A son of the South shuns the flag

June 24, 2015
Confederate battle flag flies at the grave of Lewis Frederick Sweat, a soldier in the Confederate States Army in the U.S. Civil War, in Boone Hill Cemetery in Summerville

A Confederate battle flag at the grave of Lewis Frederick Sweat, a soldier in the Confederate States Army, in Boone Hill Cemetery in Summerville, South Carolina, June 22, 2015, REUTERS/Brian Snyder

My credentials are pretty good when it comes to Confederate blood.

Among my father’s people, from Charleston, South Carolina, 10 men fought for the South during the Civil War. My mother’s family, from Louisiana, sent four to fight for the Confederacy. In the end, several were wounded and one was killed at Petersburg, Virginia, defending the capital at Richmond.

His name was Isaac Ball Gibbs. He was 24, the heir to a plantation called Windsor, near Charleston, a rice farm with about 100 slaves. Gibbs was a slave-owner fighting for “states’ rights,” the desire of 11 states to preserve the right to own people.

On Aug. 21, 1864, Gibbs’s brigade charged up a hill to seize a train depot. The 750 Confederates were surrounded by Yankees firing down on them, and 500 were killed — including Gibbs. A family diary from the time reports that he lay on the grass in agony for several hours before he died.

Men portraying Civil War soldiers from the South line up in formation during a re-enactment at Civil War Days at Naper Settlement in Naperville, Illinois

Men portraying Confederate soldiers line up during a re-enactment at Civil War Days in Naperville, Illinois, May 17, 2014. REUTERS/Jim Young

More than a hundred years later, when I was a boy growing up in the South, living in Charleston, we played the war game of “Yankee and Reb.” None of us kids wanted to be a Yankee, which we thought was something like being a Nazi. I had a gray cap with the rebel flag on the brow. We bought Confederate flags on sticks at the hardware store, and we shot at each other with toy Winchesters.

But we got older: The guns and flags went into the closet, and I grew up. Eventually I realized that the Yankees were not Nazis, and that we Southerners had something serious to answer for with this slavery business.

I sometimes go to visit the graves of my father’s people, and I find Confederate flags sticking up here and there in the cemetery, next to the tombstones. The Sons of Confederate Veterans — a “Yankee and Reb” club with grown-ups, and people who vote Republican, to the man — place battle flags next to the gravestones of former soldiers.

Confederate battle flags mark the graves of soldiers in the Confederate States Army in the U.S. Civil War in Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston

Confederate battle flags mark the graves of soldiers in the Confederate States Army in Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston, South Carolina June 22, 2015, REUTERS/Brian Snyder

I pick up the flags and put them in the trunk of my car, take them home and there, I put them in the closet.

I take the flags because I don’t think they’re really meant to honor the dead, like poor young Gibbs. The flags are a crutch for the living — people who still think that slavery was just the way we did things around here. People who think that killing nine people at a Bible study in a church has nothing to do with the vexed inheritance of white supremacy, or our ongoing war around race, or the banner and symbol of both.

The Confederate flag is a historical relic. It can be grouped with other relics from the youth of the South, like slave shackles. The flag belongs in society’s closet: a history museum. When it goes in there, locked up behind glass, I promise to visit it. Because I like old things.

Republican politicians, including South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, are now calling for the removal of the Confederate flag from the lawn of the South Carolina State House. That is a fine idea. But it does not go far enough. Now is the time to scrape the Confederate symbol off everything. Take it off of flagpoles, take it off of people’s lawns. A word to Mississippi: Remove it swiftly from the Mississippi state flag, where it does not belong.

The Confederate flag decorates a million license plates throughout the South. Let’s take it off of all of them. Let’s take the flag off T-shirts, off bandannas, off cowboy hats, off coffee cups.

In Germany, the swastika is a banned symbol. It is illegal to display it. The prohibition has helped that country come to terms with the inheritance of Nazism. Are Americans better about our memory of the trauma of the Civil War than Germans are about World War Two? Have we come to terms with our inheritance of slavery? I doubt it, on both counts.

A  group of people, one holding a Confederate flag, surround speakers and National Guard, while protesting the admission of the "Little Rock Nine"  to Central High School

A group of people, one holding a Confederate flag, protesting the admission of the ‘Little Rock Nine’ to Central High School outside the state capitol in Little Rock, Arkansas, August 1959. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Defenders of the Confederate battle flag are, with intent or not, advocates of violent white supremacy. Their representative, a mass killer, has spoken for them. Let’s speak in response, by banning the Confederate flag — and restricting it to museums. It belongs there, as a relic and artifact.

