Although for some time I have been planning a post on the souvenirs of Southern Civil War veterans, the current controversy over the display of the Confederate battle flag has impelled me to bring an article forward now. I spent more than two years transcribing into a computer the hand-written diary of a Confederate infantryman who recorded his thoughts every day for the five years of the war, an activity that has given me a new appreciation of that era in our national history.
Of particular interest to me — and illustrated here — are the artifacts that have been left to posterity by the Confederate veterans organizations from their multiple reunions after the war. An earlier post here [January 2014] provided images of souvenirs issued by the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), the Northern Civil War veterans organization.
Unlike the GAR, a national organization formed almost immediately after the conflict, the Southern veterans initially grouped on a fractionalized basis, locally or on a state level. For years there was no single national organization representing their interests. This is understandable, given the low morale that must have followed soldiers home after Appomattox and the state-centered nature of the Confederacy. One of the earliest Southern veteran’s organization, for example, was the Oglethorpe Light Infantry Association in Savannah, Georgia, formed in 1865. The 1870s and 1880s saw a proliferation of local units throughout the South.
It was not until June 1889, twenty-four years from the end of hostilities, that efforts succeeded to create an all-Dixie organization. Founded in New Orleans, the United Confederate Veterans (UCV) sought to unify the many separate veterans’ groups scattered across the former Confederate states into one larger regional body. It succeeded and grew rapidly throughout the 1890s culminating in its 1898 reunion when 1,555 local “encampments” were recorded at its 1898 reunion. Eventually 160,000 former Confederate soldiers were organized into 1,885 individual camps.
The UCV, devoted to social, charitable and memorial functions, divided itself into two groups based on the division of the Confederate forces into the Army of Virginia and the Army of Tennessee. Shown above is a souvenir ribbon from a reunion of the latter’s Louisiana Division held in New Orleans in April of 1895. Note that it carries prominently the Confederate battle flag, as do other other souvenir items shown here. The UCV national hymn, “God Save the South!” similarly featured the battle flag on its cover.
Not all UCV souvenir items, however, were flag oriented. Shown below are a ceramic jug from the 15th annual reunion of the UCV in June 1905 and a watch fob from a 1910 reunion in Virginia. By that year, the membership was dwindling as the veterans aged and died. The last UCV reunion, its 60th, was in 1950 when only one member, the 98-year-old leader, could attend. A U.S. postage stamp was issued the next year to commemorate the organization. Note that the stamp has no flag, just an hourglass indicating the passage of time.
While the Confederate flag was conspicuous in much the UCV did, it is instructive to repeat a statement that appeared in the program for its 1907 reunion, held in Richmond, Virginia: “Here where once sat its Confederate Congress, stands side by side the Stars and Bars of the “Lost Cause” with the Stars and Stripes, which no section has done more to upbuild and uphold than the South. Everywhere is seen the American flag side by side with the Confederate, and it is this spirit which prevails among the Veterans and which will pervade the reunion.” Note the souvenir from a 1897 UCV reunion that displays both flags.
Another signal event was the 1913 Gettysburg Reunion, a June-July gathering of 53,407 veterans. All honorably discharged veterans of both North and South were invited and many responded from both sides. Despite concerns that there might be conflict between Blue and Gray, a peaceful reunion was reported to have been “marked by events of Union-Confederate camaraderie.” President Woodrow Wilson gave the July 4 reunion address that summarized the spirit: “We have found one another again as brothers and comrades in arms, enemies no longer, generous friends rather, our battles long past, the quarrel forgotten — except that we shall not forget the splendid valor.”
Fast forward to today. In the present a young man, who in photos wrapped himself in the Confederate flag, murdered nine people in a Charleston church. Why has the amity shown at the Gettysburg Reunion gone so awry? The answer lies in the groups that have made it their business to put the Confederate flag in public places, on license plates and in other venues. As a sign of what? The Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) says it is to elicit Southern pride. The Southern Poverty Law Center on its website, however, provides a long list of SCV officers at both national and state levels who are, or recently have been, members of what it lists as “hate groups.” Unfortunately, the haters seem to have captured the flag and made it a symbol of resistance to equal rights.
The soldier mentioned in the first paragraph here was from the 17th Virginia Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Shown right, its battle flag was dominated by the traditional “Stars and Bars.” That flag currently resides in a museum in Alexandria Virginia, the city from whence came many of its men. That is a good and fitting place for the flag — not flying above city hall or the state capitol, nor displayed on license plates, or featured in other contexts that suggest racial bias. All memorabilia and souvenirs of the Civil War deserve to be in a location like the 17th Virginia battle flag: A museum. That is where they can do the most to inspire respectful memory of those who fought and recognition of their “splendid valor.”
Note: It is just happenstance that this article is being posted on July 4, Independence Day, 102 years after the Gettysburg Reunion that brought together combatants from both the Union and Confederacy military in apparent harmony.