Furl the Banner

A friend from West Texas forwarded this article from “Big Bend Now” an internet expression of the ‘Big Bend Sentinel’ newspaper out of Alpine, Texas. Really could not say it any better than Lonn does:

A conquered flag whose time has come to furl


I am a Southerner by both birth and heritage. I come from a long line of poor white cotton farmers on both sides of my family. Three of my four great-grandfathers fought in the Confederate army. The fourth had been told by his parents that he could join the army when he turned 13; he was on his way from Texas to Virginia to do so when he met his brothers coming home on the road. They told him that Lee had surrendered and the war was over. My grandmother, who lived with us while I was growing up, was a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and I was enrolled at the age of 6 in the Children of the Confederacy. I mention these credentials because of what I am about to say about the Confederate battle flag.

The flag that is causing such a furor was not “the Confederate flag,” as so many news reports have described it. It was a military flag, originally square in form, designed by an aide to General P.G.T. Beauregard, William Porcher Miles, after the first Battle of Manassas because Beauregard thought that the Confederate national flag, which had a circle of white stars in a blue canton and three broad stripes, red, white, and red, was too easily confused with the Union flag in the smoke of battle. Miles’s battle flag was never approved by the Confederate Congress and never adopted as a national flag. It never flew over Confederate government offices, or over the capitol at Richmond.

It was not even prominent among the symbols of the Lost Cause that helped create the myth of the noble suffering South during the years after the Civil War, nor was it celebrated during those years as a hallowed symbol of the Southern past, as apologists for it claim. According to University of Mississippi historian Allen Cabaniss, writing in The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, it was seldom displayed at Confederate reunions or used by any of the societies of descendants of Confederate veterans. My grandmother’s United Daughters of the Confederacy chapter used the first national flag, the one that Beauregard thought could be confused with the Union flag, at their meetings, and she made me a small one out of silk to hang in my bedroom.

Cabaniss describes how the Confederate battle flag emerged “out of limbo” as a symbol of white supremacy and segregation during the Dixiecrat political campaign of 1948, when Governor Strom Thurmond of South Carolina ran for president on a platform of states’ rights and segregation after the national Democratic party adopted a platform with a civil rights plank. Newspaper accounts of the States Rights Democratic Party convention in Birmingham, Alabama in July 1948 describe delegates marching into the auditorium under Confederate battle flags as bands played “Dixie” and battle flags being waved on the floor in response to speeches invoking Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee. This set the stage for the adoption of the battle flag by the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Councils across the South as a symbol of their racist opposition to integration. The first time I can remember seeing a picture of the battle flag being carried in public was during the Clinton, Tennessee race riot in 1956, when hooded Klansmen descended on the town and paraded down the main street under it. When the Klan was at its peak, in the 1920s, its members paraded under the American flag.

The fact is that in the 1950s and 60s the Confederate battle flag was hijacked and dishonored by racists and white supremacists who were opposed to the Federal government’s implementation of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education supreme court decision ending public school segregation. Two years after the decision, in 1956, the Georgia legislature incorporated the battle flag into the state flag as a protest against integration. The battle flag was first raised over the South Carolina state capitol on April 11, 1961, to mark the beginning of the Civil War Centennial; in March 1962 the legislature voted to leave it there as a protest against the civil rights movement. Its 20th century symbolism is clear to anyone who examines the historical record, and it is not something to honor or revere. It may have stood for the valor of Confederate soldiers a century and a half ago, but it no longer does. That is why I applaud Brittany Ann Byuarim-Newsome, the young woman who scaled the 30-foot flagpole on the South Carolina state capitol grounds two weeks ago and took down the Confederate battle flag that was flying there.

In June 1865, two months after the Confederate surrender, a Catholic priest named Abram Joseph Ryan, a former Confederate army chaplain, published a poem entitled “The Conquered Banner.” Its seven stanzas urged Southerners to accept defeat and furl their flags. The final one reads

Furl that banner, softly, slowly!

Treat it gently – it is holy –

For it droops above the dead.

Touch it not – unfold it never,

Let it droop there, furled forever,

For its peoples hopes are dead.

The poem was once a standard recitation piece in Southern households, including my grandmother’s. The racists of the 1950s should have heeded Father Ryan’s advice. Now it is definitely time to furl that banner forever.

Lonn Taylor is a historian and writer who lives in Fort Davis. He can be reached at taylorw@fortdavis.net.


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3 responses to “Furl the Banner

  1. My distance and lack of knowledge about anything of depth in the US civil war means when I see the flag I think of the Outlaw Josey Wales “are you gonna pull those pistols or whistle Dixie?” White supremacists KKK dont get a look in…they go hand in hand with burning crosses and I always thought that a particularly odd symbol. Interesting read.

  2. I wish all my Suthun relatives would understand this. Even if it were about “heritage” I’d be hanging my head in shame that one of my relatives fought for the “Lost Cause” of slavery and white supremacy.

  3. Fahy Mullaney

    Fascinating read. Thanks, Ron.

    Sent from my iPad


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