Ownership disputes, controversy accompany captured Confederate flags

Captured Civil War Confederate FlagThis Confederate flag, which was captured at the Battle of Mine Creek, Kans., Oct. 24, 1864, sold at auction June 25, 2011, for $26,290. Heritage Auction Galleries (Dallas) sold the 35-by-50-inch wool flag accompanied by documentation and historical analysis. Photo courtesy Heritage Auction Galleries

Chriss Swaney

The Confederate flag is a lightning rod. This time a war of words may be fought as controversial ordinances nationwide are debated about where and how captured Confederate flags may be displayed or who retains the right to own them.

Whether you consider the Confederate flag to be a symbol of a nation once divided or a sign of cultural pride, the flag is creating its own headlines 150 years after it fluttered across battlefields and old Southern plantation porches.

Texas, for example, is close to issuing a license plate featuring the Confederate flag and some residents are opposed to the symbol saying it fails to reflect that 55 percent of the Lone Star State’s population consists of Latinos, African Americans and Asian Americans.

However, some historians and members of the Sons of the Confederacy report that originally, the Confederate flag was not intended to be a racist symbol.

In fact, there is a common misconception that the Confederate battle flag (the Southern Cross) was the national flag of the Confederacy. In reality, the flag most associated with the Confederacy was strictly a battle flag – and not the only battle flag used. The Confederacy actually changed its national flag three times during the course of the U.S. Civil War.

Confederate battle flag flies to $59,750 as top lot in Civil War Auction

So, when Confederate flag enthusiasts get into battles about ownership of “captured Confederate flags,’’ most military museum directors get jittery.

“When it comes to captured Confederate Flags, it all depends on when the flag was turned in to the Army Quartermaster. Forty years after the war, former President Teddy Roosevelt returned all captured Confederate flags held by the U.S. government to the South. However, if a soldier kept a captured flag or a unit kept flags that they captured without turning them in, it is hard to account for where those flags are now,’’ said Michael Kraus, curator of Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Who owns captured Confederate Flags?Louis J. Dianni Auctions (Fishkill, N.Y.) sold this 12-star, 13-stripe Confederate Flag measuring 40 inches by 66 inches for $7,000 at the Feb. 19, 2011, Palm Beach, Fla., Antiques Auction. Photo courtesy LiveAuctioneers.com

The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) conceived Soldiers & Sailors during the 1890s. It was originally built to recognize the sacrifice, valor and patriotism of the Civil War Veterans of Allegheny County, in western Pennsylvania. Today, it honors Pennsylvania men and women who served in all U.S. military endeavors throughout history.

“My family still has an old battered Confederate flag that has been passed down through the family, and I plan to keep it for my grandchildren,’’ said Hubert Rohm of Waynesburg, Pa. “I think all the hoopla about these flags comes as we begin to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. It’s a shame that we still can’t seem to come together to remember all the brave actions by soldiers from both sides,’’ said Rohm, a retired coal miner.

One historic city may even sack its Confederate flags. A controversial Lexington, Va., ordinance may soon restrict flying Confederate flags on the city’s main street. Foes of the ordinance say displaying the Confederate flag pays homage to Virginia’s heritage and provides a boost to tourism.

Blue vs Gray: How collectors seek understanding through Civil War relics

Still one of the most enduring flag controversies nationwide involves the issue of where and who should own captured Confederate flags.

“We have a handful of Confederate flags in the collection which were directly given to New York State during or immediately after the war by the individuals or units that captured them. These captured flags have always been New York State property and were never U.S. government property. Many captured flags were given to the U.S. government during the war and returned by the Federal government to the former Confederate states around 1905 – our captured flags were not part of that group,’’ said Michael Aikey, director of the New York State Military Museum & Veterans Research Center at Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

The museum owns the largest collection of state battle flags in the country and the largest collection of Civil War flags in the world. Of the more than 1,700 flags in the collection, more than 60 percent are from the Civil War.

Aikey also reports that “several years ago the Military Museum returned a South Carolina Mexican War flag in New York State’s possession upon the request of the South Carolina Museum.’’

And the flag waving controversy continues. In Tampa, Fla., a 30-foot by 50-foot Confederate flag weighing 100 pounds has been replaced with a smaller Confederate flag. Officials there say the flag was replaced to help drum up new interest in the memorial park which honors Confederate soldiers.

“It’s not the flag we need to cherish; it is the sweat, sinew and courage of those who died during the Civil War that we need to honor,’’ said Rubi Dawn, a Confederate history buff from Harrisburg, Pa. “I say, let ‘em fly wherever we honor our historical past.’’

Chriss Swaney is a Pittsburgh-based freelance journalist for Reuters, The New York Times, Pittsburgh Engineer and Horse World, and an avid antique collector.

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