One of the pet phrases of the Confederate heritage group known as the Virginia Flaggers is “Restore the Honor! Return the Flags!” The target of this declaration is the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, because the Virginia Flaggers hold that institution accountable for the removal of Confederate flags outside the Memorial Chapel back in 2010. Never mind that that other groups, including the local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, were complicit in that decision. No one forced the SCV to sign that agreement.
First, we note that “Restore the Flags!” is in itself misleading. As the lease states, “Confederate national flags and battle flags may be prominently displayed at all times inside the sanctuary of this War Memorial to honor the memory of the dead Confederate soldiers, sailors and marines to whom the premises is dedicated, but no such flags may be flown on the exterior of the premises.” In short, there are Confederate flags inside the chapel. The discussion concerns the two Confederate flags that were added to the chapel’s exterior by the entry to the chapel.
Those flags were added in 1993 by the SCV.
There’s been talk that flags flew on the grounds of of what was Robert E. Lee Camp No. 1, with pictures offered to support that claim. I’ve not seen pictures that Confederate battle flags flew from the location indicated in the picture above, which is still displayed on a Richmond tourist site, prior to 1993. Nor has the exclusion of these two flags been observed all the time. You can see the exterior flags in this 2012 image.
The lease in question comes up for renewal this year. It will be interesting to see what role the SCV’s chief of heritage operations, Ben Jones, takes in this matter, or whether the SCV cares at all about the terms of the lease. Perhaps the Virginia Flaggers should address that issue.
My own take is that “Restore the Honor!” is an inadvertent slam at the very people that the Virginia Flaggers claim they want to honor–Confederate veterans. Whatever your feelings about whether Confederate soldiers served honorably, neither the VMFA nor the SCV chapter in question can take away that honor … and thus it cannot be restored simply by returning to the 1993 addition. If the slogan read, for example, “Recognize the honor! Return the flags!”, that would be a far more defensible position.
That the Virginia Flaggers concede that the VMFA can take away the honor of Confederate veterans is a disturbing admission. I believe Confederate veterans deserve better than that. The VMFA can no more take away the honor of their service than the Flaggers can restore it, because neither one has the power or the right to do that.
Abraham Lincoln would have agreed. He expressed similar thoughts when he delivered a few appropriate remarks at the dedication of a cemetery at Gettysburg in November 1863. “But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground,” he reminded those people who had gathered to pay tribute to the Union dead. “The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.”
Neither the VMFA, the SCV, nor the Virginia Flaggers have the “power to add or detract” from the honor attached to the service of Confederate soldiers. Shame on the Virginia Flaggers for thinking otherwise.