Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

South Carolina Flag Dispute: Heritage vs. Heritage

Posted in African Americans, Genealogy, Memory by Andy Hall on September 28, 2011

In putting together my recent post on the rancorous neighborhood dispute over a resident’s display of a Confederate Battle Flag in an historically African American neighborhood, I made a passing reference to the fact that the community itself had been founded by former USCTs. In retrospect, I “buried the lede,” as they say, and gave that aspect of the story short shrift — it likely plays a much bigger role in how that community identifies itself, and in its reaction to Ms. Caddell’s display:

Among [Brownsville’s] founding families were at least 10 soldiers stationed to guard the Summerville railroad station at the close of the Civil War. They were members of the 1st Regiment, United States Colored Troops, part of a force of freedmen and runaway slaves who made history with their service and paved the way for African Americans in the military.

At least some of the men were from North Carolina plantations. When the war ended they stayed where they were, living within hailing distance of each other along the tracks. Some of them lived on the “old back road” out of town where outrage has erupted recently over a resident flying a Confederate battle flag. Their ancestors [sic., descendants] still live there.

It’s a striking note in a controversy over heritage that has raised hackles across the Lowcountry and the state.

The community’s past is an obscure bit of the rich history in Summerville, maybe partly because for years the families kept it to themselves. They were the veterans and descendants of Union troops, living through Jim Crow and segregated times in a region that vaunted its rebel past.

The great-great-grandfather of Jordan Simmons III was among them. But growing up in Brownsville a century later, all Simmons remembers hearing about Jordan Swindel, his ancestor, is that he was a runaway slave who joined the Army. The rest, he says simply, “was not talked about.” He didn’t find out about it until he was an adult doing research on the Civil War and the troops and came across Swindel’s name.

Now he’s at work on a book about his family and the Brownsville heritage. Other 1st Regiment surnames in the community include Jacox, Berry, Campbell, Edney and Fedley.

Simmons, 64, has lived through some history of his own. He was one of the South Carolina State University students injured in the infamous 1968 Orangeburg Massacre. He too served in the U.S. Army, a 29-year veteran who fought in Vietnam with the 101st Airborne infantry and retired as a lieutenant colonel. He now lives in Virginia.

It overwhelmed him to see his great-great-grandfather’s name on the wall of honor three years ago when he visited the African-American Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C. Pvt. Swindel fought in four battles in nine months in 1864, from Florida — where he was wounded — to Honey Hill, S.C. Simmons wishes he would have sought out that history when he was younger.

As I said previously, neither side in this dispute seems much interested in letting go of this game of one-upsmanship. The historical circumstances surrounding the town’s founding don’t change the core legal issues at hand, but given that the Southron Heritage folks routinely dismiss criticism of the Confederate Flag as “political correctness” or as unfairly tarnishing an honored symbol of the Confederacy with its use by hate groups, it’s interesting to see a case where the protestor’s case against the flag is so explicitly based in the very same “heritage” argument that the flag’s proponents righteously embrace.  For at least some local residents, pushback against the CBF is every bit as grounded in the history of the American Civil War, and honoring one’s ancestors, as Ms. Caddell’s display of it. For them, it’s personal, and for exactly the same reasons.

I don’t know what the answer here is. What is clear, though, is that there’s an historical dimension to this case — very real and very valid, by the same “heritage” standard that the folks in (say) the South Carolina League of the South embrace for themselves — that needs much wider dissemination, and it plays a big role in how that community thinks and feels and reacts.
Image: Soldiers of the 1st USCT on parade. Library of Congress.

18 Responses

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  1. William said, on September 28, 2011 at 2:18 pm

    From my understanding this flag is being flown at a private home, right ? Not on government owned, tax payer funded, right ? If this is the case then what is the issue ? Isn’t this where we have been told that one can fly it ?

    • Andy Hall said, on September 28, 2011 at 2:25 pm

      That’s correct. She has a right to display it, and her neighbors have a right to complain. You may want to read my earlier post on the subject.

      What’s interesting to me is that, in the eleventy-four thousand times there have been similar disputes about the Confederate Battle Flag, defenders of the display of the flag argue that they are simply honoring their own ancestors, and carrying on the ideals they fought for as soldiers in the Civil War. This is the first case I remember where those opposing the flag can make exactly that same argument. That’s why I called this post, “Heritage vs. Heritage.”

  2. Margaret Blough said, on September 28, 2011 at 3:07 pm

    Where she lost me, was, after her neighbors put up privacy fences which shield them from viewing her “tribute”, she put in a taller flag pole. Unless and until the government gets involved, this is not a true First Amendment situation. However, even where it does, the right to free speech does not generally include a right to force people to be an audience against their will. From what you posted, it does not appear that either neighbor attempted to prevent people from seeing the flag from the street in front of her house.

