Monday, June 14, 2010

Flag Day

What? Another day that I don’t quite understand!
by Charlie Leck

I’m sent scurrying to my Google search engine. I enter f-l-a-g-d-a-y…

Of the thousands of possibilities provided me, I opened the web site of The National Flag Day Foundation, which immediately and proudly informs me that Waubeka, Wisconsin is the “Birthplace of Flag Day!”

It is a day, I guess, to pay respects to and salute our flag; so, this I now do.

I’m in the middle of a chapter right now, in E.L. Doctorow’s novel, The March, that is about the burning of Columbia, South Carolina, in February, 1865. The book itself is about General William Tecumseh Sherman’s march, in command of over 60,000 troops, across Georgia in the latter months of 1864 and the climactic capture of Savannah.

[Doctorow, in case you don’t remember, is also the author of two extraordinary and highly regarded novels: Ragtime (’75) and Billy Bathgate (’68).]

The novel is thoroughly researched and Doctorow spent a considerable amount of time with General Sherman’s papers and journals in order to be accurate – even though the novel is dream-like and sees events through the eyes of several fictitious, marvelously drawn characters. (I unequivocally recommend the book to you.)

I bring this up because of the word-picture Doctorow draws of the Confederate Flag flying over the state capital building as he and his troop approached Columbia.

And that, in turn, makes me think of the anger and conflict that the confederate flag continues to foment among so many Americans every time they see it displayed; and how, after 150 years it still is such an emotional symbol. Its display, like the Nazi swastika, should be limited to museums only; for it symbolizes to most Americans the cruel institution of slavery and racial degradation. A few years ago, when I was in Mississippi, to honor the memory of the slain civil rights workers of 1964, the Confederate Flag was brazenly flown here and there by individual property owners who wished to make their own statement about the successes of the Civil Rights movement in the South.

Of course, the source of the great fire that burned the city of Columbia in 1865 is a matter of dispute. Yankee troops reported that soldiers of the confederacy began it by trying to burn the stored bales of cotton that they were leaving behind, so that they would not fall into the hands of the Union Army. Those with sympathies toward the southern armies claim that Sherman, himself, burned down the city. Doctorow’s story baptizes both sides with blame and it is probably an accurate picture. It is a story that literally made me cringe, at times, as I read it.

The following is an account of some of the savagery that a Colonel Teack, special assistant to General Sherman, witnesses immediately after his departure from the General’s side for the evening.

“After the General had turned a corner, Colonel Teack withdrew a flask from his tunic and took a long swig. The heat of the burning house was like the summer sun on his face. It felt good.

“It seemed to him an exemplary justice come to this state that had led the South to war. Earlier in the day he had seen a company of Union soldiers who had been among the hundreds imprisoned right here in the city’s insane asylum. The condition they were in appalled him. Filthy, foul-smelling, their skin scabrous, they were hollow-eyed creatures shambling to parade in a pathetic imitation of soldiering. You saw the structures of them through the skin, the bony residue of their half-human life, and you didn’t want to look at them. The capital city of the Confederacy had treated these soldiers not as prisoners of war but as dogs in a cage. General Sherman had seen these men and had wept and now all he could think of was the Southern belles he had kissed.

“He had sworn to wreak terror, hadn’t he? His orders were being followed. All these riotous, drunken arsonists, these rapers and looters – here were some, coming out of this fine house now, their arms filled with sacks of silver plate, loops of pearl and watches on fobs hanging from their hands – what were they but men who needed a night of freedom from this South-made war that had disrupted their lives and threatened still to take them? Now they stopped a moment to throw some torches in the windows. A soldier glanced at Teack to see his reaction and, when none was forthcoming, smiled and snapped a salute.

“If these acts of vandalism are performed as vengeance, Teack thought, why, that is an efficiency of which an army should be proud.

“What had brought on the almost universal drunkenness was the pillaging of a distillery on River Street. The Colonel found this out by following the trail back as men staggered by him with buckets of whiskey in their arms. It was a large brick building with loading platforms on which soldiers lay passed out. Inside was a bit livelier. The men had a nigger girl down on the floor and were taking their turns on her. They were pulling another down from a ladder that she was trying to climb, kicking and screaming. Teack refilled his flask from a butt of bourbon and went on his way.”

Flag Day, huh? I’m reading the wrong stuff for the day, I guess. The story doesn’t make me feel much like saluting and singing national anthems.


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