Confederate flag at the Statehouse betrays heritage

A horse drawn caisson carries the casket of Senator Clementa Pinckney through the grounds of the Statehouse for a public viewing, Wednesday, June 24, 2015, in Columbia, S.C. past the Confederate flag. (Grace Beahm/Staff)

“Were these things real? ... Did I see the flag of my country that I had followed so long, furled to be no more unfurled forever?”

— Sam Watkins, Confederate veteran

“In the van, the proud Confederate ensign. ... Before us in proud humiliation stood the embodiment of manhood; men whom neither toils and sufferings, nor the fact of death...could bend from their resolve.”

— Union Gen. Joshua L. Chamberlain

The key word supporters of the Confederate flag use is “heritage.” But what exactly is that heritage? Does it include defeat?

The answer is obvious. Many Southerners venerate the Lost Cause even though it was lost. They venerate Gen. Robert E. Lee as a great chief — a dignified and honorable leader who was beaten by an overwhelming force, yet his conduct in defeat made him more heroic still. Lee wrote that his duty was to “obliterate the marks of civil strife and avoid bitter memories of the war.”

Southern Civil War buffs regularly buy prints of Lee’s surrender and scenes of Appomattox out of pride in how Lee, his officers and his men conducted themselves on that day. Tom Lovell’s famous painting “Surrender at Appomattox,” for example, portrays Lee with one aide signing the surrender agreement and Grant and eight aides looking on. The painting evokes the nobility of Lee and his men in defeat.

The flag at the state Capitol (or a square version of it) was the battle flag of the Confederate army. It is a military symbol of an armed force that not only does not exist but, more importantly, was surrendered by its commanders in a formal surrender ceremony.

In the ceremony itself and by agreement, the custodians of these flags surrendered them to the Union Army. Thus, flying the flag as a symbol of sovereignty or because it represents the official views of South Carolina or even some kind of permanent recognition by our state government is not a part of the Southern heritage.

The men who served under it never raised this flag over government buildings again. They had honorably surrendered the flag insofar as it symbolized or represented their government.

After Gen. Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865, at Appomattox Court House, a formal agreement was signed by high-ranking officers of both armies (including Gens. Longstreet, Gordon and Pendleton for the Confederacy) that the Confederate “troops shall march by brigades and detachments to a designated point, stack their arms, deposit their flags, sabers, pistols, etc. and from thence march to their homes ...”

Gen. Lee appointed Col. Alexander Cheves Haskell of the 7th S.C. Cavalry to effect the surrender of the Confederate cavalry.

A South Carolinian surrendered the Confederate flag.

On April 12, 1865, for the last time, the Army of Northern Virginia marched as an army. A federal officer remarked that “the regimental battle flags crowded so thick by thinning out of men, that the whole column seemed crowned with red.”

As the Confederates passed by, Union Gen. Joshua L. Chamberlain ordered his men to come to the position of “salute” out of respect for their former foes. He knew how difficult it was for these men to give up their flag.

The Confederate Army, led by Maj. Gen. John Brown Gordon, acknowledged Chamberlain’s gesture and ordered his men to reciprocate. That was done “and a truly imposing sight was the mutual salutation and farewell.” The men faced the Union lines and “stacked their arms & piled their colors ...”

The ceremony took six hours, and “some of the color bearers shed tears when they delivered up their colors.”

Others kneeled and kissed their flags “with tears in their eyes.” They knew their flag would never officially fly again. “We did not even look into each other’s faces,” one pained North Carolinian said.

Gen. Chamberlain recalled, “Lastly — and reluctantly, with agony of expression — they fold their flags ... and lay them down.”

A South Carolinian said: “And they, the Yankees, acted with much consideration, and like good soldiers, and good Americans can only act, did not show that exultation they must have felt. While they seemed to feel proud, of course, at the result, yet we had their sympathy and good will.”

Even the arch-Confederate E.A. Pollard wrote in “The Lost Cause” that Gen. Grant had “behaved with a magnanimity and decorum that must ever be remembered to his credit. ... He had ... accorded honourable and liberal terms to the vanquished army.”

Not everyone agreed with this view. Unlike Lee, Gordon, and thousands of Confederate soldiers, a few Confederates were bitter and resentful. Former Gov. Henry A. Wise of Virginia told the Union officers, “... we hate you, and that is the whole of it. You go home, and take those fellows home, and that will end the war.”

That, too, is part of the Southern heritage, but not one worth honoring.

Surely flying the flag does not commemorate small-minded men like Wise and ignore the Lees, Haskells, Gordons and Longstreets.

Lee and his men were grateful for the way Grant and his army acted. For the remainder of his life, Lee urged that all “should unite in honest effort to obliterate the effects of the war and to restore the blessings of peace ...”

John B. Gordon served as president of the Confederate Veterans and worked, he said, for 30 years “for the obliteration of all sectional bitterness and for the settlement of all sectional controversies on a basis consistent with the honor, the manhood and self-respect of all.”

Like Lee, those who actually fought in the war — and this is the heritage many South Carolinians venerate — accepted the result of Appomattox and an honorable end to a Lost Cause. In 1907, Julia Ward Howe, author of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” wrote of Lee:

“A gallant foeman in the fight

A brother when the fight was o’er.”

In 1874, Edward M. Boykin, formerly lieutenant colonel of the 7th S.C. Cavalry, wrote a little book, “The Falling Flag,” in which he recounted Lee’s retreat. He recalled how news of the surrender spread slowly on April 9 and that some units continued fighting, unaware of the surrender.

A Confederate captain accosted Gen. Martin W. Gary and wanted to know why he kept fighting.

“Surrender!” said Gary, “I have heard of no surrender. We are South Carolinians and don’t surrender.”

Boykin then added, in brackets, “Ah! General, but we did, though.”

South Carolinians were the last to surrender, but we did, though. That is also part of our state’s heritage.

It took incredible fortitude for Col. Haskell and Gen. Gordon to march before their conquerors and literally surrender their flags. Can modern-day South Carolinians undo what South Carolinians did?

This then is the true Southern heritage: To acknowledge defeat in an honorable and manly way and to abide by the agreement reached by those Confederate officers in authority.

No man alive today fought with Lee or under his command. But those who link themselves to the Confederate Army by ancestry, heritage, belief or opinion are morally required to accept the last orders of their commanders.

To fly the Confederate battle flag on the Capitol grounds is to go back on the word of honor of Robert E. Lee and the agreement of Gens. Longstreet, Gordon and Pendelton.

It is a breach of faith with the true Confederate heritage.

The chief sources of this article are: Chris M. Calkins, “The Final Bivouac”; Emory M. Thomas, “Robert E. Lee”; Douglas Southall Freeman, “R.E. Lee”; Gary Gallagher, “Lee and His Generals in War and Memory”; Gaines M. Foster, “Ghosts of the Confederacy.”

Robert Rosen, is a Charleston lawyer and author of “Confederate Charleston,” “A Short History of Charleston” and “The Jewish Confederates.”