For all those following the current debates over the display of Confederate flags, may find it of interest that the Confederate Battle Flag has been a bone of contention before, albeit under different circumstances.
Ambrose Bierce, whom I have spent several years researching and writing about, weighed in on the previous flag dispute. At that time, it had little to do with the issue of racism–since whites north and south were all on the same page–racist–but rather with the return of the actual battle flags to the South. After the war, northern politicians could be assured of getting votes if they “waved the bloody shirt”–reminded voters of the loss of northern lives in the Civil War; that this was as self-serving bloviating perhaps goes without saying. Then, as now, there were any number of “chicken-hawks” –politicians who had not fought in the war but acted as though they had–who raged against returning the battle standards to the Southern states.
Among those who argued for conciliation and return of these symbols, not in praise of their cause, but in honor of the many men on the other side who had also suffered and died–was Ambrose Bierce. It is in this context that Bierce’s poem should be understood:
The Confederate Flags
Tut-tut! give back the flags – how can you care,
You veterans and heroes?
Why should you at a kind intention swear
Like twenty Neros?
Suppose the act was not so overwise –
Suppose it was illegal;
Is’t well on such a question to arise
And punch the Eagle?
Nay, let’s economize his breath to scold
And terrify the alien
Who tackles him, as Hercules of old
The bird Stymphalian.
Among the rebels when we made a breach
Was it to get the banners?
That was but incidental – ’twas to teach
Them better manners.
They know the lessons well enough to-day;
Now, let us try to show them
That we’re not only stronger far than they,
(How we did mow them!)
But more magnanimous. My lads, ’tis plain
‘Twas an uncommon riot;
The warlike tribes of Europe fight for gain;
We fought for quiet.
If we were victors, then we all must live
With the same flag above us;
‘Twas all in vain unless we now forgive
And make them love us.
Let kings keep trophies to display above
Their doors like any savage;
The freeman’s trophy is the foeman’s love,
Despite war’s ravage.
‘Make treason odious?’ My friends, you’ll find
You can’t, in right and reason,
While ‘Washington’ and ‘treason’ are combined –
‘Hugo’ and ‘treason.’
All human governments must take the chance
And hazard of sedition.
O wretch! to pledge your manhood in advance
To blind submission.
It may be wrong, it may be right, to rise
In warlike insurrection:
The loyalty that fools so dearly prize
May mean subjection.
Be loyal to your country, yes – but how
If tyrants hold dominion?
The South believed they did; can’t you allow
For that opinion?
He who will never rise though rulers plot,
His liberties despising –
He is he manlier than the sans-culottes
Who’s always rising?
Give back the foolish flags whose bearers fell,
Too valiant to forsake them.
Is it presumptuous, this counsel? Well,
I helped to take them.