By Nick BeJeaux
The Civil War is still a touchy subject 150 years after its end as Americans question whether the symbols of the Confederate States of America represent valor, courage, and heritage or racism, terror, and oppression. For historic reenactment teams, it’s a complex subject. As they commemorate the anniversary of the Battle of Baton Rouge, a few questions hang in the air.
Baton Rouge and The Civil War
153 years ago this week, the Battle of Baton Rouge raged in and around the area we know today as the BREC Magnolia Cemetery, minutes away from Downtown. The Foundation for Historical Louisiana celebrated its 32nd commemoration of the conflict, where Confederate troops attempted and failed to recapture the Red Stick from the Union’s occupying force. Historians retold the story of the battle, “I Wish I Was in Dixie” was sung, and the Flag of the Confederacy and American flag were raised together with a 21-gun salute.
Scott Landry sits on the board of trustees for the Magnolia Cemetery and said that the consequences of this battle proved incredibly significant in the history of the Baton Rouge.
“Just a block west from here, the Union general Thomas Williams was killed while rallying his troops on horseback. He was only the second Union general killed in battle during the war at that point. Also, two of Mary Todd Lincoln’s brothers fought here for the Confederacy. One was killed, and the other was injured. It was a pretty big deal at the time.”
Landry said that approximately 200 soldiers lost their lives (about 650 other soldiers were either injured or went missing) over the course of a few hours. In anticipation of another Confederate attack, Union soldiers destroyed many buildings around where the current State Capital stands – which was the site of a garrison at the time – to fight in the open. Ultimately, that would never happen, because the Union army evacuated a week later to help secure New Orleans.
“This is possibly the most traumatic event in Baton Rouge history,” said Landry. “The loss of life and destruction of buildings has never again happened all at once. I think this was the lowest point in our city’s history.”
A Matter of History and Heritage
Today, opinions on the Confederacy and its symbols have become sharply divided as discussions on race relations and the history of slavery intensifies. The controversial “Battle Flag” used by the Confederate army, colloquially known today as the Rebel Flag, was nowhere to be found during the ceremony, and Landry said that’s because it is not part of the history here.
“The reason for that is because the battle flag that’s talked about in the media is not something that was here in Baton Rouge; it was not part of this battle,” he said. “That was a flag used by Robert E. Lee’s army of Northern Virginia, which was the far-eastern theater of the war. The main flag that was carried by troops in this area was The National Flag, which bears some resemblance to the French flag.”
Jim H., a reenactor who asked that his name be abbreviated, can trace his ancestry back way before the war and honors them by representing the Louisiana Yellow Jacket Battalion of the Tenth Louisiana Volunteers. A Democrat, Jim says he does not fit the typical image of a Civil War reenactor and does it not for nostalgia but for the benefit of all southerners.
“I have been doing reenacting with the Sons of Confederate Veterans for 22 years—if this was about race, I wouldn’t be doing it,” he said. “My families went out in droves to defend their new country when they were called. I grew up in the Civil Rights era—I think Dr. Martin Luther King is the greatest American to ever live. I think the South has been painted with a really broad brush; that we’re all racists and thought that slavery was a good idea. I personally do this because this is a defense of my people—southern people—my region, and my family.”
From the view of a Black Woman
Despite its historical roots, the Confederate Battle Flag has been used by organizations like the Klu Klux Klan and neo-Nazi organization both within the U.S. and abroad as rallying symbols. These groups have long histories of documented violence against minorities, which convolutes the claims that the flag is a symbol of Southern heritage.
Shamaka Schumake is currently running for the State Representative seat in District 70, a well-known community organizer in Baton Rouge and a woman of color. She has organized one of the many petitions asking for state officials to remove the Rebel Flag from state sanctions spaces. In her case, the petition targets license plates.
“A guiding principle in my life is ‘be the change,’” She said. “ After there were calls in South Carolina to bring down the flag, there was a lot of leadership, specifically from Republicans, across the south that echoed those same sentiments. Our governor, specifically said the opposite. While there is no flag that flies anywhere on state grounds, there is an option to have it on your state-sanctioned license plate. There was no elected leadership saying that this is problematic, so that’s why I’m taking it on.”
Schumake says that while she recognizes for some the battle flag is a benign symbol of heritage for some southerners, it is also has been used by some to instigate violence and draw lines of segregation.
“I feel terrified when I see it because it has been used as a symbol of terror,” she said. “Because I’ve lived a very integrated life, I am very cognizant of race and because of that I know there are people who would commit violence against me specifically because of my race. I’ve learned that these people who would do such a thing use the Battle Flag as a way to rally together and as a way to state to black people that they are not welcome wherever that flag is flying.”
“I do concede that there are some people who fly that flag and do not hold those views—I find that to be absolutely true. However, that fear and terror that I feel when I see it is legitimate. It flew when people were lynched and burned. Dylan Roof covered himself in that symbol and specifically stated he did what he did to cause a race war. That needs to be addressed.”