Honoring our Forefathers
By: Bill Connor
Like nearly all South Carolinians, I was deeply saddened upon learning of the senseless murders at the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C.
At the time, I was serving (military duties) outside the state when I also learned one of the slain was related to a fellow soldier. I continue to pray for the families. Their Christian witness after the tragedy impacted us all.
For the sake of respect for the victims and their families, I did not believe it appropriate to write an article in response to the Confederate flag issue in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy; not during the period for mourning. I had to pray about timing, as I wanted nothing I said to detract from the care of the families. However, now that we have had an opportunity to grieve (and with the recent U.S. Supreme Court gay marriage decision undermining states’ 10th Amendment powers), I feel compelled to offer a contrasting view about the Confederate Battle Flag.
First, family connections to both the Confederate flag and the “Stars and Stripes” are a common theme among Southerners, and will help provide perspective. My family’s history is but one anecdote of many southern families. My namesake (my full name being William Mellard Connor V) and great-great grandfather, William Mellard Connor, left Orangeburg District for Charleston with the Edisto Rifles, a company of militia, in 1861. He was 16-years-old and owned no slaves, but enlisted out of a sense of duty to his state and as part of his militia company. When the Edisto Rifles reached Charleston, he served with the S.C. 2nd Heavy Artillery (CSA). This unit manned the coastal artillery defending Charleston throughout the war, but was transformed to infantry when Charleston surrendered in Feb. 1865.
Those still alive, including my ancestor, fought as infantry against Gen. William T. Sherman’s invading forces, and they surrendered after fighting at the battle of Bentonville, N.C. His son, my great-grandfather William Mellard Connor II, was raised in an impoverished state after Reconstruction, but chose to leave S.C. to serve under the “Stars and Stripes” during the Philippine Insurrection. He served as a U.S. Army officer for decades, retiring from the U.S. Army after World War II. Fittingly, he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, Robert E. Lee’s former Estate. His son, my grandfather William Mellard Connor III, was appointed to West Point from S.C. in 1936, serving under the “Stars and Stripes” in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, ultimately retiring to Charleston. His son, my father, William Mellard Connor IV, served 24 years as a career Army officer under the “Stars and Stripes,” including tours of duty in Vietnam.
Growing up, my father was always clear to his children that our loyalty was with the United States of America first and foremost. That said, he taught us the words to – and we sang – “Dixie” on long car trips. And we displayed Confederate battle pictures among the many military memorabilia in our home. I now do the same. We were proud of our family history, including our Confederate ancestor. Throughout my own military career under the Stars and Stripes, including overseas in places like the Middle East and Afghanistan, the example of self-sacrifice of those forefathers helped drive my decision to serve.
Former Virginia Senator Jim Webb, a Naval Academy graduate and Navy Cross recipient from his time as a Marine Infantry officer in Vietnam, wrote about his Southern Heritage in the book “Born Fighting.” He notes the disproportionately high percentage of Southerners who have served in the U.S. military since the Civil War. As a Southerner with a long U.S. military family history, Webb reminds us of the Southern military culture critical in winning our nation’s wars.
Many of our most respected “warrior” military leaders of the 20th century – like Army Gen. George S. Patton and Marine icon Gen. Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller – were direct descendants of Confederate veterans. They were proud of their Southern Heritage, yet loyal to the values of the United States. I write this to explain why the heritage of the South, symbolized by the Confederate Battle Flag, is so important to many. Not only to the millions of families like mine, but also to the history of the nation. In the first major conflict after the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, the commander of the U.S. Cavalry in Cuba was “fighting Joe” Wheeler, a former Confederate General. His division contained Teddy Roosevelt and the “Rough Riders.” Additionally, Robert E. Lee’s son served as a senior officer during that war. By the 1950s, the U.S. Code was amended to include Confederate Veterans as U.S. veterans, giving proof to the loyalty and sacrifice the sons of the old Confederacy showed the United States.
The Confederate Battle Flag symbolizes not only the bravery and dedication of the men who fought for their country (state), but it also symbolizes the Southern heritage since the Civil War. I believe this memorialization, along with the U.S. flag which flies on top of the statehouse, provides a visual representation of the unique history of S.C. in our Federal system of government. The flag flying on the grounds is a square “Infantry” flag, the “southern cross” Confederate Battle Flag used in the Army of Northern Virginia. It is not the rectangular “Stars and Bars” Confederate National Flag.
The S.C. Battle flag honors the soldiers, not the government of the former Confederacy. Most of us who believe in the importance of Southern History understand the other side in relation to the flag. The Southern Cross was unfortunately waved by certain hate groups, thereby becoming associated with racism to many. However, those same groups also waved the Stars and Stripes, particularly during the darkest days of lynching in the 1920s and 1930s. Slavery, which continued in “Union” States during the Civil War, including Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware, was a blight on our national history. That national sin has been acknowledged by all reasonable people, Northern and Southern alike, and put behind us. If the Battle flag comes down due to the institution of slavery under the Confederacy, we must understand the dangerous precedence. We would then target memorials of slaveholders like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and even the Stars and Stripes.
Fifteen years ago, a compromise was reached between the two sides; showing respect to the complicated sensitivities of the flag. The decision was made to take the Confederate Battle Flag off the statehouse dome and put it on the statehouse grounds. Moreover, a civil rights memorial would be (and has been) built on the grounds. While stationed outside the state during that time, I explained to a general-officer why I believed so many South Carolinians were opposed to removing the flag from the dome.
That the fear that any compromise would not be honored in the long term and that the real goal was to “cleanse” all reminders of Confederate veterans. That General told me those fears were unreasonable, particularly with the compromise of building the civil rights memorial to honor the sensibilities of those opposing the flag. It remains to be seen who was right. Unfortunately, we are already seeing “slippery slope” fears realized. Voices from primarily outside the state are now comparing those who fought for the Confederacy to Nazis. They are demanding names like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson be banished throughout the United States. This is becoming a cleansing similar to what happened with Nazi symbols in Germany after Adolf Hitler. Most would agree that Confederate Veterans cannot be compared to the Nazi SS and genocide, but that doesn’t stop the rhetoric.
Interestingly, a recent poll conducted by CNN found that over half of Americans, North and South, viewed the Confederate flag as heritage and not racism. Let’s come together as South Carolinians and Americans, the way we did after the shootings, but before the diversion of the flag issue. Let’s come together in honoring our collective past, leaving a symbolic reminder of the uniqueness of our state under our Constitution system.
Let’s come together the way the late Rev. Clementa Pinckney did when he voted for the compromise 15 years ago. Let’s move to the future, while never forgetting our blessed heritage; a heritage of those who sacrificed so much for the state during the Civil War, and their children who sacrificed for this nation and our freedom.