Confederate symbols also blight the Northwest

By Knute Berger
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Google's street view of the U.S. flag on the left and the Confederate flag on the right at Jefferson Davis Park in Ridgefield.

By Knute Berger

We might seem removed from controversies like the one over the Confederate flag, but we’re not.

The Pacific Northwest was very much involved in the politics of the Civil War. Early leadership in the Oregon and Washington territories leaned Democratic and emigrants were often pro-Southern in their sympathies, as were many of the political appointees of Democratic presidents like Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan.

Many of those who came to the region in the pre-war period hoped to escape sectional tensions, violence, racism and slavery. Some brought those things with them. I wrote about that not long ago in a column called, “Slavery, Here?” A town in Oregon even flew the Confederate flag during the war, until a column of U.S. Cavalry took it down. One of the Rebel sympathizers was nearly lynched.

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May Avery Wiikins, longtime officer in Seattle and state UDC chapters. Her father was a Confederate major general. Picture dated 1921. Credit: United Daughters of the Confederacy

In recent years, controversies have erupted over secession symbolism. In 2002, Washington state Rep. Hans Dunshee attempted to remove the designation of Highway 99 as the “Jefferson Davis Highway.” It was so dubbed in the 1930s by the Daughters of the Confederacy and highway markers were erected in Vancouver and Blaine, at either end of Old ’99. They did so with the cooperation of the state highway and parks departments. The rationale was recognition of military works undertaken in the Washington Territory while Davis was Secretary of War during the Pierce administration.

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One of the Jefferson Davis Highway markers. Credit: Washington State Historical Society

Dunshee’s move to change that stirred a volcano of right-wing talk-radio outrage, but the issue was eventually resolved. It turned out the state had never actually made an official designation and the stone highway markers were quietly removed.

Interestingly, one is now in the private “Jefferson Davis Park” next to I-5 in Ridgefield, WA in Clark County. You can get the story of how that came about from the website of the Pacific Northwest Chapter of Sons of Confederate Veterans. In addition to the Highway 99 marker, a Confederate national flag (the version called “the Blood Stained Banner”) flies next to an American flag. Yes, a Confederate flag right here in Washington on equal standing with Old Glory.

You might also be interested to know that there’s a Confederate veterans’ memorial in Lake View Cemetery in Seattle, designated in 1911 when many Civil War vets were alive, yet dying off. A cemetery for Union veterans is just to the north, appropriately. The Seattle Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy is still active. They even have a Facebook page. Back in 2012, an Oregon school bus driver and self-declared redneck won the right to fly the Confederate flag from his pickup truck on school grounds, a matter of free speech.

The flag the Daughters use is not the familiar Confederate battle flag with the diagonal St. Andrews cross. It is the old so called “Stars and Bars,” the first “national” flag of the secessionists. The battle flag we’re so familiar with was later included on the Confederate government’s official flag. But that early Stars and Bars banner also has a bloody history. In 1861, a young friend of Abraham Lincoln’s, Col. Elmer Ellsworth, decided to lead his men into Alexandria, Virginia to tear down such a flag flying within sight of the White House atop a hotel. After lowering the flag, Ellsworth was shot and killed by the hotel’s pro-slavery owner, who in turn was killed by one of Ellsworth’s men. A piece of the Confederate flag that Ellsworth died tearing down is now an artifact in the Smithsonian. President Barack Obama has said that’s where all Confederate flags should be: museums.

Looking at Washington state newspapers, controversies related over the Confederate flag have come up now and again. In the late 19th century, some Union veterans were upset with an order by President Grover Cleveland to return captured Confederate battle flags to Southern states. The Democrat Cleveland was considered to be a southern sympathizer — indeed, the whole Democratic Party was often painted that way. In the campaign of 1880, the presidential race pitted a former Union general, Republican James Garfield, against another former Union general, Democrat Winfield Scott Hancock; much was made of a Democratic Party parade in Indiana which was led by someone holding a Confederate battle flag. The Seattle Daily Intelligencer weighed in on the controversy:

“Who ever heard of a rebel flag being hoisted or carried by Republicans? Democrats, on the contrary, have hoisted thousands of them, have gone into battle under them, have endeavored to substitute them for our own starry banner, and when beaten at every point have treasured them jealously in the seclusion of their homes. Now, in the heat of political excitements, they are bringing them out and displaying them boldly in procession and on the housetop. They will deeply regret this folly ere many weeks have gone past, not on the account of its folly and wickedness, but because of the bitter fruit it will have borne them.”

The Puget Sound Weekly of 1880 applauded the carrying of the Confederate banner, not because they agreed with what it symbolized, but because one’s true loyalties could be told from it. “Let every craft sail under its proper colors….” the paper said. Comedian John Oliver recently echoed those sentiments: “The Confederate flag is one of those symbols that should really only be seen on T-shirts, belt buckles and bumper stickers to help the rest of us identify the worst people in the world."

Of course, let’s remember that it was Oliver’s home country, Britain, which aided the Confederacy and built the warship CSS Alabama which ravaged U.S. merchant shipping during the war. Reparations over that fact were part of the final settlement of our boundary dispute with Britain in the San Juan Islands.

Today, with critics demanding that the Confederate flag be removed from the state Capitol in South Carolina or from the official Mississippi state flag (put there during the Civil Rights era as a racist message), or flying in other public places, it is Republicans who are often avoiding the issue, defending the flag, or soft-pedaling any criticism of it—a notable exception being former presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Now that the GOP governor of South Carolina is backing removing the Confederate flag from the Capitol, more Republican presidential candidates are on board with the idea.

The parties have effectively switched roles as the GOP is now generally the party of states rights, nullification, voter suppression and the argument that racism is non-existent. And, at least in Texas, it is the party of pseudo-secession. The recent controversy over military exercises there underscored the fact that many southern conservatives have conflicting notions in their heads: that they can be loyal to two flags at once, even though they represent opposing ideals and ideas.

One of the most passionate riffs about that paradox was expressed in an editorial in the Seattle newspaper Cayton’s Weekly in 1918. Horace Cayton and his wife Susie Revels Cayton were an African-American couple who ran local newspapers, including the influential Seattle Republican. Cayton had been one of the few black leaders in the state GOP during the Progressive era. Their editorial weighed in against a growing tendency of Southerners to openly embrace the flag:

“In some of the states of the South the old Confederate flag is being draped along with the Stars and Stripes, and yet those committing such patriotic sacralidge [sic] claim to have the good of this country at heart. No person who recognizes the rebel bars and stripes of the South, which was the ensign of the most damnable rebellion that has ever been recording in history, has a spark of patriotism within his bosom. If Theodore Roosevelt was president of the United States the many who placed that rebel rag beside the Stars and Stripes would die the death of a dog and he ought to.”

This year, we’re recognizing the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War. You’d think by now we’d have figured out how to put the past in its place, but there’s still work to do, and not just in South Carolina.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.