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The Face of Western Battle | Part 3

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Flag-Passion and Lost Causes

The final standards discussed will be those of the Confederate States of America (CSA) and Germany under the National Socialist regime. People like to pair these two nations – often by their conjoined flags – in an attempt to discredit both emblems by their association with one another (especially in the Confederate case). The two “Great Sins”: racial slavery and racial nationalism, combined. In their minds, the Battle-Flag Cross and the Swastika are the Faces of All Evil. There is much simplification here, and the CSA was very different in ideology and strategy from the Third Reich. One distinguishing aspect was the fact that the Southern Confederacy (1861-1865) fought classic battles – great infantry meetings on the field that in many ways had more in common with ancient Greek, Roman, and certainly Napoleonic battles, than it did with the battles (or, more accurately “operations”) of the World Wars. I treat them together, however, for reasons most people do not. 

The flag cannot be divorced from the context of battle, for this special mode of combat – close-quarters, massed ranks, confusing din, and the fluctuations of jubilation, terror, and exhaustion – made flags necessary. What does all love most desire? Yes, “a field wherein to assert itself by action.” And what do soldiers most desire? A manifest icon of their love that is the epicenter of that field of action. Note the subtle word-play: “a field,” meaning the place of battle, and “a field,” meaning the colored background areas on a flag. Both the CSA and the NSDAP used Classical symbols, like the eagle, and Christian-influenced soteriology to create passion-icons that focused squarely on their national flags. Passion symbolism has a long, complex history and could easily be the subject of its own essay. Here, I will not go into depth. For our purposes, I define “passion-symbol” as an image, particularly a martyred, or blood-sacrificial image that inspires intense, theological veneration and possesses powers of benediction. The most famous passion-symbol is the Passion of Christ, the devotion that surrounds images of His suffering and crucifixion. Both the CSA (it never truly ditched the eagle as a national symbol) and the NSDAP used the eagle-standard topper, but the main focus for them was the blood-flag.

The Confederacy had many official and unofficial flags throughout its short existence. Among them were the “Stars and Bars,” the “Battle-Flag,” the “Stainless Banner,” the “Bloodstained Banner,” and the “Bonnie Blue Flag.” Regiments carried their state flags as well. They elicited as much, or more loyalty among the Civil-War soldiery as any imperial eagle. High literary merit should not be expected when it comes to amateur war-poems and songs. But readers will soon discover that what they lack in art, they make up for in soul, for they excel at revealing a people’s heart. At the outset of war, a popular variant of “Dixie” summoned all

Southrons [to] hear your Country call you!

Up! lest worse than death befall you!

To arms! to Arms! to arms! In Dixie!

Lo! all the beacon-fires are lighted,

Let all hearts be now united! . . .

Advance the flag of Dixie! . . .

Shoulder pressing close to shoulder . . .

Advance the flag of Dixie! . . .

Strong as lions, swift as eagles . . .

Swear upon your country’s altar,

Never to submit or falter . . .

Till the spoilers are defeated,

Till the Lord’s work is completed . . .

Advance the flag of Dixie!1

How full of allusions this was! “To arms!” echoed lines from La Marseillaise of Revolutionary/Napoleonic France. The “beacon-fires” of the ancient world appeared therein; the words of Homer’s Nestor repeated themselves in descriptions of close ranks, “shoulder pressing close to shoulder”; it raised the “swift eagles” of the Roman empire once more to the front. Yet, the emphasis was on the flag and the sacrifice men made in its defense. It urged soldiers to “swear,” and if need be, to die “upon [their] country’s altar” before giving up the “flag of Dixie.” Just as Northerners planned to ravage and to violate the South, so “spoilers” planned to pollute the flag should it fall into their hands. Therefore, Sons of the South, “Advance”! Give the face to your enemy! The flag quickened the blood in Southerners’ collective veins, and caused them to shed blood in its name. The numinous quality of the South’s battle-flag lay in its linkage of two things: the “violent act of killing” to the “vulnerable act of exposing soldiers’ bodies to harm,” much as a Greek hoplite, bare-faced and naked, joined exposure to shield and courage. 2

Innkeeper James William Jackson of Virginia became the first martyr to the Confederate flag-cult. He killed a Yankee officer when the latter stormed his establishment and tried to lower a Confederate flag (that could be seen from Washington). For this deed, Jackson was also shot dead. Thus, one witness claimed later, “a spark was kindled into a flame which raged . . . for four years.” Southern “prophets” predicted that “our flag baptized in blood, Away as with a flood, Shall sweep the tyrant hand Whose foot pollutes our land.”3 What throughout history has “pollution” by way of invaders meant? The despoiling of land, the waste laid to towns and farms, the breaching of the sacred places of public temple and private home, the enslavement of children, and the rape of wives. The old Greek term for city-sacking translated into the phrase: “pierce the veil.” Encompassed within that word-image were all these violations – the ripping of a woman’s dress that protected her virtue, or the tearing of a national flag that represented the virtue of a nation. It was thus a sacred duty for men to defend the honor of their homeland’s standard.