    Also it seems strange to me that the flag display is the only way that she can find to “honor” her Confederate ancestors. She moves into a neighborhood with a proud history of its own and she goes out of her way to pick the method of “honoring” that, unless she’s been living under a rock her entire life, she had to have known would be intensely offensive to many of her new neighbors. South Carolina’s history during the Jim Crow and Civil Rights eras was as one of the most segregated states and repressive states towards blacks in the country. The battle flag was used as the symbol of massive resistance during the 1950s and 1960s. Just because one has the legal right to do something doesn’t mean that one has to do it. At the very least, it doesn’t seem very neighborly.

    • Andy Hall said, on September 28, 2011 at 3:11 pm

      This has been percolating for about a year now, and there are any number of points in this saga where either side could have said, “enough of this, I’ve got better stuff to spend my time and money on.”

      So far, no one has.

      • Dennis said, on September 29, 2011 at 6:08 am

        First off, there are indeed few people from either side (in issues of the CSA flag) issue that can come from an more even handed point of view as you from the (for me, a rather limited) view I have of your posts on this subject.

        So, this question in no way means to imply that you are not trying to be fair but why are you defending the persons obvious racist intent? To fly the CSA Battle flag is their right and frankly, it does not matter if the area is all black or all white and to that point, you are 100% correct – in the exact same aspect, anyone could raise a Ben Laden standard and honor him for his killing of Americans and be just as correct for raising such a standard (but rather crazy considering our attitudes towards free speech and the use of violence.)

        Where you lose me and I feel you are incorrect is in blaming the locals for escalating the issue by putting in a high fence to block their view of what they consider a symbol of hatred towards the American people of the US. Last I checked someone has just as much right to do install a fence as raising a flag (any including the American flag.) Where it is obvious to the point of ‘duh’ of who now escalated was when the person with the CSA battle flag raised it even higher (after the fences were insatalled) to solely force their neighbors to view it after these neighbors politely put in a fence to protect their own view without in any way compromising that persons right to have the flag on display. The person with the flag at that point proved beyond any doubt that their goal was to annoy their neighbors rather than honor a flag of a country (long gone). They crossed a line at that point and are the only party currently at fault for escalating – at this point.

        Sorry for the long (winded) post but I feel you are wrong on this point (of both sides escalating, not the right of the person to display a CSA battle flag.)

        • Andy Hall said, on September 29, 2011 at 8:58 am

          Dennis, thanks for taking time to comment.

          I did try to be even-handed in this piece, and the one previously. That was, in part, because (apart from the rock-throwing business) all parties seem to be acting within their rights. I guess what frustrates me is that this has spiraled off into a series of events — largely driven by pressure from outside groups — that seems really unnecessary to me. No question that Ms. Caddell’s display of the CBF was either intentionally provocative or deeply ignorant and insensitive to her neighbors, but they had choices about how best to respond, too (or to not reply at all). Takes two to tango, you know?

          Recall a few months back when the SCV held a reenactment of the swearing-in of Jefferson Davis in Montgomery? I have read that local civil rights groups made an intentional decision NOT to counter-demonstrate or challenge the event, because they understood that (1) they weren’t going to prevent the rally, and (2) the confrontation aspect would draw even more media attention to the event than it would otherwise get. They may have also recognized that an organized challenge to the event plays straight into the hands of the heritage folks, who (to be blunt) invest a lot of time and raise a lot of money by characterizing “Southern Confederate Americans” as an oppressed minority that warrants protections under the Civil Rights Act. That approach in Montgomery — stepping back from the standard script of protest and counter-protest — impressed me. Following that old script, as folks seem to be doing in Brownsville, essentially gives the other guy control of the narrative.

          You ask, “why are you defending the persons obvious racist intent?” I’m reluctant to make pronouncements about Ms. Caddell’s specific intention, beyond what she’s said herself in interviews and YouTube clips. (Those do not, I think, reflect especially well on her.) I’ve also found that simply pointing fingers and saying “racist” doesn’t really enlighten much. It’s facile. In some cases may well be true, but I find it more useful to focus on what people do and say, rather than speculate on what motivations drive them. It’s words and deeds that matter.

          You also wrote: “The person with the flag [Caddell] at that point proved beyond any doubt that their goal was to annoy their neighbors rather than honor a flag of a country (long gone).”

          We largely agree here. This really has developed to the point of defiance-for-the-sake-of-defiance. (Or pissing off the neighbors, take your pick.) And that’s a sad thing. But I don’t think that would have happened without the egging on of outside groups like the LoS, that want to use this as another proxy battle to defend Southron Heritage, when it should never have become anything more than a dispute between local residents.

          As I said before, this time next year you can expect one or the other side to have invested in a big-ass flag.

  3. focusoninfinity said, on September 28, 2011 at 4:37 pm

    Rather than tearing down all. most, or some of the Confederate Soldier statues on so many Southern county courthouse town squares; would not it be more positive to FINALLY honor the so many slaves who did the harder, dirtier, work in building the American South, and even some of early New England?

    Why is honoring the slaves accomplishments so ignored, even by their black descendants? In the post Civil War era of legal segregation, earlier descendants did not the economic means to erect such as private citizens, nor (especially where they could not vote) did they have the political power to do so: even if they had the private economic power to do so. Times have change; but still even their descendants don’t honor the slaves with statues on county squares, like Confederate descendants have. Why not?

