Stars and Bars fans fight a losing cause

January 25, 2000|By H.D.S. Greenway

I COULD understand Sen. John McCain's reasoning when he told us over a cup of coffee here at the Boston Globe that he was going to "duck" questions about flying the Confederate flag.

The Arizona Republican said he could see both points of view: that for some the flag is a symbol for slavery, but his own ancestors, who were not slave owners, fought for the Confederacy and thought they were fighting in a noble cause.

The flag is for some, Mr. McCain said, a symbol of heritage. Even though 135 years have passed since the surrender at Appomattox, there are still strong feelings about America's most traumatic war.

In the South, the Civil War is sometimes called the War Between the States, or the War of Northern Aggression. In the North I have seen it to referred to on war monuments as the "Great Rebellion."

Christ "died to make men holy, let us die to make men free," goes "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." But Abraham Lincoln went to war to preserve the Union and emancipated the slaves only after the fact.

So the last person South Carolina wants to hear from on this issue is an editorial writer in abolitionist Boston.

Yet William Lloyd Garrison's Liberator was never a popular paper in our town, and many Bostonians considered abolitionists cranks. My own great-grandfather fought for the South.

He was not a slave owner but a small-town doctor in an age when explosives trumped medicine every time.

I am sure he thought his cause was just. Certainly my family was proud of him.

But it has to be said that he fought in an unjust cause and that despite individual acts of nobility, the engine behind secession was slavery.

After much bitterness and bloodshed, right prevailed.

There is a place for Confederate flags in museums, and the graves of Confederate soldiers deserve the flowers their great-grandchildren may place there. But the banner of that lost cause should not fly over state buildings now that we are again one union, indivisible, with freedom and justice for all.

H.D.S. Greenway is a Boston Globe editorial writer.

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