Inside the Arc – “Flags of our Fathers”

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Somewhere among my mother’s long-ago stored effects there is a photograph of a 3 year old boy, standing on a sidewalk in New York as a parade passes by, waving a small American flag, an expression of pure joy on his face. That boy was me and, though I do not recall the details, I clearly remember my father’s delight in taking his son to parades and my own excitement amid the sounds and colors, especially the colors.

When we are that young, color and design can etch themselves deeply into our consciousness, and what is a flag if not color and design. It can take on a profound meaning for a child, especially one whose father had fought beneath it in Sicily and Africa during WWII.

Flags have meanings and associations, dating back to biblical times and before. They are not just pretty fabric to be spun and tossed to enhance pageantry. They are pageantry itself, and pageantry is history re-created, history honored.

The French Tri-Colour represents “Liberte, Equalite et Fraternite”, the British Union Jack the solidarity of the United Kingdom, the pale blue United Nations banner the hope for world peace.

And now we are embroiled in a debate over a flag, a symbol of pride for some, and injustice and hatred for others. Putting aside the merits of either view for the moment, some actual facts will be useful.

To begin with, the banner commonly referred to as the “Confederate” flag is misidentified as such. In reality, it is the battle standard of the Army of Northern Virginia, used on the field by Robert E. Lee’s troops to identify the position of their commanding officers. It is neither the flag of the Confederate States of America, or a state therein, simply unit colors, signaling command headquarters.

Original 1861 Confederate "Bonny Blue" flag.

Original 1861 Confederate “Bonny Blue” flag. From the author’s personal collection.

The first flag of the Confederacy, adopted by the rebellious states in the early months of the war in 1861, was the “Bonny Blue” one, famously sung about in the ball scene from “Gone with the Wind “. Later in the war, the southern states adopted banners of different designs.

Captured CSA "Stars and Bars". From the author's personal collection.

Captured CSA “Stars and Bars”. From the author’s personal collection.

The Stars and Bars banner was quite similar to the US flag and caused some confusion in the field, as did it’s successor, for a different reason, since it contained so much white fabric it could be misconstrued as a signal of surrender when hanging limp.

2nd Official CSA Flag (note the large white field). From the author's personal collection.

2nd Official CSA Flag (note the large white field). From the author’s personal collection.

As a practical matter then, it’s no surprise that unit colors were often substituted for the official flags of the Confederate States. One of these was General Lee’s, the one he ultimately surrenders to Grant at Appomattox courthouse in 1865, immortalized in paintings and drawings. That flag was, and is, an historical artifact.

That same year, the Klan was born. Those individuals eventually adopted (co-opted) Lee’s banner as one of their symbols of white supremacy, and continue to display it in that context. Eighty three years later, during the 1948 presidential campaign, the southern wing of the Democratic Party bolted from the platform over Harry Truman’s integration of the US military and his proposal to make lynching a federal crime. These so-called Dixiecrats, supporters of segregation, also chose the standard of the Army of Northern Virginia as their symbol of defiance.

In this country, with its constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression and association, these groups were free not only to exist but to choose whatever emblems they wished. (It is a bit ironic,  though, that this is the very nation from which their ancestors attempted to break away.)

In the United States one is free to fly whatever flag one wishes, be it a checkered one, a drum corps championship banner, the pennant of the Boston Red Sox, a sequined rainbow, a Nazi swastika or Lee’s battle standard. One is even free to deface or burn these without fear of prosecution. That’s free speech.

But flags do have associations. If you choose to fly them, you own those as well as any you may personally hold. Some recall the World Open, others, men in white hoods.

It’s wise to remember that children will not only listen, they will also look.

About the Author:
Frank Dorritie is one of the legends of the activity .... a performer, instructor, arranger, adjudicator, and observer over the past 5 decades. Frank has been playing the bugle and trumpet since the 1960s, and has performed with artists like Billy Cobham and Maynard Ferguson. He has instructed and/or arranged for the Blue Devils, Cadets, Santa Clara Vanguard, Cavaliers, Chesterton and Tenri High Schools, the Bushwackers, Bridgemen and a host of others. His audio production honors include 9 Grammy Nominations, 2 Grammy Awards and membership in both the World Drum Corps and Buglers Halls of Fame. He is active internationally as a clinician and adjudicator, holds the DCA Soprano/Trumpet/Tenor Individual titles for 2003, 2005 and 2006. Frank also chairs the Department of Recording Arts at Los Medanos College. His popular brass method book, “Power and Endurance”, is available from The opinions expressed in this column are strictly those of the author.

Posted by on Friday, July 10th, 2015. Filed under Inside the Arc.