiment was raised in April 1861 and had no trouble getting volunteers; the regimental history states that, “The quota of men was quickly raised; indeed, so fast did volunteers pour in—particularly after the gray dawn of April 12th heard the booming of the first cannon of the war at Sumter—that soon no more could be accepted.”

The 19th Mississippi arrived in Richmond just a couple of days late for the First Battle of Bull Run / Manassas, and spent the next four years fighting all over the eastern theater of the war. They fought in the Peninsula campaign, the Second Battle of Bull Run/Manassas, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Cold Harbor...and the last 129 men, out of about 1,000 who had originally enlisted, finally stacked arms for the last time at Appomattox.

My great-great-grandfather wasn’t among them. He had been wounded—we don’t know which battle it was, or how he was wounded—and came home to Noxubee County, Mississippi. He was lucky; his brother (2nd Mississippi Infantry, Co. K, “Iuka Rifles”) had been killed in the Second Battle of Manassas. Like many veterans, my great-great-grandfather got an honorary “social” promotion; his highest official rank was sergeant, but I’m told that people called him “Cap’n.” He lived until 1913. My grandmother dimly remembered him, but since he died when she was 4 years old, she couldn’t tell me much about him. All I know is that he was disabled for about the last 50 years of his life. (More than half of Mississippi’s surviving Civil War soldiers were disabled.) He did manage to travel to several reunions of the United Confederate Veterans, and the United Daughters of the Confederacy awarded him the Southern Cross of Honor, which we still have. I don’t have a photo of his actual medal (which is engraved with his name on the top bar), but it looks like this:

So how do I feel when I see the flag that my great-great-grandfather fought for? The one that symbolizes the cause for which he marched, hungered, thirsted, fought, suffered, lost his brother and nearly died himself?

I think, “Damn it, put that thing away.”

I don’t question that my great-great-grandfather was brave, strong and devoted to his cause. I’m not sure I could have endured what he went through. But the cause that he nearly died for was this:

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.

That’s from Mississippi’s Declaration of Secession (read the whole thing here: Avalon Project - Confederate States of America - Mississippi Secession). That was published in March of 1861, and read all over the state of Mississippi. That’s what excited all those boys from Noxubee County enough to ride off to Richmond. And they fought for it, bravely and valiantly—and they lost. The Confederacy’s motto was Deo Vindice, “With God as Our Vindicator”—but y’know, somehow, God didn’t vindicate them.

The question of whether states could secede, or whether the United States could continue to endure “half slave and half free,” was settled once and for all in 1865, and it took perhaps 1.7 million killed and wounded to settle the question. It’s done. I have no sympathy at all for those who romanticize the “Lost Cause,” or who somehow think that the ideology of white supremacy is defensible today.

Honor your ancestors for their bravery and devotion, boys, but don’t pretend that that’s enough to make an unjust cause into a just cause. All the guts and glory in the world can’t do that. Lower those flags one last time, play “Taps”, and let it all go. That’s what I say. And if I have inherited any of my great-great-grandfather’s strength and spirit, I hope that I may use it to mitigate in some way the grievous harm that his “cause” has done.

What do white people think when they see the Rebel Flag, a.k.a. "The Confederate Flag"? originally appeared on Quora—the knowledge-sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. More questions: