Should the NPS Allow Re-enactments that Include Flying Secession Flags Over Federal Sites?

     Someone I know asked me yesterday why the National Park Service allowed the Stars and Stripes to be lowered and replaced by a flag of secession at an NPS site. I hadn’t heard about this, but the event happened at Fort Pulaski National Monument on January 3. It was touted as a re-enactment of what occured 150 years ago when Georgia Governor Joseph Brown ordered state militia troops to occupy the federal facility. No shots were fired that day in 1861, because the fort was only manned by two caretakers. The State of Georgia had not even officially seceded, but the Governor was an ardent secessionist. According to this article:

“After President Abraham Lincoln’s election, Brown called on Georgia to follow South Carolina out of the Union, warning of the dangers of abolition that would lead to miscegenation and racial equality. He ordered the seizure of the undefended federal Fort Pulaski even before a popularly elected convention voted by a narrow margin to secede. The popular secessionist governor may well have tipped the balance in the Deep South state that was least inclined to leave the Union in 1861.” 

     Robert Moore argues on his blog that there were charges of voting fraud at the Georgia secession convention; that the common Georgian was “misrepresented” by the delegates, many of whom were slaveholders.  Craig Swain also has an excellent post about the siezure of Fort Pulaski here

     The news coverage of the re-enactment that I can find (video here and articles here, here and here.) say nothing about why the state siezed a federal facility, other than its strategic location and that federal troops might actually decide to occupy it. Why was Governor Brown so afraid of the federal government? There is no mention of the issue of slavery that I have found. There is no questioning of what the legalities were of a state Governor ordering the seizure of a federal facility. Let me make this clear: Fort Pulaski (just like Fort Sumter) was the property of the United States of America, and therefore belonged to ALL the people of the United States. The federal government rightly viewed siezures like these occuring in various states, as an internal insurrection. Perhaps these issues were discussed as part of the program, I don’t know.  

     A ranger that is quoted in one of the articles says it is not even clear if the secession flag raised by the re-enactors was the actual flag the original militia raised at the fort that day in 1861. The ranger is also quoted as saying: “We felt like we needed to do something to honor this historic event.” The Superintendent is quoted as saying:

     “The conflicting loyalties of the Civil War taxed those who lived through it, and even today, the issues defy easy answers,” continued Superintendent Wester. “It is appropriate that we honor the events of the past, and reflect on what they mean to us today.”

     The person who questioned me about this didn’t think “honor” was an appropriate word. From my own point of view, I am reminded of when I worked at Wilson’s Creek NB and it was asked a few times, “If this was a Confederate victory, why don’t you fly the Confederate flag in front of the visitors center?” My favorite response from another ranger: “Well, you wouldn’t fly the Rising Sun over the Arizona would you?”

   Is the proper flag, the flag of the United States, again flying over Fort Pulaski? I don’t know. Was this re-enactment appropriate? How many more re-enactments such as this are we going to see in the next few years? And, what exactly do these events of the past mean to us today?

7 thoughts on “Should the NPS Allow Re-enactments that Include Flying Secession Flags Over Federal Sites?

  1. I’m having a hard time trying to figure out where I stand in the flag debate. I still don’t know if it is appropriated to fly a flag other than the Stars and Stripes over a Federal building. What I do know is that flying the secession flag represents an enormous interpretive opportunity to talk about the ramifications of the civil war, and to get visitors out of their comfort zone – making them think and and question the past. Does that make it OK to fly the flag? I don’t know.

  2. Thanks for the comment Jacob. I agree that interpretive programs should stimulate intellectual and emotional connections to the site. But, it’s not clear to me, from what I’ve been able to find, what visitors really learned from this particular event.

    • Bob,

      Good point. If your flying the flag just to please the reenactors who are doing the commemoration, I think its a little out of line. If your programming is actively using the flag during the event as a interpretive experience, I’m OK with that. Green and Gray interpretation should be present at all times to run interference and make those interpretive opportunities matter.

  3. It was totally wrong to fly the flag of insurgents. The staff at Fort Pulaski better be on alert. There must be a huge commemoration of the day when the U.S. flag was again flown over Fort Pulaski. If not, heads should roll.

  4. Pingback: Recent reenactments and the media « Cenantua's Blog

  5. I think re-enactments should be as accurate as possible. However, replacing the American Flag with the flag of secession was entirely wrong. The Stars and Stripes should be flown as designated, and should not be altered, moved, or lowered below another flag to honor, commemorate, or portray a moment in history or the present. I would have no problem if the flag of secession was raised to commemorate this moment in time, but kept below the American Flag,

  6. The Northern and Southern perspectives of the War Between the States are two historically interesting opportunities for historical interpretation. Visitors, for the most part I feel, want to experience history in it’s authenticity and should always be as accurate as possible. Whether wearing authentic clothing, firing historically accurate weapons, seeing and understanding the food and lifestyles of the periods in our countries experiment in freedom and justice for all, is all in context, very important to understanding where we have failed and where we have learned from our nations past. I might add that when most northerners come to the south, they want to see, touch and feel the southern perspective. Some have even asked where they could visit a plantation! Yes! This might be another valuable opportunity to understand historically accurate interpretation of the period. They don’t pay money to hear what they have been told or taught in a northern perspective context. The value of authenticity in interpreting the southern perspective is found when the story culminates in the fact that, what we did to ourselves as a nation, no country has been able to do to us. What we did to all those caught in the bonds of slavery was wrong. But, may I remind you that the first cotton mill factory was built in Massachusetts. The first colony to not legalize slavery was the colony of Georgia. The first colony that made slavery legal was the colony of Massachusetts. The largest slave trade company prior to the war, during the war and even after the war (continuing the slave trade in Cuba on the sugar plantations for export to America) was located in Rhode Island. Be that as it may, more than 650,000 were killed during the war. Let any country know, whether they wish us good or whether they wish us ill, we have founded our freedom in the blood of those who died. And, we are the United States of America. Fort Pulaski National Monument stands as a reminder of our precious freedom. So, fly the historically accurate flags and keep telling the story of freedom.

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