- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 28, 1999

Columnist misunderstands South Carolina flag fight

I am moved to respond to Armstrong Williams' Dec. 19 Commentary column, "Refolding rite for the Confederate flag."

I always read Mr. Williams' columns and usually enjoy his eloquent and well-reasoned arguments on the topic du jour, but I must find fault with his diatribe against South Carolina's habit of flying a Confederate battle flag from the Statehouse.

In his column, which contains a surprising number of statements that suggest a poor familiarity with American history, Mr. Williams makes two statements worth discussing.

He refers to the flag as a commemoration of the "illegal" secession of the Southern states. He also writes that claims that the flag honors any political ideal other than the support of slavery insult the intelligence of every U.S. citizen. Here is why he is wrong:

The Southern states violated no local, state or federal laws when they passed acts of secession. As Americans, they well understood that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. With due process of law, they withdrew their consent to be governed by Abraham Lincoln (elected with only 39.9 percent of the popular vote). Did slavery play an important role in the economy of the 11 seceding states? Yes just as it did in the border slave states (and the District) that remained in the Union throughout the Civil War.

In saying that Southerners and the flags under which they fought stood for no principle but the support of slavery, Mr. Williams makes an overly broad condemnation that I am sure he did not intend.

One need look no further than to Robert E. Lee for an example of an American who chose principle over expedience, offering his sword to his home state of Virginia rather than to the invading armies of the North.

More telling is the well-documented story of the ragged Confederate rifleman captured by Union troops. Able to tell by his clothes and hardscrabble manner that he was too poor to afford an extra pair of shoes, let alone a human being, his captors asked him why he fought for the wealthy slave owners. He looked at them and said they missed the point: "I'm fightin' cause you're down here."

By the same token, one need look no further than the family of Ulysses S. Grant for an example of a slave-owning Unionist. Julia Grant (the famous general's wife) owned slaves throughout the war.

To condemn South Carolina for flying a Confederate flag, which is an undeniable part of its heritage, one must be just as ready to condemn any reverence for any U.S. flags that flew before passage in 1865 of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery.

GEORGE STILL

Burke

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I have a problem with Armstrong Williams' commentary of Dec. 19, "Refolding rite for the Confederate flag." It is far too exclusive in its scope. It needs to include another flag that of the United States of America.

If we are to remove the Confederate flag, long a symbol of the Southern heritage and history to which many remain steadfastly devoted, simply because slavery existed during its time span, how can we spare the flag of our country and remain honest?

In one of Mr. Williams' concluding paragraphs, he says, "Let us not blindly defend this flag as a unique symbol of Southern heritage for there is an unbearably sad brutality to this nostalgia." Mr. Williams applies this statement to the Confederate flag, totally ignoring the fact that the same words apply to the Stars and Stripes. When he says that it "communicates a disgraceful justification for enslaving an entire race and ultimately the masters as well," he forgets that many more individuals were held in involuntary servitude under the United States flag from 1776 through the next 84 years than during the four brief years of the Confederate States of America.

If we remove the symbolic battle flag of the Confederate soldiers, how do we address the black Union troops needlessly killed defending the U.S. flag? These men were paid one-half of the pay their white counterparts received and were engaged primarily as labor forces for the Union Army except when, as in the 54th Massachusetts, they were led into certain slaughter by their white commander because they were considered expendable.

Those who would equate Southerners' reverence for and devotion to the Confederate flag with a tacit approval of a bygone slave era would do well to channel their interest and talents into ridding African countries of the export slave trade that exists today. Yet no one writes columns advocating that pursuit; the Confederate flag is too easy a target. How can one consider an era long past and ignore an equal tragedy in the present? Possibly because the enslaved in African nations aren't voters or readers.

The saddest aspect of the flag's life is that it has been appropriated by racist hate groups that demean the lives and memories of the men who died defending it for a cause they believed just. These groups have no place among heritage-, history-, and preservation-minded organizations, which adamantly decry the abuse of their symbol.

The Confederate flag should remain as a symbol of a proud Southern spirit, Southern heritage and a positive link with Southerners in a now unified country. To demand its removal diminishes all of us who cherish the past and yet look to the future.

The flag question in South Carolina should be decided by the people of that state, not by outside elements on either side of a deeply provocative question. Removing the flag there will not eliminate slavery from our history. Former New York Mayor Ed Koch said it best several years ago: "You can't change history to make people feel better." That's not history, that's psychology.

MARTHA M. BOLTZ

Vienna

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Armstrong Williams, in his Dec. 19 commentary, "Refolding rite for the Confederate flag," tells us that the primary reason for the Civil War was slavery. Well, is that so? Actually, there were many reasons why the Civil War was fought. Slavery was one of them. Only the very richest of Southerners could afford to own a slave. The going rate for a slave was about $1,200, and you could buy a nice farm for about $600. So, why did Johnny Reb fight? Was it to preserve his rich neighbor's right to own a slave? I don't think so. The truth is that America was, and some say still is, a very racist country. Most early Americans would not fight over slavery, and that included a large number of Northern whites who rioted when President Lincoln turned the war into a war against slavery. Actually, Lincoln did so to keep England from entering into the war on the side of the Confederacy.

Mr. Williams describes the attack on Fort Sumter as treasonous. Well, was it? Actually, the sovereign state of South Carolina seceded from the United States in December 1860, but didn't fire on Fort Sumter until April 1861. The state made repeated requests for the United States to remove its troops. In effect, the Union Army was declared persona non grata. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney told Lincoln that no treason had been committed. The United States had seceded from England in a similar manner.

So again, why did Johnny Reb fight? His homeland had been invaded. For that matter, why did Billy Yank fight? Largely, he got drafted. It was the political left against the political right. We see that same conflict going on today. When this country was founded, it was founded as 13 separate entities that were to be linked loosely for matters of commerce and the common defense. The federal government was to have little or no power within the states, only among the states. In fact, the Peace of Paris treaty that settled the Revolutionary War reported out 13 separate treaties, one for each sovereign state. The left wing wanted the federal government to be the "superstate," over all the states. The servant was to be the master. The Southern states knew who would run that superstate, and they opted out. Please note that the Constitution was turned upside down, and it was done without the consent of the people (the ratification process). Before the Civil War, people used to say: "the United States are … "; today they say, "the United States is … " Lincoln didn't save the United States; he destroyed the United States.

The abolitionists made up a small and vocal left-wing group that had only a small following. Most Americans didn't care about slavery. Lincoln stated many times that his reason for the war was to preserve the Union. The Civil War should have been about slavery, but sadly, it wasn't. Lincoln himself stated that he was not an abolitionist. I could have a lot more respect for him if he had been.

DAVID McQUISTON

Falls Church

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