It was a beautiful 4th of July morning as we drove up Route 17 on our way to the annual Whitefield 4th of July Parade. In little towns across the state, Mainers were preparing picnics and floats and decorating the town fire trucks with the red, white and blue to celebrate the founding of our country.
But this year, the 4th was tainted by several misguided young bubbas cruising up and down the road waving the 152-year-old Battle Flag of the defeated Army of Northern Virginia. Obviously these kids, who were probably raised more on TV and the Internet than the history of their ancestors, are just trying to get a rise out of people. But I hope they one day understand why their actions aren't just obnoxious, they are also an insult to Maine's history and their own heritage.
After the massacre of nine black parishioners in a South Carolina church by avowed white supremacist Dylann Roof, many Americans have begun reconsidering the message it sends to fly the Confederate flag.
Some Southerners say that the flag represents "their heritage, not hate." That might be a convincing argument if it were at all rooted in history, but it's an established fact that the Confederacy existed solely to protect the institution of slavery, which is laid out in each of the Declaration of Secession documents.
In 1863, Georgia newspaper editor William T. Thompson incorporated the Battle Flag into a "white field" to create the second flag of the Confederacy, which he dubbed "The White Man's Flag."
"As a people we are fighting to maintain the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race; a white flag would thus be emblematical of our cause," wrote Thompson in an 1863 editorial in the Daily Morning News.
After the Civil War, the Battle Flag would have long been forgotten had it not been for racist Ku Klux Klan terrorists and the deep resistance of Southern politicians to federal court decisions and legislation that ended disciminatory segregation policies. During the civil rights era of the 1950s and '60s, the flags became a symbol of defiance amid a white supremacist fervor captured by Alabama Governor George Wallace in his infamous 1963 inaugural speech: "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!"
Living in the American Hologram
But TV and media have had a powerful effect on reshaping public consciousness, offering an extremely sanitized view of the "lost cause" of the Confederacy, from sentimental films like "Gone with the Wind" to the rebel flag painted on the iconic Dodge Charger in the "Dukes of Hazzard." Many guys of my generation grew up watching the Dukes and racing our General Lee matchbox cars. For many of us, the striking orange, white and blue flag just represents a sense of freedom, independence and good ol' boy rebelliousness - yeee-haw!
But as one local midcoast resident, who is black, said to me recently, "It's a little different for black folks, as the flag is used to intimidate and terrorize."
A lot of the backlash against public condemnation of the flag seems to come from muddle-headed guys reacting to the network TV Land deciding to drop "Dukes of Hazzard" reruns in response to the killings in South Carolina.
Suddenly, it wasn't just about Southern heritage, but rather resisting "P.C. liberal" attempts to control people's lives (not a corporation making a calculated business decision). And the memes went viral on social media profiles. In a bizarre twist of irony, a local chapter of the "Party of Lincoln," the Waldo County Republican Party, defended flying the flag in a Facebook posting as "part of Our History."
But no matter how much its defenders deny the symbolism of the flag, the ugly rhetoric hasn't been absent from their messaging.
"The Dukes of Hazzard has been on TV for 36 years. You weren't offended until liberals told you to be," read one viral social media share. "Want to create some real hate? Let's start burning some welfare checks!" read another.
It's a sad commentary on our society that fictional Hollywood portrayals hold so much influence over so many Mainers, whose ancestors were on the other side, the right side, in the Civil War. My friend the late Joe Bageant, a self-described Southern "redneck" writer, would probably have a lot to say about this phenomenon if he were alive today.
"All Americans, regardless of caste, live in a culture woven of self-referential illusions," wrote Joe in a 2007 essay: "Like a holographic simulation, each part refers exclusively back to the whole, and the whole refers exclusively back to the parts. All else is excluded by this simulated reality. Consequently, social realism in this country is a television commercial for America, a simulated republic of eagles and big-box stores, a good place to live so long as we never stray outside the hologram. The corporate simulacrum of life has penetrated us so deeply it now dominates the mind's interior landscape with its celebrities and commercial images. Within the hologram sparkles the culture-generating industry, spinning out our unreality like cotton candy."
Maine's Proud Civil War Heritage
If I ever have a chance to meet our local midcoast flag drivers I would like to give them copies of a history of the 21st Maine Infantry Regiment, written by my great-great-uncle, Adjutant General Joseph T. Woodward.