During the Civil War, it was customary for an officer’s wife and her local lady-friends to sew the regimental colors, then participate in highly-charged presentation ceremonies that linked feminine benediction to a complementary masculine valor. A Mississippi orator at one of these functions launched into poetry that explicitly praised this association: “Its every fold shall tell, in terms more eloquent than tongues can speak, of the fair form . . . and bright eyes that followed fingers as they plied every stitch.” When soldiers saw their flag “floating on the breeze,” they would remember that it was “perfumed with the incense of women’s prayers.”4 Such language sounds maudlin to us. Had it been normal times, when sobriety and a restrained kind of kinship with one’s fellow-citizens was enough to hold society together, perhaps Southerners would have thought so, too. But when the South embarked on a war, the scale of which the country had never seen, a more intense set of public emotions was required. Deep feelings associated with domestic/private life expanded outward to encompass the public sphere.

In fact, many women outdid their male relations when it came to flag enthusiasm. Eliza Frances Andrews (Franny), recalled the moment when her family heard announcements that Georgia had voted for secession. “I shall never forget that night!” But as “the people of the village were celebrating the event with bonfires and bell ringing and speech making,” Franny’s father acted as if there’d been a death in the family. He shut himself up in his rooms and “darkened the windows.” Every so often, when a chorus of the shouting sounded through the house’s walls to assail their ears, he would burst out: “Poor fools! They may ring their bells now, but they will wring their hands — yes, and their hearts, too — before they are done with it.” Meanwhile, Franny and her sister “were pouting in a corner.” Their father forbade them from “[going to] see the fun.” Franny herself “had helped to make the [Bonnie Blue] Flag that was waving in honor of the event.” She confessed to having presented it “on the sly,” for if her father ever found out about it, the flag would have soon become “a ‘Conquered Banner,’ or rather a confiscated one . . .” Even when Southern fortunes fell in 1864, Franny lost nothing in spirit, or her spiritual attachment to the “lone star banner.” The town’s liberty pole that had lately flown the colors that she and her sister had “made with [their] own hands,” was removed in advance of the arrival of the Federal Army. ”It was a sad night’s work,” she sighed, “but there was no other way to save it from desecration.”5

We have seen this war religiosity in Spartan prayers before battle, and in the redemption of Roman/Napoleonic Eagles from the “rape” of the enemy. Flag cults had much in common with local god-cults of the ancient world that appeared on hoplites’ shields and war-totems. Desecration meant the stain on men’s honor when their blood-flags were captured and thus besmirched by “foemen.” A stain of this kind could only be removed by more blood-stains suffered in rescuing the colors. A verse that eulogized a soldier who had leapt to pick up the flag that his own brother had died carrying described “The steady colors tossed aloft / Their blood-red trail of light.” As he shouted, “God help me sir — I’ll bear this flag / To victory or death!” a Yankee bullet felled him, too. To those who found his body after the battle, “his face [seemed] still [to wear] / A look resolved and grand.” More importantly, he “held a riddled flag close clutched / Within his shatter’d hand.”6 The doomed flag-bearer had faced death gladly and then gone to Valhalla and his reward. 

Dramatic poetry aside, carrying the colors into battle risked special attention. Even so, men vied for the privilege. Nearby soldiers replaced their fallen flag-bearers on the field almost immediately. At the 1862 battle of Sharpsburg (Antietam), the famed Texas Brigade stormed the equally famous Iron Brigade that had emerged from a copse of woods flanking the Dunker Church. With eerie howls that enemies would call the “Rebel Yell,” the Texans scythed through them, then made their way into a dense, forty-acre cornfield. Amid the morning fog, half dew and half cannon-soot, they had outpaced the rest of the Southern line. On all sides, Yankee gunners fired canister-shot that shrieked through the stalks, and men fell as fast as the corn. Over and over, the colors of the 1st Texas went down, only to rise again above the smoke. Half an hour later, the Texas battle flags tumbled to earth for the last time. No man stood them up, because no man was left standing. When General Lee later asked Brigadier-General John B. Hood where his troops had gone, he answered solemnly, “They are lying on the field.” Of the 226 men of the 1st Texas, 186 had fallen – a stunning eighty-two percent loss. Meanwhile, a Northern private from Pennsylvania had ventured into the cornfield and wrenched the two flags from their carriers’ death-grips. For the next forty years, the state of Texas lobbied for their recovery. Under President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1905 reconciliation initiative, Texan efforts were finally rewarded. The flags remain housed at the Austin State Library and Archives as a testament to the extremes of pain and pride that blood-flags have always inspired in men.

