“It Should Never Float Over American Soil”

During my master’s thesis research on the Grand Army of the Republic in Indiana I relied heavily on a Union Civil War veterans’ newspaper called The American Tribune. The paper was printed out of Indianapolis from roughly 1888 to 1906 and was edited by active members of the Indiana GAR during the postwar years. The paper is extremely hard to find on microfilm today and I was really lucky to have the Indiana State Library–one of the only places in the country where you can find it–within walking distance of my house to aid my research. Just for the fun of it I’ve been going back through some of my files and came across some interesting commentaries from the paper’s editorial page on the Confederate flag. Here are a few samples:

On May 29, 1890, a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee was unveiled in Richmond, Virginia, along what is now called “Monument Avenue.” When reports suggested that Confederate flags were waved during the ceremonies, the John A. Logan Post No. 199 of the Indiana GAR issued an angry resolution condemning these actions as “disloyal and treasonable.” The Tribune gleefully republished the Logan Post’s resolution in full on June 27:

WHEREAS: The rebel flag was unfurled and displayed on housetops and in line of march, and used for the purposes of decorating in remembrance of the same principles that it represented during the years of 1861 to 1865, and

WHEREAS, The principles taught the rising generation by such acts are as wrong as that principle taught by anarchists and communists in carrying the red flag, which this government forbids. Therefore be it

RESOLVED, That we heartily endorse the sentiment of Gen [Daniel] Sickles on last Memorial Day unmoved by any rancor or spirit of hatred, God forbid, but we say as Union soldiers and the love that we bear for the stars and stripes that there is but one flag for the Americans, the flag of Bunker Hill, of Saratoga, of Yorktown, of Lundy’s Lane, of New Orleans, the flag of Washington, Scott, Perry, Jackson, Lincoln, Hancock, Grant, Hooker, and the flag carried victorious by Billy Sherman to the sea. The only flag that represents the right, and in charity we will not forget the difference between right and wrong.

RESOLVED, That in this country there is but one flag which represents the fundamental principles of a free government known and acknowledged by all nations of the earth, and while we respect the pride that animates the hearts of ex-confederate soldiers in historic valor displayed on many battlefields of the war and the sentiment which endears them to each other, and keeps alive in their memories the many scenes of hardships which they shared together, we sincerely condemn any attempt to resurrect from the buried past the emblem which represents a bad and lost cause.

RESOLVED, That the stars and stripes represent loyalty and the stars and bars represent treason, the same to-day as they did from ’61 to ’65, and we deem it the duty of the authorities at Washington, irrespective of political parties, to forbid the display of the stars and bars on any occasion, and this we do in memory of those who so heroically gave their lives that the Nation might live.

From an editorial entitled “Our Flag is There” on January 7, 1892:

When Gen. Lee surrendered to Gen. Grant at Appomattox, the latter would not accept Gen. Lee’s sword, and he included within that surrender a provision that all the Rebel officers should retain their side-arms. That courtesy of Gen. Grant expressed exactly the feeling of the great generous heart of the North toward the defeated and conquered South. Southern poets have written ballads and Southern women have sung of the sword of Robert Lee. This is all as it should be. But when Gen. Lee surrendered to Gen. Grant there was no provision made that the flag of slavery and secession should ever be retained, either as a souvenir or standard. It represented something that cost this country a million of men and many millions of money, and at Appomattox its bloody folds should have been furled forever. War relic or no war relic, it should never float over American soil.

A month later the paper lamented how many Northerners (and Democrats in particular) embraced what the paper called a “forgive and forget” sentiment that accepted the continued flying of the Confederate flag (“Still Pandering to Rebels,” February 4, 1892):

The Northern Dough-faces and the “forgive and forget” sentimentalists are largely responsible for the manner in which the “relics of the lost cause” are nursing emblems of their treason and are still laboring to make the same respectable. In poor old Missouri they have societies called “Daughters of the Confederacy” whose invitations to their balls and receptions have a Confederate flag printed in colors on one corner; and the principal of the leading military school in that State [Alexander Frederick Fleet, Sr. of the Missouri Military Academy]…advertises the advantages of his school with the picture of a late major-general of the Rebel army in the uniform of a rebel, and this officer was a graduate of West Point, resigned from U.S. Army in 1861 and fought for the Confederacy.

This sort of thing is becoming too common and the President should call a halt and order the officer now on duty there to his regiment, and require the arms to be turned over to the ordnance officer at Jefferson Barracks. It is high time there was a law forbidding the Government of the United States from furnishing teachers’ ordnance, or in any way aiding any institution of learning which seeks to perpetuate the principles of or honor the so-called Confederate Government.

All these comments make you wonder what these guys would think about our debate over the Confederate flag 120 years later.



4 thoughts on ““It Should Never Float Over American Soil”

  1. I am so glad you found these sources. They are awesome. They clearly show how the lost cause interpretation of the conflict was taking hold in the nation which is what historians are saying about the time period. The people of the era clearly saw that cbf and all confederate flags as the symbols of treason. Interestingly they did not mention racism did they?

    I think some of the reactions from people today have a lot to do with their lack of knowledge about history. Almost every time when you ask someone who waves a cbf around what the cause of the conflict was, they will answer with something other than slavery. That right there shows they do not know history and from there it just gets worse. It is about how they want to remember the past, not what the past actually was. That of course is the entire heritage business in a nutshell.

    It is not the actual history that heritage is involved with, but with a cultural identification of how people choose to remember the past. When facts contradict fiction, heritage chooses whatever people want and identify with whether it is accurate or not. That is exactly what is going on with the cbf today.

    The bottom line is that rag was used by men who committed treason against the United States of America. It has no use today other than being in a museum. So when I see that flag outside of a museum or historical reenactment, I see an ignorant person, a racist, or both. Many people say they don’t like that perception, but they also choose to believe in a fictional version of the past. That is ignorance on their part and even worse, they ignore the facts in favor of that fictional past. That just magnifies their ignorance.

    1. Hi Jimmy,

      Thanks for commenting. I think a big takeaway for me here–and something I explore further in my own scholarship–is that many Union veterans were opposed to the cultural shift to reconciliation with former Confederates that many younger Americans throughout the country embraced in the 1890s. The “Romance of Reunion” had no appeal to them, and they were quite offended with the Confederate flag being flown at commemorative ceremonies, Blue-Gray reunions, or, later on, the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.

      In my own research I didn’t come across any references from Union vets with regards to the racist nature of the flag, although the editorials above show that they had no problem associating slavery and secession with the flag.

      I understand that people appropriate symbols for their own purposes and that symbols can acquire many different meanings based on their use, but re-appropriating the Confederate flag to represent “heritage” does not nullify the prior history of that flag because someone chose not to associate his or her own motives with that history.

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