Flannery O’Connor once called the South “Christ-haunted.” I think the more prevalent ghosts today are the ones wearing gray.
Moving to Dalton some years ago I was fascinated to learn some of the town’s Civil War history—the earthen works protected on the shaded ridge; the damming of Mill Creek; the great locomotive chase; Potato Hill; Gen. Cleburne’s unpopular suggestion at the Huff House. I was fascinated to learn, too, that the army in which my great-great-great grandfather, Cpl. Nathan Scott, fought spent with winter of 1863-64 camped in town.
I inherited my fascination with The Civil War. My father grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, taking Boy Scout trips to Shiloh to hike. My grandfather grew up next door to a veteran of the battle of Shiloh, and remembered when neighborhood children would gather on his porch to listen to stories of the war. My grandmother, an Atlanta native, recalled stories of her grandmother, who helped bury the family silver in the garden ahead of advancing Union troops. (When helping my wife locate some artifacts in her grandparents’ Ohio basement a few years ago, I joked we would like find our family’s missing half of the dinnerware.)
Growing up I watched and rewatched Ken Burns’s documentary “The Civil War” as my family had taped it from PBS (back when taping was a thing). Visiting battlefields and national parks became a family pastime. Fort Sumter, Kennesaw Mountain, Vicksburg, Shiloh, Chickamauga, Franklin, Fredericksburg, Manassas, Gettysburg, Antietam, all told the story of the history that happened right “here.” It wasn’t too hard to find. It was all around us.
I was born in Charleston, South Carolina, not too far from the site where the war began; grew up in Atlanta, a major battleground in 1864; moved to a town in North Carolina that was once the Confederate capital of the state as the government retreated from Raleigh; went to school on the site of the Missionary Ridge battlefield in Chattanooga, spending bored hours in chemistry staring out the window at Lookout Mountain where “The Battle Above the Clouds” was fought; went to a college that lost its early endowment in Confederate war bonds; and studied a year in graduate school in Columbia, South Carolina, walking by the Confederate battle flag every day on the state house grounds on the way to class from my downtown apartment.
The state house itself is an interesting artifact. It was in construction around the time of the war and survived when most of the city burned (by Gen. Sherman’s advancing or Gen. Johnson’s retreating troops, no one knows). The building has bullet holes and bronze stars covering cannonball strikes, wounds from the war.
As I said, I walked by the state house every day. I knew the flag waving there was controversial; but my childhood travels to battlefield had inured me from the shock of the flag. It was another ghost — part of the scenery that dressed cemeteries and parks.
The flag controversy renewed following an incident of racial terror in Charleston, as Dylan Roof murdered nine black churchgoers during a Bible study at the historic Emanuel AME Church in 2015.
Protests resumed over the placement of the flag at the state house. One protester, Bree Newsome, scaled the flag pole to retrieve the flag, and was arrested. Said Newsome, “You come against me with hatred, oppression and violence. I come against you in the name of God. This flag comes down today.” As she descended with the flag, Newsome recited the Lord’s Prayer and a line from Psalm 27: “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?”
When asked in an interview why she took down the flag she mentioned its association with slavery, which resonated with her as the descendant of people who were enslaved.
And that’s likely the important difference. It was easy for me to walk by the flag every day without a second thought because for me, as a white descendant of slave-holders and Confederate soldiers, I saw family history and remembered childhood outings at national parks. Bree Newsome saw a blood-soaked history of hatred, oppression and violence manifest in a church massacre, represented by a flag that was carried by people (my ancestors among them) who fought for the propagation of slavery.
William Faulkner once wrote that “The past isn’t gone, it isn’t even past.” The things that happened here continue to affect what happens today. People don’t protest because of the past; they protest because of what’s happening right now in continuing racial injustice. So while the flag or the statue may mean something else to you, to many, it represents the continued presence and propagation of that injustice. What you see when you walk by the statue makes all the difference.
George Orwell once said something along the lines of “the future is written by those who write history.” The statue isn’t just about what happened here, or even what’s happening now; it’s about the story we want to tell next.
Will Scott is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Dalton. His column appears the fourth Friday of the month.