Most Americans cheered last month when the most conspicuous symbol of the Confederacy, its battle flag, was removed from South Carolina’s capitol grounds. But the flag remains with us, as does the debate over its significance. Nowhere is it more tenacious than in the province of the dead.
Two Confederate flags haunt my memory of a recent trip to Cedar Key, a small island off Florida’s upper west coast. This is ‘‘old Florida,” where a stroll through the town cemetery, shaded by cedars and moss-draped live oaks, is as soothing as a walk in the woods. That is, until you encounter the final resting place of “Big Ed.”
A massive stone replica of the Confederate battle flag, in living color, forms the headstone for Eddy Peters, born March 21, 1963; died March 3, 2004. He was a firefighter, a beer drinker, a hunter, and a lover. Judging by the profusion of mementos—toy fire trucks, plaster angels and ducks, beer bottles—and a stone bench erected for contemplation at the gravesite, Big Ed had a lot of friends. All the trinkets pale, however, against the giant Confederate flag etched onto his black granite headstone. The left triangle of the flag reads, “American by Birth”; the right, “Southern by the Grace of God.” A color photograph of the big man himself adorns the top of the monument. Smiling broadly, with one strong hand Big Ed holds aloft what looks to be a large, freshly slain boar; with the other, he extends his middle finger. But the greatest obscenity to me was the flag.
While my husband snapped photos to show our friends back home in New England, I stood in silent debate with Big Ed. He must have loved the Confederate flag and felt it conferred some kind of honor on those who continue to cherish it. Didn’t he understand or care how painful the flag is to the descendants of slavery? A daughter of the South myself, I knew, or thought I did, what Big Ed would say: that racism has nothing to do with the Confederate flag; that it is a symbol of rebellion against all who would curb our freedom to define our culture and live as we choose.
Just beyond Big Ed’s gravesite, atop a gentle rise, I spied another Confederate flag. This one was small, a cheap cloth swatch atop a wooden stick, tattered and tottering beside a plain, slim white headstone. I walked over to read the faded letters: “Isaac Richburg; Co. A; 10 Fla Inf; C.S.A. [Confederate States of America]; born July 6, 1846; died Nov. 4, 1925.”
I usually feel a certain uneasiness when looking at the Confederate flag. Yet seeing it here by the grave of a Confederate soldier, a strange, distinctly unwelcome sensation came over me. I didn’t mind it. I was even, despite myself, rather touched by it. Isaac, when he enlisted or was drafted into the Confederate army, was only a teenager. So was my great-grandfather, John Dargan, a South Carolinian sent off to fight at age sixteen, reportedly with a slave in tow. After the war, I’m pleased to say, Dargan redeemed himself as a newspaper editor who championed civil rights for black Americans.
No one, I’m confident, ever planted a Confederate flag by Dargan’s grave. Still, though I condemn what he fought for, I don’t find it easy to judge Isaac Richburg. His pitiful cloth flag, in any event, had seen better days. Another good storm and it would surely disintegrate, unlikely to be replaced.
Walking on, I encountered a military veteran visiting from New York who said he periodically plants fresh flags on the graves of other veterans. I asked him if it was proper to plant the Confederate flag by the graves of Confederate soldiers. The Civil War was a long time ago, he said. Our judgments must be tempered with an understanding of history. Anyone had a right to the flag they fought under.
But as I headed back toward Big Ed’s headstone, I couldn’t help but judge. This monument offended me. Big Ed’s Confederate flag was clearly not a symbol honoring the sacrifices of a distant past but one embraced during my own lifetime in often violent resistance to the end of white supremacy. As far as I’m concerned, the only proper display of the Confederate flag is as a muted artifact of unspeakable tragedy, a reminder of a seemingly unavoidable conflict that took the lives of seven hundred thousand Americans. Using a symbol forever linked with slavery to proclaim your freedom is, like the pose Big Ed strikes in his photograph, a profane gesture. But arguments, like war, are passions for the living. It’s pointless to argue with the dead.