Daniel Koch is the author of Ralph Waldo Emerson in Europe: Class, Race and Revolution in the Formation of an American Thinker (Bloomsbury, London, 2012). He’s working on a new book on New York State history.
Abolitionist Gerrit Smith of upstate New York, photograph by Matthew Brady, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
New York is not a place where Confederate battle flags should fly. And yet, there are more of them here than ever before. I’ve seen dozens of them while driving on country roads through the northern counties of the state this year. They fly from private homes, mostly in rural areas, and I have even seen one hanged at a dilapidated house in the middle of my hometown of Oneida, just around the corner from the post office.
Upstate New York was once the most pro-Lincoln and anti-slavery part of the Union. Rebel flags fly in the same streets and rural roads where men left their families to fight and die in the civil war. The flag is not just an indecent symbol. In New York, it is an attack on history and a sign of disrespect for our ancestors. Those who steal it seek attention. But to ignore it is also a dishonor.
Why would people think that carrying the Confederate battle flag is acceptable? Some may be fully aware of and agree with his racist associations. I suspect that more of those who have started piloting it recently see it as a symbol of rebellion against a tyrannical government, something like the “Don’t tread on me” flags borrowed from the American Revolution (which are also more important than ever. ). The use of the flag in the Dukes of Hazzard and by Lynyrd Skynyrd in the ’70s and’ 80s might have made the flag fly seem slightly unruly, but in a way that disassociated it from being a symbol of hatred. Then he came across as an almost ironic symbol of the fun of the highlanders rather than anything inherently bad. But those days are over and now no one can or should see it that way.
The idea that carrying the rebel flag was anything other than a symbol of anger and hatred has lost all credibility it ever had with the Charleston Church massacre in 2015. Since then, the battle flag has been removed from the flag of the state of Mississippi and there was an account in the South with the flag and its meanings. But it has evolved over the Trump years into one of many symbols of anger and hostility against non-Trump supporters of all kinds, including the black and white “F *** Biden” flags that don’t. are also not difficult to find in flight, sometimes from the same flagpoles.
The town of Oneida is an interesting example of how the present collides with the past. In the 1850s, the city’s main newspaper, Oneida Sachem, was categorically anti-slavery. Nearby, in the village of Peterboro, was the home of Gerrit Smith, one of the North’s most prominent abolitionist voices. He was a founding member (and former presidential candidate) of the Freedom Party, the first and only at the time to pledge to end slavery. In the presidential elections of 1860 and 1864, Lincoln’s Republican Party received overwhelming support in central New York. It was the backbone of the party and the war effort as most other parts of the North were more sharply divided, with some supporting Lincoln and others supporting the anti-war and sometimes pro-slavery Democrats.
When the Civil War broke out, the Presbyterian Church in Oneida, just around the corner from where I saw the Confederate Battle Flag flying this year, made its own flag of the United States. It was impossible to buy one. They blew it from their steeple throughout the war until (as the church’s semi-centenary story in 1894 says) it was “whipped to shreds.” The church supported the war effort by sending food and supplies, and prayed for the young men from Oneida who served. “Two brave Sunday school boys,” he said, “didn’t come back.” It would be an exaggeration to say that there was no dissent or disagreement with Lincoln or with the abolition of slavery in central New York, but there was certainly less than in most other areas. from the country.
The people flying these flags in New York City are a small but notable minority who impose their point of view on many who are disgusted with them. Whether or not we should ban the flying of the flag is an interesting question. If we do, some argue, it will further corroborate the claims of those who currently pilot them – that they live under an increasingly tyrannical and controlling government. It would be much better if they became more aware of why this is wrong and choose to tidy them up themselves. It is deeply disrespectful to the people whose ancestors lived in the system of slavery and white supremacy that this flag represents. But it is also a sign of disrespect for the people who sacrificed their lives during the civil war.