I once visited the site where my ancestor Gibbs died. On the grass where he bled to death there is an eight-foot granite monument to the 500 killed that morning. Somebody had put Confederate flags all around it.

I thought about Gibbs for a minute, 24 years old and sacrificed. Then I uprooted the flags, one by one, and put them in the trunk of my car, took them home and burned them.

14 comments

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A lot of people will say cruel things to you about the feelings stirred by your recollections of your ancestors and your actions to honor them, sir. I applaud your actions, and, while I do not know you, consider that your actions actually do honor those who died in that terrible war and the long years of injustice that have lingered since then.

Posted by dj1s | Report as abusive

White supremacist have their own flags, and they don’t look anything like the Rebel flag. I get a little tired of people implying I support those idiots because I defend what to me is a symbol of the Dukes of Hazzard, Southern rock, and sweet tea.

Mr Ball, let me suggest an alternative approach to reducing the frequency of tragedies like just happened in Charleston. All those things you suggest doing with the Rebel flag? Do that with the name and photos of mass murderers. Somebody who feels voiceless in society can get instant notoriety by murdering a bunch of people. Keep their names out of the media. Keep their pictures out of the media. Keep their Facebook post out of the media. Stop glamorizing them to drive ad revenue.

Posted by diluded0000 | Report as abusive

So let me get this straight, perhaps I misunderstand but did this guy just admit he steals and then destroys the flags placed by other people on the graves because they offend *his* sensibilities? Is he at least enough of a man to do that whilst the people placing them are there? I have my suspicions on that score.

Posted by evilhippo | Report as abusive

The guy who wrote this is a disgrace to his courageous ancestors. Probably lives in New Jersey as well.

Posted by natewf | Report as abusive

A terrific honest commentary, and one that is resonating across the nation. Thank-you.

Posted by distancematters | Report as abusive

I re-read this article and yeah, he is really saying he is so intolerant of others expressing what they think he steals and destroys their property because they disagree with him.

I wonder if this guy knows that the left wing anti-racist Southern Student Organizing Committee used the Confederate Flag as their symbol in 1964? What I find so amazing is this person is proud of trashing other people’s cultural expressions because of the motives *he* imputes to them. The self-righteousness expressed in this article is truly epic.

Posted by evilhippo | Report as abusive

Nice.
Brave of you to write.
Who will be giving your eulogy?

Posted by HugoSLaVia | Report as abusive

Wealthy English land owners only made up a small portion of the population of the South and apparently today as then .. They think they are the only voice that should be heard .94 percent of the population of the South were not wealthy land owners . Nor were they slave owners .. but Again then as now . People like the man in the above article ..Take liberty to be their voice ..It is honorable that he had some family that actually faught in that war as most of the plantation owners hid themselves and family and continues to live in comfort while they brought havoc and devestation down on the rest of the population .. Who had to get up and defend their homes families and neighbors because of Northern Aggression prompted by these creeps . So no this man does not speak for the Southern Cross .. There were the true taitors of the Southern STates .

Posted by Lamplighter4712 | Report as abusive

I never remove confederate flags. I just burn them in place. The south fought a war against the United States and lost. The confederacy is an enemy of America. If you are proud of being an enemy to America, or your ancestors being an enemy to America….. move. Or get your ugly flags burned down. You decide.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Lets just pretend the Civil War never happened ….. instead let’s just say over 500,000 men in the 1860’s decided to commit suicide.

Posted by SR37212 | Report as abusive

It might have been more important for him to publicly ‘shun the gun’.

Posted by Charlesequine | Report as abusive

removes flags from graves, thief, public property means something to you ……….psycho?

Posted by Jingan | Report as abusive

@BAll….DO YOU REMOVE STAR SPANGLED ONES for atrocities in Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Iraq….not mentioning American Natives holocaust??

Posted by Jingan | Report as abusive

History is written by winners,North war was started by North under slavery pretense , but real reason was cotton and market regulation of the cotton and unfinished raw material prices, remember those who have production means are usually in power North had them but no access to dirt cheap cotton that was controlled by South..therefore war erupted, North by printing dollars quickly won with tacit support of UK

Posted by Jingan | Report as abusive