Civil War battle flags to joust in Richmond, but will fighting follow?

A Confederate history group is planning to unfurl a car dealership-size Battle Flag over I-95 near Richmond, Virginia. In response, another group will fly a large US flag downtown.

Steven M. Falk/Philadelphia Daily News/AP
A Confederate flag waves in a trailer park in Spring City, Pa. On Saturday, competing groups will display Confederate and US flags in Richmond, Virginia.

No matter who you think ought to have won the Civil War, you’ll have someone to root for on Saturday as the Johnny Rebs and Blue Coats unfurl their separate gigantic battle flags over Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy.

News that a Confederate history group is planning to unfurl a car dealership-size Battle Flag over I-95 near Richmond sparked a counter-flag movement that grew to the point where a rival group, more sympathetic to the federal idea, plans a countercharge, by flying a massive US flag near downtown.

Though the tensions between the North and South today tend to flare up mostly on newspaper op-ed pages and the Internet, the high emotions around the flag symbolism continues to tear at the US zeitgeist, a reminder that, aside from the resolve of slavery, fundamental differences of opinion about the ship of state linger among honest Americans.

While history suggests that the fighting will mostly be verbal and symbolic, residents and police in Chester, where the Confederate group, Virginia Flaggers, will hoist its flag next to I-95, say they are concerned about violence, with local resident Frankie Nichols telling a local NBC affiliate, “You never know what people will do when they get excited.”

The US is 148 years removed from the end of the bloody, earthshaking grappling match between North and South, between Abe and Jefferson, between gray and blue, between brother and brother. But since the NAACP began a march across the South in the late 1990s to eradicate confederate symbols from state-owned lands – including the St. Andrew’s cross flag that flew over a majority of former Confederate statehouses – the debate has touched deep nerves on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line.

The issue flared up in earnest in 2000, during the presidential election, when the NAACP worked to have South Carolina remove the Confederate flag from atop the State House. (It was eventually moved to another part of the capitol grounds.)

“Waving a flag in someone’s face is almost like trying to pick a fight,” Pennsylvania resident Jim Matusko told Philadelphia Daily News reporter William Bender in a story published Saturday. “I don’t like the guy in the White House, either, but the South isn’t going to rise again.”

But the controversy continues, perhaps because the South never quite fell. And it may even be ascendant as the Confederate battle flag enjoys what appears to be a resurgence in popularity amid widespread discontent with Washington.

In April, an Alamogordo, New Mexico, a man was arrested for flying a Confederate flag too close to the Stars and Stripes. Police cited a 1963 law that makes it illegal to insult the US flag.

In 2011, a black University of South Carolina student flew a battle flag from his dorm window as a comment on the lack of finesse in the debate. The university told him to take it down after getting complaints, but then relented and said he could put it back in his window – that even on college campuses, free speech is allowed even if it might offend someone.

Also in January, a request made by the state of Virginia to borrow a historic Confederate flag seized by Union troops from Minnesota during the war was rebuffed by Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, who suggested returning the flag, even for a spell, would be “sacrilege.”

Mr. Bender, the Philly reporter, suggested in his piece that Confederate flag regalia is becoming more popular outside of the South for myriad reasons ranging from the spread of country music, dissatisfaction with the guy in the White House, and sympathy for the rebel mindset.

The flag, he writes, is “a complicated and incendiary symbol of rebellion, slavery, Southern pride, and white supremacy.”

The NAACP, and many black Americans, have contended that the Southern symbols are painful reminders not just of slavery, but of Jim Crow laws and practices, when Southern leaders refused to relent to court-ordered desegregation, insisting on a system that was separate and unequal.

Today, however, the flags tend to be less symbolic of the resistance by white supremacists and more an embattled memory of the Lost Cause, which included, beyond slavery, social traditions, deregulated markets, and a sense of heroism.

Indeed, the Virginia Flaggers have denounced the use of the battle flag by the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacists.

“If somebody broke into your house and robbed you, and they were wearing New York Giants attire, you wouldn’t assume that there was something evil in the Giants association,” Gene Hogan, chief of heritage operations for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, told the Daily News. “You would say, ‘No, that was an evil person that co-opted those garments.’ Same way with the battle flag.”

Indeed, most Confederate flag-wavers today aren’t pining for the slavery days, but rooting for sides in what Peter Carmichael, director of the Civil War Institute in Gettysburg, called in an Associated Press story a “war between the big government and the small governments.”

In Richmond, the pro-Stars and Stripes group United RVA gathered 24,000 signatures in support of their effort to fly the Union flag in protest of the big St. Andrew’s Cross.

"There's only one flag that unites and represents all of us in RVA and that's the American flag," Brian Cannon, one of the United RVA organizers, told reporters.

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