Many thanks to the Civil War Roundtable of Austin, Texas, for inviting me to talk about Will Cushing at their meeting last Thursday. I had a great time: the talk went well, the crowd was large and friendly, and they bought a lot of books. In addition, the group was very hospitable. They bought me dinner at one of the oldest and best Tex-Mex restaurants in town, Mel’s, with its marvelous fifties-era signage, and then put me up at the Hotel Ella, a swanky joint converted from a 1910 mansion owned by Goodall and Ella Wooten, which featured splendid columns and some very cool student art recovered from the art department of the University of Texas. Thanks David, Fred, Martha, and everyone else who helped show me a good time.
Twice last week I ventured into the wilds of Orange County to speak about the marvelous Commander Will Cushing. On a sweltering Thursday evening I visited the quaint and scenic Museum Village in Monroe, where about a dozen hearty souls sat at picnic benches in an un-air conditioned structure to hear me go on. On Friday, about 20 of the residents of the Glen Arden Retirement community in Goshen joined me for a lunchtime talk. Providentially, Will Cushing again proved to be an entertaining subject. Many thanks to Michael Sosler at Museum Village and Dee Steeger at Glen Arden for inviting me, and to all the people who came to hear me speak. Happily, a great number of them bought books! Huzzah!
This morning, South Carolina finally removed the Confederate flag from the grounds of its statehouse. At long last, he rebel flag has finally fallen. Not everywhere, of course. But to see it go down here, in the cradle of rebellion, means one thing: it has lost its power to enthrall and intimidate. The cause is lost, and irretrievably.
You can’t underestimate the power of a flag. We pledge allegiance not to the United States, but first to the flag, and only then to the republic for which it stands, an awfully curious construction when you think about it. We fight for flag and country, we capture the flag, the Giants win the pennant. “We stole countries with the cunning use of flags,’’ says the brilliant comedian Eddie Izzard, explaining how the British built an empire. “Just sail around the world and stick a flag in., [and say]”I claim India for Britain!” They’re going “You can’t claim us, we live here! Five hundred million of us!” “Do you have a flag …?’’ “We don’t need a bloody flag, it’s our country!” “No flag, no country, those are the rules that I’ve just made up. And I’m backing them up with this gun.’’ He may be underestimating the usefulness of that gun, but the point about the flag remains.
One hundred fifty years ago, the confederacy lost the civil war, but thanks to recalcitrance, clever public relations, and decades of state-sanctioned terrorism, it won the meaning of the war. In their minds, the south remained undefeated; they waged not a rebellion against the legitimate government but a war between states; they fought for freedom, not in support of slavery.
They did not fly the rebel battle flag that much then; they did not have to, at least not until after World War II, after Truman desegregated the armed forces and Eisenhower sent the 82nd Airborne to enforce the integration of the Little Rock schools and the Supreme Court declared an end to Separate but Equal. Only then did the confederate battle flag reappear, showing up on state houses and state flags. It did not return as a testimony to heritage or to the fallen soldiers of Shiloh and Chickamauga. It flew once again in defiance of democratic government, of constitutional law, of American principles of freedom and equality. But after the conflicts of the Civil Rights movement—one of the greatest triumphs of our history—the flag was once again fling on the losing side of history.
What did it mean that the confederate flag continued to fly? It meant that anyone who sympathized with any of its principles had a claim to legitimacy. He could claim to be part of a movement, a believer in a cause, the heir to a legacy worth protecting. A government was irrelevant, territory beside the point—if you have a flag, you have approval, you have an Us to stand with as you face up to the Them.
But now the flag has come down in South Carolina. It came down in the place that was always the home of the most fiery of the fire eaters, the first state to cite nullification, the first state to secede from the union, the first place where rebels fired on the flag of the United States. Going forward, there will always be diehards and dead enders who will never give up, but now they will be scattered and isolated. The moment the rebel flag was lowered, the confederacy no longer had any pretense to a home, to a heritage, to a place in American life.
The Lost Cause has at long last been lost.
Sometimes it seems as though weeks go by without nary an event worth introducing into conversation. And then sometimes news–and not merely news, but huge historical events–come rolling in like thunder. One such period occurred during the last week in June. On Monday the 22nd, responding to the murder days before of nine people who were worshipping in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston by a confederate fanboy Dylann Roof, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley called for the removal of the confederate flag from the statehouse grounds. “We are not going to allow this symbol to divide us any longer,” she said. “The fact that people are choosing to use it as a sign of hate is something we cannot stand.”This in turn inspired further rollbacks: the state of Alabama pulled down the rebel flag, the city of Memphis voted to relocate the tomb of the racist terrorist Nathan Bedford Forrest, the states of Maryland and Virginia stopped issuing license plates with the rebel flag on it, and the state of Kentucky removed a statue of native son Jefferson Davis from the rotunda of the capitol. Then, on Thursday, the Florida Supreme Court threw out five egregiously drawn election districts, hopefully beginning the process of rolling back on systematic gerrymandering. Also on Thursday, the Supreme Court for a second time approved Obamacare, refusing to chase some sloppy writing as an excuse to undermine the legislative process. The next day, bu a 5-4 margin, the Court legalized gay marriage across the country, calling it a fundamental right. “No union is more profound than marriage,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy, `for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family, In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than they once were. Their hope,” Kennedy is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”
“Today is some of the darkest 24 hours in our nation’s history,” said Senator Ted Cruz. I say hoorah.
