The Stars and Bars a Symbol of Racism, or Something Else?

D.W. Wilber
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Posted: Aug 03, 2015 12:01 AM
The Stars and Bars a Symbol of Racism, or Something Else?

In the spring of 1861 Missouri’s militia, the National Guard of its day, established an encampment called Camp Jackson in the Lindell Grove area of St. Louis, intending to conduct a six day training exercise.

Around this same time delegates at a Missouri state convention voted to remain in the Union, as long as they didn’t have to engage in combat with any of the other states that had seceded from the Union. Basically the intent was to keep Missouri neutral in the coming war.

There was a great deal of political intrigue taking place in Missouri at the time and political leaders from both sides were engaged in attempts to outmaneuver each other, both politically as well as militarily should the state break out into armed conflict.

The St. Louis military arsenal’s commander, Union Captain Nathaniel Lyon believed that anti-Union troops were planning on breaking into the arsenal and stealing arms and ammunition. As a precaution he moved the arsenal’s weapons to a location in Illinois, then marched several thousand federal volunteers to Camp Jackson to confront the Missouri Militia troops. A large portion of the federal troops were German immigrants to St. Louis, and not made up of local citizens.

Outside of Camp Jackson a large crowd had gathered to watch as their eight hundred plus Missouri militia surrendered to the federal troops under Captain Lyons command. Emotions were running very high with insults, as well as rocks and other debris being hurled at the federal troops from citizens gathered along the streets of St. Louis. All that was needed was a spark to set things off.

To this day it’s unclear who was really responsible for the tragedy that followed. Whoever fired the first shot has been lost to history. What is known is that the federal troops under Lyons’ command opened fire and killed 28 civilians that day, at least a quarter of them children.

The other result was that those Missourians who held southern sympathies prior to that date were forced firmly into the Confederate camp. Those with Northern, anti-secessionist allegiances remained loyal to the Union, as ultimately did the State of Missouri for the remainder of the war.

Though with twelve hundred battles and skirmishes throughout the state, Missouri remained contested for the duration of the conflict. Much of the fighting taking place was brutal, bloody guerrilla warfare which helped to give birth to later outlaw legends Jesse and Frank James.

My Great-Great Grandfather Captain Henry Guibor was present at Camp Jackson the day that Union Commander Nathaniel Lyons captured the Missouri Militia forces. Having served his country honorably during the Mexican War where he also served as an artillery commander, being a member of the Missouri Militia would have been a natural thing for my great-great grandfather to do. Membership in one’s state militia at the time was considered an honor and a duty for all able-bodied men.

To the best of my knowledge neither my great-great grandfather nor any of his family ever owned slaves. In fact, though it was a slave state, slavery was rare in the state of Missouri at this time. Few Missourians ever actually owned slaves.

And while my great-great grandfather eventually fought under the Confederate battle flag at Wilson’s Creek, Elkhorn Tavern, and many, many other major battles and engagements during the war, and on at least two occasions received serious wounds in battle, I’m pretty confident in stating that he never fought to preserve the institution of slavery. In the writings he left behind there is nary a mention of slavery.

But there’s much discussion in his writings of his belief that he was fighting for his state’s honor and dignity against a federal government, who he perceived at the time as overstepping its authority. And against a Union Army that had committed an atrocity at Camp Jackson and on the streets of St. Louis against his fellow Missourians.

These things were his true motivations for joining the Missouri State Guard and commanding Guibor’s Battery, which was eventually absorbed into the Confederacy and fought with distinction right up until the end of the rebellion.

Nowadays with the benefit of hindsight one could look upon the Stars and Bars as not so much a symbol of racism, but more a symbol of treason. Since the South taking up arms against the Union was indeed an act of treason.

But as they say in the Old South, I’ve had the benefit of over one hundred fifty years to ‘ruminate’ on the subject. In 1861 the majority who chose to serve under the Confederate banner did so out of their own sense of patriotism to their state, whipped up by the politicians of the time. Not much different from what politicians do today to justify sending our young men and women off to war.

It’s easy for some nowadays to argue that the Confederate Battle Flag represents racism, and to them it very well may. But the reality is not that simple nor easy to wrap up into such a neat little package. I can certainly appreciate that some black Americans may view that flag as an offensive symbol, and that’s their right as an American.

Just as many other patriotic Americans view things differently. Many Americans proudly recognize it as a symbol of courage and bravery exhibited on the battlefield by their ancestors.

Ancestors who like mine were fighting for things other than the preservation of slavery.