We’ve heard a great deal about the importance of the Confederate flag (in all of its variations and manifestations, but primarily the Confederate Battle Flag). We are told that Confederate heritage advocates are honoring their ancestors by battling to keep the flag flying, implying that such is exactly what those folks would have wanted to do.
Not so fast.
The Rev. Abram Joseph Ryan was a Catloic priest based in Knoxville, Tennessee. He was also a poet as well as passionate Confederate. Some people called him “Poet-Priest of the South,” while others dared proclaim him the “Poet Laureate of the Confederacy.” In any case no one could question his fidelity to the cause.
Father Ryan had a most interesting Civil War career. Despising Abraham Lincoln, he shorted his first name to Abram; he protested being stationed in the North by his order, and by 1863 we have rports of his being with the Army of Tennessee, without other accounts placing him at Franklin and Nashville near the end of 1864. In the immediate aftermath of Confederate surrender, he composed the following poem, which first appeared in of all places, a New York journal:
The Conquered Banner
Furl that Banner, for ’t is weary;
Round its staff ’t is drooping dreary:
Furl it, fold it,—it is best;
For there ’s not a man to wave it,
And there ’s not a sword to save it,
And there ’s not one left to lave it
In the blood which heroes gave it,
And its foes now scorn and brave it:
Furl it, hide it,—let it rest!
Take that Banner down! ’t is tattered;
Broken is its staff and shattered;
And the valiant hosts are scattered,
Over whom it floated high.
Oh, ’t is hard for us to fold it,
Hard to think there ’s none to hold it,
Hard that those who once unrolled it
Now must furl it with a sigh!
Furl that Banner—furl it sadly!
Once ten thousands hailed it gladly,
And ten thousands wildly, madly,
Swore it should forever wave;
Swore that foeman’s sword should never
Hearts like theirs entwined dissever,
Till that flag should float forever
O’er their freedom or their grave!
Furl it! for the hands that grasped it,
And the hearts that fondly clasped it,
Cold and dead are lying low;
And that Banner—it is trailing,
While around it sounds the wailing
Of its people in their woe.
For, though conquered, they adore it,—
Love the cold, dead hands that bore it,
Weep for those who fell before it,
Pardon those who trailed and tore it;
And oh, wildly they deplore it,
Now to furl and fold it so!
Furl that Banner! True, ’t is gory,
Yet ’t is wreathed around with glory,
And ’t will live in song and story
Though its folds are in the dust!
For its fame on brightest pages,
Penned by poets and by sages,
Shall go sounding down the ages—
Furl its folds though now we must.
Furl that Banner, softly, slowly!
Treat it gently—it is holy,
For it droops above the dead.
Touch it not—unfold it never;
Let it droop there, furled forever,
For its people’s hopes are fled!
That’s very interesting. It’s indeed very presumptuous to claim that displaying Confederate flags long after the Confederacy died is what their Southern ancestors who fought in the the war would have wanted. It seems to me like presentism.
I recall some years ago reading of a Southern priest who joined up and later quit because it bothered his conscience to fight in effect to defend the institution of slavery, whatever other reasons there may have been for fighting. Though no doubt the exception, I suspect such cases are probably more common than we suppose.
The vast majority of descendants of of Confederate veterans have no idea what motivated their ancestors, because those men left no contemporaneous record of it. The best they have, in some cases, is family lore, passed down from one generation to the next, that reflects nothing more than what the old folks wanted the young folks to believe — true, false, or somewhere in-between — after 150+ there’s no way to know.
It’s way past time to acknowledge what the average Confederate soldier knew from Appomattox on…
It’s time to put away that flag and place it where it belongs, museums or private hands, as part of a lesson to be learned about our past.
It’s a deeply moving poem and in some respects a good prediction of the future.
But certain people today might be better i to follow it’s advice.
One must ask what were the hopes of those who ‘laved’ that banner. Human slavery, legitimized by corruption of the blood? Furl it indeed.
How about this for irony? I’m looking at an issue of Confederate Veteran (Vol. 2, p. 42) and what do I see but this poem. Interestingly, in this version the last word is “dead,” not “fled.”
If it is good enough for Sumner Cunningham to publish in 1894, it should be good enough for the Flaggers.