    If those slave statues could realistically could be, a slave, sword-in-hand, mounted on a rearing stallion; I think we’d see them; at least some.

    But to be humbly, but afoot; shoe-less and near-naked building early America, just lacks glamour; it’s not inspiring. AND THAT IS EXACTLY WHY WE SHOULD HONOR THE SLAVE TODAY; it’s long over-due; especially by their own descendants.

    Would not far more be accomplished if every one else in the neighborhood exercised their right to free speech by displaying the Civil War era Union (how many stars then?) all-Americans flag in their yards.

  4. DBrown said, on September 29, 2011 at 8:26 pm

    Sorry – on one point I was completely off base and wrong to say in my post- I said they had a racist intent (to fly the CSA flag) and that is not supported by what you reported. For that rash and unsupported statement on my part I apologize and withdraw that part of my post.

    • Andy Hall said, on September 29, 2011 at 9:09 pm

      There are lots of complex issues all rolled up in this, and it’s hard to articulate them all — at least it is for me.

  5. focusoninfinity said, on September 29, 2011 at 11:43 pm

    Some one commented, that in reaction to seeing their neighbor’s Confederate flag that they wished not to view; neighbors raised higher their fences, so as not to view that to them, offending view. The following depends on legal jurisdiction, as if if there is such a written statute, or court case rulings precedents, against hate-fences. There may be neither; and even if existing, application may vary, in various jurisdictions.

    Commonly, it’s called a “HATE-FENCE”. Legally, what is a “hate-fence”? I’m not a lawyer; but here is my belief in the essence of what is a “hate-fence”. It is a fence that either is intended; and/or, regardless of intent; obviously to all, causes disproportionately more harm to the person or property the fence is used against, than causes good to the erector, presumably for whom the fence is to benefit. The harm, by obvious wide margins; equitably, out-weights the good.

    But if applied to this dogged situation; this hate-fence tale, “wags the dog”. So those these fences were erected not in hate, but to counter (rightly or wrongly) perceived hate. So even if this jurisdiction had legal traditional hate-fence proscriptions; would they equitably apply; as their erection intent, seems to counter hate, rather than promote hate?

    • Andy Hall said, on September 30, 2011 at 8:23 am

      I’m dubious about a “hate fence” running afoul of local laws. (And really, I imagine most public officials want to stay as far out of this dispute as they can.) There may be some local building code it doesn’t meet, but those restrictions might even be minimal — I’m not sure whether Brownsville is in an incorporated area.

      I get the idea of a fence to block the view, but Caddell’s response — to move it to a pole that stands higher than the fence — was entirely predictable, and arguably makes it more visible than before.

      • Robert Baker said, on September 30, 2011 at 9:21 am

        It is my opinion, and I say mine as some people might disagree, that the pole was put up actively ‘wave the flag’ in the face of others. This goes beyond simply honoring ancestry to the active attempts to irritate people.

  6. BorderRuffian said, on September 30, 2011 at 8:46 am

    Brownsville is part of Summerville. I don’t believe Brownsville was ever incorporated as a town. At some time the area was absorbed by Summerville.

    • Andy Hall said, on September 30, 2011 at 8:50 am

      Thanks for clarifying. There are a lot of communities like that here, too, that grew up as distinct settlements. They eventually get annexed by larger, nearby towns, but retain their own sense of identity and cohesion.

  7. Robert Baker said, on September 30, 2011 at 9:11 am

    “Southron Heritage folks routinely dismiss criticism of the Confederate Flag as “political correctness” or as unfairly tarnishing an honored symbol of the Confederacy with its use by hate groups, it’s interesting to see a case where the protestor’s case against the flag is so explicitly based in the very same “heritage””

    You think this because you are a “Liberal Revisionist Historian, Bigot, (insert other unrelated insults here) that does not want to honor Confederate ancestors according to some.

    Of course personally I think this is a excellent article and analysis.

  8. bedbugsmithJeff Bell said, on October 7, 2011 at 11:24 am

    The irony of this situation is that while these two groups are seemingly poles apart in their view of “Heritage”, the opportunity does exist to find a common ground, if only pride and emotion would subside. If one or both sides could be convinced to perhaps sit down and share a meal together (in the spirit of reconciliation) and discuss some common experiences or feelings they might discover they are more alike than they care to admit. What happened 150 years ago should be a lesson, not a curse for eternity.

    • Andy Hall said, on October 7, 2011 at 11:40 am

      I couldn’t agree more. What I haven’t seen in the press coverage of this story is what the first interactions were. Did any of these folks try to talk to each other, rather at each other?

      Unfortunately I don’t see how there’s any amicable solution at this point.

      For the record, I haven’t seen a single supporter of Ms. Caddell’s flag display acknowledge any legitimacy in the perspective of her neighbors who have protested her display of the flag, much less any acknowledgement that, for some of them, their opposition is rooted in the very same sort of respect for their Civil War soldiers’ heritage that hers is.

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