It Was Their Country and Their Flag

Why can’t liberal Yankees leave well enough alone?
by David Foster

?Oddly, I thought of the Mississippi comedian Jerry Clowers. On National Public Radio’s "All Things Considered" a whining Yankee intellectual was carping about the controversy over the Confederate battle flag. As he came to the end of his commentary, he proudly announced that he removes the little Confederate flags from the graves of Rebel veterans when he visits Southern cemeteries. He argued—with the unswerving assurance of one meddling in the business of others—that had the soldiers lived to experience the peace they would have spurned their role in that misbegotten cause.

That’s the part that reminded me of Jerry Clowers, but his famous joke tumbled from my lips without a hint of chuckle: "Some people are educated beyond their capacity." The commentator—a well-meaning, overly opinionated but obviously softheaded son of post-Civil War immigrants—seemed to fit that description to a tee.

That, in turn, reminded me of a simple, yet elegant, stained-glass window in the sanctuary of the Church of the Good Shepherd. The glass is dedicated to J. Kirby Brown and features the "star of the East and palm branches" as described by the manufacturer, "A. Frederik & Bro" of Brooklyn, N.Y.

Jacob Kirby Brown was born in 1842. Prominent Augusta attorney Charles J. Jenkins raised him and his sister, Fanny Holland, after the death of their parents. Their father was General Jacob Brown, who commanded all U.S. forces during the War of 1812. Kirby, like hundreds of other Augusta boys, enlisted in the Confederate army and went off to defend his country. He did not go off to defend his home, hearth, loved ones, the state of Georgia or his opinions on slavery, but his country, the nation-state known as the Confederate States of America. He was killed at Chickamauga in September 1863. His body was recovered and is buried in the Jenkins family plot in Summerville Cemetery. Jenkins, who served as governor following the war, ordered the stained-glass window in 1872.

Brown’s window is one of five circa 1870 windows dedicated to Summerville boys who died on the Civil War’s sanguinary battlefields. Each thought of the war not as a rebellion, but instead as a continuation of the revolution fought by their forefathers fourscore and some years earlier, a revolution that had taken a wrong turn and created a national government that no longer served the interests of Southern states. Therefore, a new government, a new nation, would have to be created to uphold the intentions of the founding fathers. And create a new nation is exactly what they did.

In 1860 Augusta was already something of a New South city and not all that much in a mind to secede. Emotions, however, overruled all other considerations. And since Georgia was going to secede anyway, in the end a majority of white Augustans supported secession. However, in 1861, secession was not considered a necessarily permanent state of affairs. The idea in many minds was that, once Georgia seceded, the Union would work diligently to correct its grievances and win it back. But events moved quickly. Along with six other former states, Georgia sent a delegation to the first Confederate Congress in Montgomery, Ala., and played a leading role in creating the Confederate States of America. The president of that convention was Jefferson County native, former U.S. Speaker of the House, Secretary of the Treasury and future Confederate General Howell Cobb. Had it not been for regional politics in the South itself, Cobb could have been named president and either Montgomery or another inland Southern city could have been chosen as the capital of the new nation.

Of all the mistakes the fledgling government made, naming Richmond the capital—a concession to assure Virginia’s secession—was perhaps the greatest. Only 110 miles south of Washington, Abraham Lincoln made that city his sole eastern target and the Confederate armies threw away much of their opportunity for victory on defending that one piece of ground. Had Montgomery, Nashville or even Augusta been named the Confederate capitol, the Confederate battle flag might never have become the social lightning rod it is today. Instead, today’s Georgia schoolchildren could very well pledge allegiance to it daily, though that allegiance would be sworn to the Confederacy’s national flag, not the starred and barred battle flag that today stimulates such strident emotion. That tired old banner would most likely be trotted out on whatever day was deemed Memorial Day and with the same reverence we give the American flag today. There would have been no "Confederate" Memorial Day, since such a distinction would have been unnecessary. The Fourth of July—keep in mind that idea of a continuing American revolution—would be a national holiday. During the war, it was celebrated across the South since Southerners considered themselves, and with great historic reason, the founders of the Union in the first place. Independence Day for the Confederacy, however, would most likely have been April 12, the day General P.G.T. Beauregard set his guns against Fort Sumter. But I digress.

