Attention has been duly paid to the Confederate battle flag and its association with certain racist elements in our society. That is as it should be, and the pressure on Southern Republicans to finally address the issue is wholly appropriate. That Governor Haley was willing to step in front of the press and call for the removal of this flag from Statehouse grounds demonstrates that this pressure is having an effect.
However repugnant it is to hear Southern Whites defend the display of the Stars and Bars as part of their heritage, that is at least grounded in some historic truth. I'm interested in understanding why more than a few people with deep roots in the Union States have embraced this symbol. Race may be part of the reason, but there is more to it than that. Why have so many "Yankees" come to venerate the flag of their former enemies?
As you know, I live in Vermont. Almost every Town here large and small has a monument of some sort to the Soldiers of the Union. Vermont sent 34,000 soldiers into the Civil War, almost ten percent of the State's population at the time. 5,194 of these men died of wounds or sickness. Vermont units fought in the Battle of the Wilderness. The famous Pickett's Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg was thwarted by the Vermont Second Brigade. That moment changed the tide of the war. 615 Vermont soldiers died in Confederate prisoner of war camps. In short, our "Northern Heritage" was one of men fighting and dying to preserve the Union of these United States.
Why then, as I travel around Vermont do I see so many people display the Confederate Battle Flag? Native Vermonters are very well aware of their history. People here are often quick to point out how many generations their families have been in Vermont. Still, it is precisely those whose family ties to the state go back to before the Civil War who I see decorating their trucks or their homes with these ostensibly southern Symbols.
Is this solely because of racism? I don't think so. In 1860, there were 750 black people listed in the Vermont census out of a population of about 350,000. Today blacks make up 1% of Vermont's population, or about 6,277 people out of 626,562. Many, but certainly not all of these can trace their roots back to those early black pioneers, and have just as legitimate claim on their status as Vermonters as anyone else. The fact is that to the extent that any Vermonter knows black people, it is as individuals and not as a group.I have a black daughter, and she has been warmly embraced by our little town.
I have, however, been told racist jokes and heard racist slurs largely in the context of speaking about President Obama. What triggers a normally racially tolerant people to reveal this mark of poor character? In a word, guns. You see, those folks in Vermont who put Confederate Flag stickers on their trucks or otherwise display it do have some things in common. They are largely from the more rural areas of the state, they have a long history of hunting and shooting, and they are all convinced that their right to continue doing these things is being taken away by a hostile government. That Vermont has the most permissive guns laws in the country, and that no one is proposing to change that does not seem to register with them. Chances are very good that the guy with the stars and bars on his truck also has an NRA sticker close by.
Southern men have always armed themselves in part to be prepared for the second coming of the Confederacy. This virulent strain of gun rights has become NRA orthodoxy and so today we here the NRA talking about second amendment rights as the antidote to Government Tyranny. John Calhoun would have no trouble understanding Wayne LaPierre. And so in Vermont, and Ohio, and Indiana and Michigan, et. al. we have the great grandsons of men who fought and died to defeat the confederacy embrace this awful symbol out of the mistaken belief that they need to stand up to the Union their forebearers died to save.