Just because a practice is a “tradition” doesn’t mean that it ought to be preserved for the next generation. Tradition that represents ways of life that were, and still are, bigoted, for certain, need not be passed on. Flying the Confederate battle flag, especially on federal and state government lands, is one such tradition that ought to be allowed to die.
Let us first get clear on what we mean by tradition. Typically, when we speak of “tradition,” we are referring to a set of beliefs or customs that is passed down through generations. We also use the word to describe different religious groupings or theological frameworks.
But, if you ask a descendant or supporter of the Confederate flag what “tradition” means, he or she is likely to talk about a way of life that existed before the end of the Civil War. For them, that way of life honored certain genteel values, southern aristocracy, and other societal norms where people knew thier places, especially those considered “poor, white trash.”
For those of this tradition, these ideals are worth maintaining for generations to come. That the Civil War was about upholding these traditions makes sense. Except, these aspects alone are not worthy of war. What they leave out is the institution of slavery. Keeping slavery, the ownership of human beings for the purpose of manual labor and other dastardly deeds, was worthy of 750,000 lives given in the Civil War. Keepers of this tradition continue to fight a war that has long ended.
It makes sense to me that Confederate flag supporters persist in their fight to fly the flag. Why wouldn’t they? Their forebears had immeasurable determination to fight on in the war well beyond the point when the cause for which they fought was lost (when Atlanta was lost in late 1864). The Confederates refused to surrender even when their soldiers were fighting with no food to eat, no supply lines, and places to lay their heads.
In their historical novel, Killing Lincoln, O’Reilly and Dugard capture the spirit of the South. Says one Confederate soldier towards the end of the war,
“My shoes are gone…My clothes are almost gone. I’m weary, I’m sick, I’m hungry. My family has been killed or scattered, and may be wandering helpless and unprotected. I would die, yes I would die willingly, because I love my country [presumably the Confederate South]. But if this war is ever over, I’ll be damned if I ever love another country.”
This soldier illustrated a sense of purpose only the truly determined ever possess or know. Modern supporters of the Confederate flag have inherited this determination. They will fight to keep up the flag until the bitter end!
The problem is what the defenders of Confederate tradition do not name: the institution of slavery. They skirt the issue of slavery. If you listen to the rhetoric of the defenders, you never hear the “s” word in their defense.
I spent time in conversation recently with a gentleman, Lauris Jon Lee, Commander of the Private Henry L. Wyatt Camp 1297, of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV). A warm and delightful person, Mr. Lee discussed with me what the SCV stand for at length when I stopped by the booth they have at the NC State Fair. While acknowledging the evil of slavery, he did not acknowledge that Confederate tradition included the way of life afforded his ancestors by the institution of slavery.
Instead, he cited the tariffs imposed by the U.S. government in the 1830s to support manufacturing in the North as the primary cause of the war. Accordingly, those who fought in the war were defending the South’s right to pursue its economic interests. The SCV members, he stressed, do not promote racism, hate, nor other forms of bigotry. I imagine that there is some truth in that claim.
I presented him with an alternative view of the war causes, its lingering effects on U.S. history, and my perspective on how our nation honors other war veterans, including veterans of wars lost. I also tendered the perception of the Confederate Flag held by many people of color and whites who stand in opposition to the flag flying in the public domain. For those who oppose it, the flag is a symbol of great oppression, pain, and injustice.
Then, I sent him via email scholarly documents supporting my position, including excerpts of Pres. Lincoln’s letters. My position is based on historical records, not tradition. Though emotional about this subject, I let the facts speak and maintain a willingness to be corrected.
I refer to emotion because it is clear that emotion and prejudice influence those who insist on upholding Confederate tradition. A case in the town nearby illustrates this point. In Hillsborough, NC, a Canadian-born, travel agent turned political aspirant, Cindy Lee Talisman, is defending a tradition as if she were borne into it.
Running for a council seat, whose single issue turns out to be whether to preserve a Civil War memorial and hotel, she says, “The Civil War was about so much more than slavery. Slavery just happens to be an offshoot that people have focused on.” Say what? She needs to get her facts in order. And how does a Canadian-American grow to defend the Confederacy?
Ms. Talisman, like others, is simply on the wrong side of history. Just as the State of South Carolina voted to remove the Confederate flag from its Capitol building and the University of Mississippi ruled to remove the state flag from its grounds due to its Confederate symbology, so should others get on-board with the times.
The Civil War ended in 1865. The Confederate military lost the war. In its wake, slavery was constitutionally abolished, the union was restored, and Confederate soldiers granted leniency by Lincoln. With that ending, Confederate tradition was rendered a relic.
Though Confederate tradition may live on in the private lives of its benefactors, there is no place for it in the public square. What we need now are traditions that encourage unity, common language, and shared experience. We should lift up traditions that make us proud to be Americans.
 Bill O’Reilly & Martin Dugard, Killing Lincoln (New York: Henry Holt and Co.), 47.