Heritage or hate?

Heritage, not hate! Just about every Southerner has seen this familiar slogan plastered on the bumper of a passing car or boldly emblazoned across a tattered T-shirt.

And as the public debate over the Confederate battle flag in South Carolina packs up and moves on to other states, the question remains a critical one for all people of good will: Is the flag a symbol of heritage or of hate?

Heritage groups point out that the flag is uniquely Southern and that it represents a time when a distinct new nation was created in the spirit of our American forefathers — only to disappear four years later, bled dry by a brutal war.

Flag opponents counter by arguing that the banner, loved by many in the South, has been abused by hate groups that exist to divide Southerners rather than uniting them.

That’s true, but the fact remains that abuse of the flag is a distortion of its true meaning and original symbolism. And if abuse by hate groups is reason enough to bury the Confederate battle flag in the dark corner of a museum, then our beloved Stars and Stripes must be next, because the American flag has been equally abused by racist groups. Nonetheless, few would call for the national flag to be furled, and the same standard must apply to the Confederate battle flag.

So what is the true meaning of the flag: heritage or hate?

Ironically, the answer may be “none of the above.” The real meaning of the flag is honor.

The Confederate battle flag is not a national flag: It was designed by soldiers, for soldiers on the field of battle. The flag incorporated the Cross of St. Andrew, a Celtic Christian symbol, along with stars and colors used in the national flag. The banner demonstrated the influence of Christianity among the troops and served as a rallying point for Confederate soldiers scattered over dusty, smoke-filled battlefields across the South.

As the soldiers’ flag, the banner represents neither a generic notion of Southern heritage nor an attitude of racial animosity. In fact, few North Carolinians even owned slaves or thought about much more than making their small family farms yield enough food to sustain the family for another year, and 5,000 to 10,000 black soldiers fought alongside their fellow North Carolinians during the four-year conflict.

What the flag does represent is the honor of all who willingly made a sacrifice for their state and nation that few today could even imagine, much less emulate. The flag represents men past their youth, 40-year-old privates, who said goodbye to their wives, children and farms, knowing they might never see home again. And the flag represents young boys, some only in their midteens, who marched north knowing their brothers had already fallen victim to disease and enemy fire.

The blood-stained banner helps us remember the more than 40,000 North Carolinians — and countless others across Dixie — who made the ultimate sacrifice, many of them still buried in long-forgotten, unmarked graves.

No one would dare snatch the American flag from the hands of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines who answered the call of duty earlier this century, offering their service and their lives in the trenches across Europe, on islands in the Pacific, and in the jungles of Southeast Asia. Likewise, Southerners, who lost nearly an entire generation of men to war, must not tear from their ancestors’ grasp a symbol of their honor.

The answer to the “heritage or hate” question is that the Confederate battle flag represents neither our generic cultural heritage nor the hatred of bitter and foolish men. It is not about the legality of secession or the motives of the leaders who took that agonizing step.

It is nothing less than a symbol of honor. And in the long run, the issue may be not only whether we recognize our Confederate veterans’ honor, but whether we demonstrate any ourselves.

[Charles Hawks is the commander of the North Carolina Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.]

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One thought on “Heritage or hate?

  1. MJ

    The flag is a symbol of a “distinct new nation” of people who tried to destroy the union. Their sacrifice was in the cause of maintaining slavery for the robber baron cotton growers and self-interested politicians. Sadly, the same impetus that sent many of our best and brightest to fight in world wars, also sends men to fight in destructive civil wars.

    It’s truly sad that those many southern men and their families suffered the tribulations of war, although most had no slaves and many were poor as dirt themselves. The north didn’t want war, but a whole town in New England (Maine, I think) lost every male of fighting age in the Great Rebellion , because they, and many others, fought and died for the American flag, just as the soldiers of WWI and WWII and innumerable other American wars all over the globe. The American flag is what binds us together, instead of letting us become just another nation of warring factions, killing and maiming our way through the decades., as we see happening in Africa today.

    Southern States’ Rights politicians actively cut themselves off from the Union and had been working toward that end for years. It was not the first rebellion, but the first that included so many people from so many states. And all so their wealthy friends could keep on maintaining their wealth by moving from one area/territory to another, due to the wearing out of the soil from cotton cropping, and enslaving a whole race of people to support their greed. There had been other, lesser, rebellions over the years, and the federalists dealt with these and kept the nation on one piece. (Although, it’s sad to admit, one cost of this was the genocide of the native population. No side is without a stain on its conscience).

    But as to the Great Rebellion, southern politicians left the federal government for high office in the Confederacy, and many of them had been supporting a division of the nation for many years. They got what they wanted and thought they could just bully their way to a new country, carved out of the southern and midwestern United States. Little did they understand about the patriotism and the will to win they would be facing. And so we are here today, still with people who want to celebrate their part in a sad and bloody national disaster.

    In what other culture or country do people venerate/honor rebels who try to split a nation and shed so much blood?

    “Honor” for this flag , in this context, is being used to divide our nation once again. When we see the flag snapping in the air from the back of a pickup truck, many of us understand that the spirit of rebellion still lives. That’s the message we get, not one of honoring the dead who died for a useless cause, but the message of hate for “the other” and rebellion against the federal government. It doesn’t help that so many, usually southern ,republicans ( who once were the backbone of the democratic party) are still sowing the seeds of rebellion.

    It’s sad the two sides cannot sit down and hash this all out and come to an understanding that we all are part of one whole country, ready to work together to solve the problems we have, instead of two broken parts that keep fighting the old battles and can’t join together as one nation, entire, and devoted to the welfare of all.

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