I was away from the blog again as I settled into my new position as the managing director of the George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center here at Penn State. Between production of the center's Journal of the Civil War Era, preparing to oversee a new postdoc position at the center, and setting up professional development workshops for our graduate students, I haven't had much room to blog. Today, however, an interesting news item caught my eye. Beginning this Friday, the "unsurrendered" flag of the Beaufort (S.C.) Volunteer Artillery will be placed on display for the first time in 115 years at the Verdier House, headquarters of the Historic Beaufort Foundation. The display of the flag coincides not only with the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, but also the tricentennial of Beaufort's founding.
According to the article, at the close of the Civil War a member of the BVA wrapped himself in the unit's flag, rather than hand it over to the Union forces to whom his unit had surrendered. Thus, the legend of the "unsurrendered" flag began. Eventually (the article does not stipulate when) the phrase "An Unsurrendered Flag" was stitched onto the banner. As a symbol, the BVA flag raises a host of fascinating questions. Was this largely a symbol of South Carolinians' unconquerable spirit, or, more sinisterly, an angry rejection of the new civil and political order that followed in the wake of defeat? I am most curious to know when that defiant phrase was added to the flag. After all, if the soldiers of the BVA stitched those words onto their colors shortly after their surrender, we arguably could view it as an expression of their unit pride and as a stubborn insistence that they might have been bested but not beaten in this war. This would be a predictable response to defeat, an effort to palliate wounded pride and bitter disappointment at the end of Confederate independence.
An Unsurrendered Flag from a Surrendered Unit
If, however, the intractable words, "An Unsurrendered Flag" were added to the banner later, during Reconstruction or the so-called Redemption of the South, then it would seem to have an altogether different meaning. The flag could be read as an expression of increasing recalcitrance in the face of Republican Reconstruction government and resistance to the reality of black freedoms and political rights. Of course, no matter the intent with which the flag was altered by its "authors," it remains an endlessly intriguing symbol precisely because it likely expressed all of these meanings and still more to its myriad viewers over the last century and a half, leading one to wonder what symbolic meanings does the exhibition of this flag communicate today?