The Flag of My Fathers

ms flag

I live in the small town of Ocean Springs, MS which is embroiled in controversy after the Board of Aldermen voted to 6-1 to fly the Mississippi state flag over all city buildings.  As a city resident of Ward 5 I wrote the following response to our city leaders.

Mayor Dobson and Aldermen of Ocean Springs,

As an Ocean Springs Ward 5 resident represented by Alderman Robert Blackman, I’m writing you concerning the recent board vote to fly the state flag over our city. I understand that your constituents are divided on this issue.  I have seen cultural, economic, and historical arguments on both sides.  I am not emailing you to reiterate any of those arguments.  I am emailing you about this because a flag is more than a piece of cloth.  It’s a symbol.  It stands for and represents something beyond itself.  Like a family crest it points to a history and legacy.  A flag tells a story.  The Mississippi state flag tells a story.  Part of that story is our contribution to the confederacy, which is part of the story of our great nation.

John C. Breckinridge

I know a bit about that history.  Major General John C. Breckinridge (pic above) was assigned to the Army of Mississippi in 1862.  He served as the fourteenth vice president of the United States under James Buchanan.  John Breckenridge Castleman, a close relative to John C. Breckinridge, was a Brigadier General for the confederacy.

When asked about black soldiers serving in the confederate army Castleman said, “I unhesitatingly say that I will at any time salute an officer, superior or inferior, who salutes me, without regard to the color of his skin. The regulations and laws, and the fundamentals of courtesy and discipline, upon which these regulations and laws are based, prescribe this. It is no time to stand against them. I want to urge every soldier to be a soldier in the full sense of the term. We are at war, and soldiers are under the rules of the American army. We are all one under the flag. We salute the rank, not the individual.”

“We are all one under the flag.”  To him, that flag meant unity regardless of skin color.  It symbolized something beyond individuality.  Why do I mention these men?  Well, because these are my forefathers.  This is my history.  My name is Scott Breckinridge Castleman.  As a teen I stood under the large statue of John Breckinridge Castleman (pic below) in Louisville, Kentucky and marveled that a relative of mine was so honored.  (Who knows how long before it is taken down?)  I have wandered various battlefields of the Civil War on which my relatives commanded troops of all colors, many of whom died fighting under the confederate flag, which, as you well know, remains a part of our Mississippi state flag.

John Breckinridge Castleman

During the Civil War the “southern cross” was adopted so that as Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston, arguing in favor of the flag’s adoption, said, “We would then on the field of battle know our friends from our enemies.”  And here is where my concern lies.  That flag was a war-time flag- a flag designed to delineate people on a field of battle who sought to kill one another over national convictions.  Even John Breckinridge Castleman understood that this flag was unifying in war, not peace.  In reference to black soldiers fighting on his side of the line he said, “It is no time to stand against them.”  But he was not saying that there wouldn’t come a time to stand against them- like when African Americans wanted recognition as human beings, or citizens, or to be educated, or to vote, or to drink from public water fountains.  “We are at war…” This was the only thing that unified men of all colors under his command.  “We are all one under the flag.”  For Castleman that meant, we are all one on this side of the battle line under my command.  But that unity would not extend beyond the status of soldier.  That flag did not mean unity for those outside of the structure of the confederate army and on the other side of a time of war.

We are in the midst of great tension globally, nationally, and even in our small city of Ocean Springs.  Our state flag is part of that tension.  And the southern cross in the corner of that flag means something.  It tells a history- a history my family served and killed and bled and died to help write.  I am not asking us to erase our history.  I am not asking us to forget it.  I am simply arguing that this heraldic ensign over which there is so much division was created to accentuate such division.  Is there any wonder that there is vitriol and passion and hurt and anger over a flag that was designed to unify only half a nation in a time of war in which brother fought brother?

I want unity.  I want harmony.  I want to be a part of forging a future for my family name that is defined by something nobler than taking up arms because we disagree.  My family fought under that flag.  I, my father’s son, will never forget where I came from.  Even so, that symbol will never sever itself from the heat of division that forged it.  Has that symbol of the confederacy become nobler over the last century?  Has it changed the story it tells so as to symbolize something other than a nation at war with itself?  As I page through a photo-biography of the civil rights movement I keep on an end table, I see that confederate flag throughout.  More than half a century after the war it was created for, US citizens flew the rebel flag during the civil rights movement as a symbol of division in a culture once again at war with itself.  And now, half a century later still, would people argue that the symbol at question has come to mean something else?

rebel flag

Ocean Springs cannot change the state flag of Mississippi.  But we are not required to fly it over our city.  If our state flag only symbolized our state I would suggest we fly it proudly because I am grateful to have spent more than half my life in Mississippi.  But symbols are tricky.  Our city cannot make our flag mean less than it means and symbolize less than the story it tells.  Mississippi’s good citizens who appreciate our state flag as it flies today unfortunately cannot furl the divisive history it sings over us.

I don’t know what’s in any of your hearts and I am not here to stand in judgment over Mayor Dobson’s decision to fly the flag, his decision months later to stop flying it, or the board’s decision to fly it again.  I am simply saying that our flag features a symbol that was created in a time of war to delineate sides on a battlefield.  And at present we are not at war.  My family names “Breckinridge” and “Castleman” are attached to statues, placards, historical monuments, and war memorials throughout the South due to our service in the confederacy.  I named my first son Ebenezer Breckenridge Castleman so that my family name would continue for another generation. An “ebenezer” is a stone monument; a memorial symbol used by the Israelites to point the people to God’s help in times of trouble.  I would argue we need an ebenezer in our city- a symbol of God’s help in times of trouble.  We need that more than a symbol of division.  You all can keep that flag flying if you like. That’s in your power.  However, when it continues to be a mechanism of division in the city you were elected to serve, don’t act surprised. It is simply doing what it has always done.

It would seem simple enough to fly a state’s flag over its municipalities.  But a flag is a symbol.  And the symbol on ours points to division and war.

May God grant you wisdom to manage the authority he has given you in this season.

Sincerely,

Scott Breckinridge Castleman

 

Leave a Reply