The 21st Maine was one of the first volunteer regiments to form in the state during the Civil War, with companies from the Augusta area, where Joe lived, but also Rockland, Vinalhaven, North Haven, Waldoboro, Thomaston, Hope, Appleton, Friendship, St. George, Jefferson, Whitefield, Wiscasset, Bristol, Nobleboro, Bremen, Damariscotta and Newcastle.
Uncle Joe was a teacher and a state senator prior to the outbreak of the the Civil War in 1861. After enlisting in the service, he was wounded in the knee by a musket ball at the Siege of Port Hudson, Louisiana, on May 27, 1863, and was sent home to Sidney shortly after. He never fully recovered from his wounds, but served for several more years in the Maine Legislature. He was later appointed to the post of State Librarian by Gov. Joshua Chamberlain.
In his 1907 history of the 21st Maine, Uncle Joe opened with the justification for the war.
"The confidence of the founders of the government that in the passage of years the institution of slavery would gradually disappear had been rudely shaken, and instead its protection and extension had become the chief purpose of a great majority of managing politicians where it had been most prosperous. In the Northern States the extension of slavery to new territory was especially disliked and the return of fugitive slaves a most unpleasant duty; in the South, the vision of an inter-tropical government, with slavery as its chief corner stone, and its production of cotton and corn challenging the markets of the world, was the ambitious dream of its leading men in various walks of life."
The Maine troops left for Louisiana on October 27, 1862, and became part of the Siege of Port Hudson, which was one of the final Union engagements to liberate the Mississippi. In the lead-up to the campaign, the soliders suffered from diseases like measles and typhoid fever caused by the unsanitary conditions on ships and in camps as well as the "malarial climate," which the Mainers were not acclimated to. Many died as a result.
Wrote Uncle Joe: "Far preferable it would have been to the soldier to meet death in health and vigor by the weapons of an enemy in action than to sink slowly and painfully to the final hours of life, wrecked and broken by the slow progress of the disease."
During the Siege, the 21st suffered a great number of casualties. Uncle Joe recalled the first assault on the Confederate stronghold 33 years later in a 1896 speech at the second reunion of the regiment in Augusta.
"At the order, the storming party moved rapidly forward out of the woods towards the Confederate works, which at once opened a heavy and well-directed fire of grape, canister and musketry. To this our artillery replied rapidly, and the first line of attack followed the storming party.
The withering fire from the works in which the enemy were well covered on lines entirely unprotected, played havoc with the stormers as they struggled through the fallen timber, and the same fate met the first line of attack, in which was our regiment. The blue lines thinned rapidly under this fire. The brigade commander and Lieutenant Wallace had fallen with others, our color-bearer was shot and several of the color-guard wounded near the woods. The slow progress through the abattis gave the enemy ample time for defensive work and their sharpshooters did not fail to improve it. The second line came forward to our support with spirit, but with the same results.
It was plain that flesh and blood could not pass that distance through that storm of missiles and survive, and that further effort was a waste of life to no purpose.
Reluctantly we fell slowly back to cover in good order, removing our wounded as we went. While the result was regretted, we have a right to remember with pride and satisfaction in honor of our fallen, and to the credit of our living, comrades, that none made more heroic effort or did their duty better than the Twenty-first Maine."
The fallen soldiers were buried in the field near where they lay and the second attack, which lasted for 48 days, began.
"The pick and spade took their part of the work though musket, sword and bayonet were by no means idle," he wrote.
The Siege ultimately failed and 4,000 men were lost in battle. But after Vicksburg fell on July 8, 1863, Uncle Joe wrote that the Confederate commander at Port Hudson knew of the "utter folly of further resistance" and surrendered 7,000 prisoners.
"The Stars and Stripes took the place of the stars and bars, and the Mississippi was again open to the sea," he wrote.
In August 1863, the 10-month tour of the 21st Maine Infantry ended, but many of the Mainers re-enlisted to continue the fight against the treasonous South.
As Uncle Joe recalled: "The subsequent military history of the men of the regiment in the large number of re-enlistments from those not disqualified by disease or wounds, shows the material of which it was composed, and reflects no small honor on the organization under whose colors they received their first baptism of fire."
A friend of mine once defended his placing of a Confederate flag on his truck by saying it was about "redneck pride." Well, how many of our brave redneck ancestors - farmers, fishermen, loggers, mechanics, millwrights, ship builders lime workers, quarrymen - died fighting against what that flag represented? Turn off the "Dukes of Hazzard" and start reading some history. The war is over, the good side won, and we should be very proud of those Mainers who fought to end the disgraceful institution of slavery. It's high time we retired that flag and sent it to the museum, where it belongs.