"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Confederate flag can continue in a benign way

I have written a song about the Confederate flag but I'm not sure I should have it recorded. My interest in the Civil War goes way back, I'm sure originating with the Walt Disney presentation of "Johnny Shiloh." (I was going to type "The Little Drummer Boy" but of course that's about Christmas.) "Johnny Shiloh" was a Civil War drummer, their purpose to lift morale. Johnny wore blue. I'm not sure the sound of a drum would make me willing to face shrapnel coming from cannons. BTW in regard to "The Little Drummer Boy," did you know the story isn't in the Bible?
Anyway, I quickly came to learn that each side in the Civil War had a flag. The Confederate battle flag is a really quite beautiful symbol. The brilliant red background makes it striking. I recall Disney making no grim moral judgment of the Confederates. I recall them following the time-worn meme of the graycoats being men of valor who were products of their culture. You reach this assessment reading "the Killer Angels" too.
"The Killer Angels" is what inspired Ken Burns to do his PBS mini-series. The book of that name was a historical novel written by the late Michael Shaara. If you want to know what a historical novel is all about, I suggest this book. It drew me in. We see these very swashbuckling men, men commanding their charges to their death, grappling with the most fundamental questions about their mortality. One of them wonders that if he should die, go to heaven and see his friends/family there, what age would they be? He seems to ponder the question with the same seriousness as the grave questions of what strategy to mount in the growing battle.
What could possibly make so many young men willing to put their lives on the line in this way? I once bought Civil War magazines that often presented this question and sought to explore. It's fine to try to speculate on such things. My own outlook has been that we cannot possibly get into the minds of Americans who lived in the mid-19th Century. They lacked advantages that we take for granted today. Life could be short and afflicted by caprice.
Our culture seemed to guide young men to be warriors, and this pattern would hardly end by the end of the century. The wars of the mid-20th Century were as heartless and grotesque as any. "Progress" meant we could kill using industrial efficiency. The Civil War draws a certain fascination, I feel, because it was the last war fought by human beings.
The southern soldier was motivated by that rebel battle flag. It technically wasn't the flag of the Confederacy. The battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia had its place on the battlefield.
A Civil War author once suggested with a scary sort of accuracy that a Civil War battlefield had "an eerie kind of beauty."
The glorious Confederate battle flag went into mothballs after the Civil War. Commentators say that not much was made of it, not for a long time. Then, as the story goes, it got trotted out again for purposes we can argue about. The argument is heated at present in Charleston SC. That's where the cannons fired on Fort Sumter.
We hear the flag got renewed in connection with resisting desegregation. However, based on what I've read, the Confederate symbols had a resurgence in connection with the Centennial observation of the war. That would have been between 1961 and 1965. It would make sense that the South would restore some of the old pride. There is within all of us a resistance to centralized authority. The Confederate flag can respond to that impulse in us. We admire fierce competitors.
We long ago achieved enough emotional distance from the Civil War. We're not pained remembering any of those individual casualties. We think of the Civil War in terms of the "eerie beauty of the battlefield" and the gray-clad southerners, the epitome of valor, fighting for their homeland. If only we could embrace that popular conception as saying it all.
The truth is much more nuanced and cannot escape the angle of racial subjugation. Anyone who uses the Confederate flag today as a naked expression of racism is to be condemned. The Sons of Confederate Veterans would be the first to proclaim that. Oh, the Civil War is so "complicated" to sort out. 
  
