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The History of a Flag and the Powerful Story of Appomattox

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Add another powerful argument to those our colleague Sarah Perry has offered against Common Core standards in education: Consider the peril it poses to our national memory.

The current heated debate over the Confederate flag improperly displayed on state property shows a profound loss of historic consciousness. It demonstrates the perils of allowing liberal ideologues to mandate what is known and can be said about our past.

Partisan axes are being sharpened in all this. Some folks seem eager to discuss the Confederate flag as though its continued public display in the South is the sole result of Republican activism.

This is a false claim. For example, it was Republicans who first took down the banner of Rebel sedition in South Carolina and in Richmond. It was a Democrat, Gov. Fritz Hollings, who put it back up in Columbia a century later. “Dixiecrat” Democrat George Wallace and Dixiecrat turned Republican Strom Thurmond who were among their generation’s most ardent segregationists.

More recently, many Democrats have been eager to embrace those who fly the rebel flags. “I still want to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks," Democratic presidential candidate and later chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Howard Dean, said in November 2003. He knew that not all who fly that rebel flag, are racists.

Going back into history, it’s worth noting that in 1865, Gen. Sherman’s Union soldiers—mostly Republicans—held a mock session of the legislature in Columbia, South Carolina—and repealed the Ordinance of Secession.

President Lincoln walked the streets of Richmond from the James River to the Confederate White House weeks later to re-establish federal authority in the rebel capital.

The Confederate flag that had flown for four years over Thomas Jefferson’s classic Virginia State Capitol was hauled down—by Union soldiers. Most of these veterans had just voted to return Lincoln and the Republicans to power.

I hope the people of South Carolina remove the Confederate flag from State Capitol grounds, so nothing takes away from their continued building of a beloved community.

As a nation, Americans should remember what happened at Appomattox. This story, combined with the recent community response to the tragedy in Charleston, point the way to building a more perfect Union.

No country on earth would have treated defeated rebels the way Lincoln and Grant treated Robert E. Lee’s famished gray legions at Appomattox. They didn’t hang them. They didn’t send them off to prison camps. They fed them.

A Union Army bandsman outside the McLean House at Appomattox Courthouse serenaded Gen. Lee as he mounted his famous horse, Traveler. That German immigrant musician played “Auld Lang Syne” for Robert E. Lee as Gen. Grant and his officers doffed their military hats.

Britain hanged rebels in Canada and Ireland. Mexico shot rebels in Texas.

But we Americans saluted surrendering soldiers as they lay down their rifles—and those Confederate battle flags. From the time of that famed “Stillness at Appomattox,” those rebel flags have been ours; they belong to the people of the Union. That’s why Lincoln’s son Tad merrily waved a captured rebel flag from the White House balcony as his father gave the last speech of his life.

It was during that last address that President Lincoln asked the band to play “Dixie.” He said it was a favorite tune of his. It was now federal property, he told the delighted crowd.

Lincoln also lauded the black soldiers of the Union Army who had helped to cut off Lee’s retreat at Appomattox. They had played an indispensable part in the Union victory.

He knew this day would come. He had predicted it in an 1863 letter to James Conkling that was widely circulated.

And then, there will be some black men who can remember that, with silent tongue, and clenched teeth, and steady eye, and well-poised bayonnet, they have helped mankind on to this great consummation; while, I fear, there will be some white ones, unable to forget that, with malignant heart, and deceitful speech, they strove to hinder it.

The primary reason that there was no vengeance taken by the former slaves in that time of Union victory is that they were mostly Christians. They saw Appomattox as the Day of Jubilee.

Can we see the spirit of Lincoln in any of the accusatory social media expressions of outrage? Can we see charity for all in this? We are seeing a self-righteousness that Lincoln eschewed.

It seems a time for score settling, for pursuing the long-term project of eradicating America’s past, for fundamentally transforming this country.

When Corporal Robert Sutton of the First South Carolina Regiment of Volunteers heard the Emancipation Proclamation, he thanked President Lincoln. Then he pledged to carry the flag of the Union all the way to Richmond. The newly freed Corporal Sutton gave his heartfelt thanks to his Captain Jesus “who has never been defeated!”

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