Ambrose Bierce and the Other Flag Debate

Fight for the Colors by Don Troiani
Fight for the Colors by Don Troiani

 

For anyone who followed the recent debates over the display of Confederate flags, they 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, once weighed in on that 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 political 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 fellow Americans on the other side who had also suffered and died in the war–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.

 

Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife cover
Ambrose Bierce, famous author, noted cynic and war hero.  His portrayal of war was based on personal experience and his realistic style of writing heavily influenced twentieth century writers.

 

 

 

 

 

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