As far back as my earliest memories, I can remember spending summer vacations not at the beach or the mountains. My parents’ hobby in the 1950s, 60s and 70s was study of the Civil War. Our postcards to friends and family came from places named Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Shiloh, Appomattox, Fredericksburg and others.
In my 41 years of marriage to my wife, Lisa, I have schlepped her to many of these battlefields, not to mention Civil War cemeteries and other places of interest. When they were little girls and then teens, my daughters would fall asleep in the backseats of the mini-van sometimes while I was explaining troop positions and conditions of battle on both Union and Confederate sides.
I come by it honestly. My father, long before the internet and filmmaker Ken Burns came around, was a student of all of this. He would pretend to lead a charge down Little Round Top at Gettysburg or make us understand what the Union forces were facing at Fredericksburg. He led us as we walked Pickett’s Charge, explaining what happened.
So here’s the thing.
I’ve watched with interest the national discussion going on about the Confederacy and the Union, statues of Civil War-era generals and others.
All along the way, I’ve used travel and interviews to learn about southern points of view during the Civil War. Maybe you’ve heard or learned about Federal General U.S. Grant’s General Order Number 11, ostensibly expelling every Jew from Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi, because there were Jewish traders doing business in cotton with the Confederacy.
President Abraham Lincoln reversed the 1862 order and later, as president, a contrite Grant forged friendships within the young country’s Jewish community.
Personally, my wife’s father’s family were in Savannah and later in a place called Mullins, South Carolina. They were part of the Confederacy’s Jewish community and they did favor the secessionist government of Jefferson Davis. My grandfather-in-law, David Cohen, was actually the sheriff of Mullins and had to be on hand to make sure many a Klan cross burning would not get out of hand. He told us stories of how men he knew, wearing the horrible hooded costumes of hatred, would come over to him and wish him a good evening.
Over the years, my dad would teach our family that while states’ rights was an important part of the secession of 11 states, there was no denying that the states’ rights the Confederacy separated over was unabashedly slavery. With four million slaves making up a significant amount of the South, this was a war about owning other people as property, period.
Also over the years, I’ve read a great deal about Jews who lived in the Confederacy and were active politically and militarily. It wasn’t just Judah Benjamin, Jefferson Davis’s right-hand man. Indeed, even at the battle of Gettysburg, Major Rafael Moses of Georgia served as General James Longstreet’s Chief of Commissary and Subsistence. There were many more.
Over the years, I’ve seen and read my share of articles about how the Confederate battle flag, which waved so prominently at the recent now-infamous Charlottesville rally, “doesn’t” really represent hate and slavery. And that if you don’t know Civil War history, then you don’t understand the meaning of that flag. There are even T-shirts one can buy with the battle flag, questioning our understanding of its meaning.
But no matter how much you read into the Christian religiosity of men like Lee and Stonewall Jackson and others leading the Confederacy, the fact remains that they were defending an economy and a way of life that existed on the shoulders of black slaves.
And like my father before me, I always wondered why some of these men are placed on pedestals as statues. I have no doubt that General Lee was tactically the best commander on either the Army of Northern Virginia or the Army of the Potomac. But even offered the command of the Union forces, he chose to lead the forces of his home Virginia.
Also, I can understand the presence of statues or plaques of the Confederacy at battlefields. Indeed, if you go to Gettysburg, for instance, you can see 1,300 monuments or statues, some of them dedicated to the Confederacy, including individual statues of Lee and Longstreet. They belong there and I understand that. A three-day battle that saw the death of thousands of Americans and became the awful war’s turning point should be marked and understood for generations to come.
And I am not offended when I see the Confederate battle flag in museums, cemeteries or sites of the historic conflict.
But when I saw the battle-flag waving juxtaposed to flags bearing the swastika at Charlottesville, there was no question of the abomination.
We’ve come so far as a free nation accepting of people of all hues, religions and cultures that it seems impossible that both of these symbols of hate have been brought out and waved in our faces.
Looking ahead, my wife and I have planned trips to other Civil War museums and historic towns that we haven’t yet seen.
But in Charlottesville, or anywhere else in 2017 and beyond, to see a swastika on a flag waved next to the Confederate battle flag gives me a visceral reaction that these symbols stand for death and depravity, hatred, racism, anti-Semitism and darkness.
In two specific wars, the Civil War and WWII, it was the American flag that flew victoriously. The Stars and Stripes mean freedom from the binds of hatred. And a reminder that Jewish Americans and African Americans died to preserve our country. The swastika and Confederate battle flag are symbols that were defeated.
Sadly, after Charlottesville, I think the “battle” continues.
Personally, I will begin “schlepping” my three grandsons when they are old enough to these Civil War battlefields, and hopefully a family trip to Normandy to see where their grandfather and other relatives served.
There are lessons to continue to learn.
But we can never forget what happened in Charlottesville just two weeks ago. It hopefully re-awakened the spirit of good in Americans who still must lower the flags of hatred still seething.
These symbols of hatred must be put away.
By Phil Jacobs