After the Montgomery convention chose a president and vice president, voters chose members for the Confederate House of Representatives and the Senate. President Jefferson Davis named a cabinet. The government raised taxes, printed money, administrated postal and justice systems, fielded an army and a navy. It conscripted soldiers and administered the death penalty to traitors and deserters. It had diplomatic missions in both England and France. While the United States did not recognize the Confederacy, it did parole thousands of Confederate prisoners instead of imprisoning or executing them as traitors. When Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant in April 1865, he was candid with the victorious general. He could surrender only the Army of Northern Virginia. He could not speak to the surrender of other commands or the general government. That, he told Grant, was an issue for the elected officials.

But most important in this idea of Kirby Brown fighting and dying for his country is the simple, yet often overlooked, fact that each of the Confederate states had to reapply for admission to the United States once the war was over. In other words, each had legally withdrawn from the United States and each had to meet certain political standards to be readmitted. Georgia was not finally readmitted to the Union until 1871.

As you sit in the cool confines of the Church of the Good Shepherd and gaze upon the rich stained glass dedicated to these young men or even as you walk among the simple white graves of the Confederate dead at Magnolia Cemetery, it is best to remember their situation, not your own. When each of them took their last breaths it was not a breath they considered taken in the United States, but in the Confederate States. When they were sworn into the army, they did not swear to protect the United States of America, but instead they swore fealty to the Confederate States of America.

Before they died, whether in the miserable hospitals of Augusta or on some famous battlefield or, as were thousands upon thousands, gunned down in the countless skirmishes that offered, in congregate, almost as many souls to the altar of war as did all the famous battles put together, each and every one was a citizen of the Confederate States. None was a citizen of the United States either by oath or by recognition of that government.

So who is this arrogant Yankee to remove the little battle flags from those particular graves? It is true the Confederate battle flag is not our national banner. And the case against it not having an official place is a good one. For millions of Southerners, it is an offensive emblem and, while the Confederate government may have held power, its rise did not reflect the views of millions of blacks or hundreds of thousands of white Union sympathizers. By our standards, that might seem undemocratic at best, but one cannot reasonably comment from the framework of the present on the social and political values of the dead.

But the boys who fought and died for the Confederacy did not make its emblems and memory symbols of hatred. Those passions, in the main, are fanned by people who forget, never learned, don’t understand or don’t care that the Confederate government was an oligarchy. It was founded to support an economic system that brought fabulous wealth to a few; enslaved millions more; and retarded the economic, social and political growth of the average yeoman white. That very system, it could be argued, created the so-called "white trash" from which millions of today’s relatively affluent Southerners are descended.

But all of this has nothing to do with Kirby Brown and his young comrades in arms. They spent three long years defending their soon-to-be destroyed nation, almost half a million of them perishing in the effort. In the end, the Confederacy was dissolved, not stillborn. No scholar can naysay the fact that it operated as a sovereign power—and one of the most powerful in the world—for more than four years. While it never received foreign recognition, 13 million Southerners, black, white and red, did its bidding and obeyed its laws, sacrificed for its principles and swore it fealty. It was a nation in every sense of the word.

Therefore, regardless of how you feel about the Confederate battle flag, or any Confederate emblem for that matter, the little banners that flutter atop those simple white graves belong to the moldering remains of the young men who sacrificed their futures for it. Kirby Brown did not live to discover what the Yankee commentator considers a better world. He died a Confederate soldier doing his duty to God and country. He deserves his little flag and it deserves to be left alone.

© 2008 Augusta Magazine

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