Would "mission statement" help?
One wonders why Charleston SC would be so eager to promote the flag when in fact their side lost. I think the flag can be understood to project simple regional pride. Here is how I think the South Carolina legislature could resolve this: pass a "mission statement" in connection with the flag and how it's presented today. The mission statement would be crystal clear on how that Southern symbol is to be interpreted today. Obviously, obviously, no negative racial overtones.
The statement would encourage all of us to affirm what we've always had tucked away in our minds about the flag: it was a symbol of regional resistance to an uncomfortable period of growth in our country, like "growing pains" with a most substantial price. The U.S. was not going to be Balkanized.
Many of those Confederate soldiers did not wear those official gray uniforms that we see in movies. They weren't in uniform at all. Soldiers clash at a pivotal point in U.S. history where we were working out some fundamental issues. Surely we can't equate Confederates to Nazis.
The Confederates had run into a wall, that wall being the future. They didn't even have a sense of their own country's boundaries. Therefore it was a "rebellion" which was the term promoted by the North i.e. Union. As such it would crumble. Four miserable years of untold deaths was the price paid - staggering on both sides.
The technology of weaponry advanced beyond what many older generals were able to understand. All major battles ended in stalemate, really, with one side having to withdraw and go home to be perceived as the "loser." Both sides had such strong weaponry, neither could overwhelm the other. All new war technology gives an advantage to the strategic defensive. That's why the astute General Longstreet at Gettysburg wanted to take the defensive stance, in contrast with the tragically pugnacious Robert E. Lee (who had severe diarrhea at Gettysburg).
Of course there's lots of mythology connected with Civil War battles. No way could the South's army at Gettysburg succeed to the extent of forcing the North to sue for peace. The Union had military resources it could have summoned from far and wide. The Union pulled out all stops at Gettysburg such as using "flankers" - soldiers assigned to shoot and kill anyone running from his duty. The Joshua Chamberlain character in the movie "Gettysburg" is shocked when told he is to employ flankers. The troops had no choice but to dig in and perhaps meet their maker.
I'm reminded of the D-Day approach of sending in troops from the sea, because there's no way they could retreat. Watch those U.S. soldiers get mowed down by the Nazi "pillboxes" in "Saving Private Ryan." Isn't there some way all those U.S. battleships could have cleared the beaches a little better first? All those powerful guns. I have read that belatedly the U.S. ships moved closer to shore, entering water deemed too shallow for them, to desperately try to clear the way better.
I'm not surprised at all that Dwight Eisenhower, post-war, spoke like an absolute peacenik. He wanted no part of war. He probably went to his grave haunted.
Oliver Stone says it was the Red Army coming from the east that really crushed the Nazis anyway.
Getting back to the Confederate flag, let's try to view it as benign, really. We can re-define it and let native-born Southerners have their self-esteem. The strong arm of the law can take care of racism.
I'll share with you the lyrics of my song about the Confederate flag, called "New Day for the South." Would you like to hear it recorded? Piano or guitar backing?
 
New Day for the South (by Brian Williams)
 
A flag that flew to show Southern will
It stood for victory at Chancellorsville
Red as bright as the whole mother lode
Stars as clear as when Jeb Stuart rode
 
REFRAIN:
New day, new day, South is having a brand new day
Somehow, some way, we can honor the men who wore gray
 
It flaps so vibrant for each Southern dawn
Making passers-by look up with awe
We all hear how that era has died
Still that flag can express Southern pride
 
(refrain)
 
They say it has to come down from that pole
They might as well tear away at our soul
Southern men who all fought to the end
Saw that flag as their partner and friend
 
(refrain)
 
The guns echoed with fury and smoke
Making it clear the South had awoke
Soldiers looked up to Robert E. Lee
They envisioned a swift victory
 
(refrain)
 
First Manassas is where it began
The men in blue were defeated and ran
South wanted its own sovereignty
Only war could give them that key
 
(refrain)
 
Face to face at Antietam Creek
Lee and McClellan, there would they meet
Neither side won on that bloodiest day
Southern devotion stayed firm through the fray
 
(refrain)
 
Conflict wore on as God used a scythe
Time was never on Johnny Reb's side
Valor was high but numbers were low
Still the graycoats could render a blow
 
(refrain)
 
The guns went idle with Union complete
A new day dawned for our nation to greet
Our Southern flag could still be unfurled
Keeping us close to our Southern world
 
(refrain)
 
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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