In the spring of 2010, I walked into The New York Times and proposed that the paper blog the Civil War. Out of that grew the Disunion series, which from October 30, 2010 until last week did just that–wote about the war, in matters great and small, generally corresponding to the events of that day 150 years before. Before the series ended nearly 1000 posts later, literally dozens of contributors, famous historians and civilian researchers alike, combined to cover the war.”`Disunion’ has been like no other intellectual or journalistic enterprise I’m aware of: a sustained five-year conversation among dozens of historians (academic and not) representing every specialty and viewpoint,” wrote historian and series contributor Adam Goodheart. “It was a conversation that included an even broader and more diverse public around the world. It brought leading scholars and laypeople together in ways that I think have never been equaled. It truly serves as a model for those in many other fields who aspire to be “public intellectuals” , not to mention enduring as a resource for educators, students, and scholars. Just a remarkable achievement.” Much credit and thanks belongs to the Times, especially editors Clay Risen and Geeorge Kalogerakis. To conclude the series, the Times assembled –in their words–“an all-star cast of Disunion contributors and friends: David Blight, Ken Burns, Adam Goodheart and Jamie Malanowski”–to respond to readers’ questions. Here is that discussion, in which I was very proud to have participated.
Many thanks to Sam Falk and all the folks at the Millbrook Literary Festival who invited me to participate at yesterday’s event. It was a beautiful day, I met a lot of interesting people, I sold a lot of books, and I got to participate in a lively panel hosted by Shaun Boyce, and featuring me and my fellow history book writers, John and Richard Polhemus, authors of Stark: The Life and Wars of John Stark, and Jack Kelly, author of book Band of Giants, All in all, I had a terrific time. (Above from left: Richard Polhemus, Falk, me, Boyce.)
I was very pleased to be invited by Paul Martin (below) and The Lincoln Depot Museum to help open the 2015 season with event held in partnership with the Lincoln Society in Peekskill to mark the 150th anniversary of the day President Lincoln’s funeral train paused in Peekskill enroute to internment at Springfield, Illinois.We had an excellent crowd in an impressive facility. I debuted my talk “Abraham Lincoln, Outlaw Hero.” I had a great time, and I’m very grateful to have been invited.
I remember years ago standing at the counter at Borders in White Plains, and seeing a flyer for an event called Spoken Interludes, where writers would come and read from the latest work. I always thought that being asked to participate would hit the heights. Well, last night, at the Riverfront in Hastings-on-Hudson, the dream came true. The delightful, delovely, Delaune Michel, the accomplished novelist who dreamed up Spoken Interludes and who runs it here and in Los Angeles, asked me to participate in a group that includes the debonair Blake Bailey, who read from his memoir The Splendid Things We Planned, and Ann Packer, who read from her brand new novel The Children’s Crusade. Commander Will Cushing was in very good company. The crowd was interested and focused and asked a lot of questions, my old pal Jim Meigs and his wife Jenni were on hand, and I got to meet the novelist Ann Hood and the food writer Michael Ruhlman. What a treat.
It’s becoming clear that the internet is taking on the role of the catalog of America’s collective attic. Cruising around last night, I found this item from a 2011 sponsored by Cowan’s auction house: a second national Confederate flag, approximately 4.5 feet by 10 feet. Accompanying the flag was a notarized letter of provenance dated January 26, 2010 stating that the flag was originally acquired by our consignor directly from the estate of Marie Louise Cushing (December 1, 1871-April 23, 1960), sole surviving daughter of Commander William B. Cushing, at a house hold sale conducted at the Cushing residence, 23 Forest Place, Fredonia, New York in 1960. One wonders if this is the same flag that is mentioned in my book: “Cushing celebrated the Union victory in Fredonia. The night that Richmond fell, April 3rd, a crowd that had already been saluting the news at the Concert Hall in town marched on Mary Cushing’s house. In response to their jubilant, insistent serenade, the resident hero stepped onto the porch and added some brief remarks to the patriotic clamor. “Three cheers for the old flag!” he ended, then joined the throng, which boisterously paraded to the Johnson House hotel, where everyone capped the glorious evening with a late supper. Cushing, his mother and his sister were honored with seats at the head table. The victory party lasted all night, the celebrants making a fair bid to exorcise four years’ worth of woe and worry with one great shebang. Outside the hotel, Fredonians took the rebel flag that Cushing had captured in Fort Caswell in January, spread it on the street, and took turns tramping on it. At first light the rebel rag was found flying upside over the courthouse, beneath a glorious Stars and Stripes.”