The 1st Texas Infantry state flag, made in part from the wedding dress of a general’s wife, and lost amid the carnage of Sharpsburg in 1862

As readers can see by the above example, soldiers adorned their standards with the names of the engagements where their regiments had been “blooded.” Sometimes, the names were imprinted on strips, then sewn onto the flag. Other times, soldiers with a neat hand painted them directly onto the fabric. This, along with blood-stains and bullet-holes, made flags emblems of valor. They chronicled visible histories illustrated with actual battle scars in the way that wounds would scar a face. They were thus literal standards with which men held themselves accountable for the sake of the dead and the regiment’s hard-earned honor. Should any man lose his nerve, his eyes straying back toward safety, the flag would catch hold of them, like a breeze in its billows, then “turn them one way – towards war.” Even when tattered, the “colors borne by [their] skeleton regiment[s were] sacred . . . to the heart of every man. No one would [have] exchange[d them] for a new flag.” I pace down the lines, one Confederate wrote in the final days of resistance, “I see the marks of shot and shell . . . everything near shows desperate fighting.” And here, with this flag, “I would rather fight it out.”7 The standard embodied the spirit of all its Confederate members, past and present, dead and alive, so that all beneath its colors could endure and ”fight it out.”  

When the last flickers of Southern hope snuffed out, pride remained. The cavalry division of General Joseph Shelby chose July 4, 1865 as the date of its last goodbyes to the “dear old banner.” After several moments of silent prayer, the 500 remaining soldiers placed the flag in the waters of the Rio Grande. Spread wide and floating across the surface, its red color transformed. For a few moments, it became a brilliant shade of scarlet. Then, it grew dark. Weighted down, it sank “slowly and sadly beneath the water.” One man who witnessed this moving burial later wrote: 

No foe shall dare
To lay his hand on our standard there
Its folds were braided by fingers fair
'Tis the emblem now of our deep despair.8

With a mixture of relief and sorrow, he noted that “the emblem” was now beyond the reach of devoted lovers, but also safe from the fouling touch of conquerors. It is a hard thing, when the only victory to be had is destruction, but every army that has carried blood-flags into battle has known that giving one’s enemy the face has meant never surrendering to him the standard.

Generally speaking, most of twentieth and twenty-first-century warfare has been defined by “operations” (sieges, drone strikes, large-scale offensives, stalemates, bombing/missile campaigns, etc.) in which as few faces as possible are ever seen or given, rather than warfare of the classic battle type, yet the ideals of battle have never died. National Socialism (NS) was but one example of a militant movement that harnessed this enduring appeal; it was, however, the most striking, given the its emphasis on the visual. In the traditional tactic of “giving the face,” NS wanted to be seen. Perhaps the most classic “battle” that the Party ever fought was ironically one that didn’t take place during a declared war, but instead happened during the quasi-civil war that raged on the streets of 1920s Germany.

Adolf Hitler’s NSDAP, or Veteran Lobby, was a party for German men for whom the Erster-Weltkrieg had never ended. Yet for all this militarism, the Party had few symbols around which to galvanize, “and also [had] no party flag . . . The disadvantages were chiefly that party members possessed no outward sign of their common bond.” Leader Adolf Hitler knew what emotional power a flag could excite, and he resolved to design a memorable one that might concentrate national feeling. His own memories were suffused with the nostalgia of 1914, the heady beginnings of the Great War. Up and down the boulevards and all across Germany “the lusty cheering of victorious battalions was heard, as they hung the last crowns of the immortal laurel on the banners they consecrated to victory . . . [F]or the last time the Lord smiled on his ungrateful children.” Righting the betrayal, as he saw it, of these “victorious battalions” would be the cause of his life. It was “absolutely unthinkable” that NS remained devoid of a nationalist image to counter the “internationalist threat.9” 

The result was the most infamous and iconic banner of all time. The red, white, and black colors of the Party standard were symbolic in ancient German history, representing the tripartite division of Indo-European societies: black for the commons, red for the warriors, and white for the priest-king. This brand sought to distill the best qualities in Greek, Roman, Napoleonic, and Southern militarism, all of them fellow-descendants of the ancient European tradition. Special parade units bore standards modeled on those of the ancient Roman legions: an eagle, ready for flight, grasped a circular laurel in its talons; underneath hung the labarum, bearing phrases like, Deutschland Erwache!, “Germany Awake!” But like Southern standards, the eagles of the NSDAP took a distant second place to the swastika.

During the Party’s first serious coup attempt in November, 1923 (one of an astonishing number of coup attempts by various Left and Right-wing groups that year), six companies of militia marched down Munich’s main thoroughfare. They thrust ahead of them fifteen flags, while stepping to the music of two bands. Initially, Hitler and his militia met little resistance, but as they neared the city-center, “things got a bit livelier.” At Konigsplatze Square, Hitler “right about-faced . . . [then] gave the signal to clear the streets” of heckling “Reds,” who hurled rocks and broken bottles at them. According to a Party witness, “a crowd of 40 thousand” met them before the government building with an “ovation.” No one “had seen anything like [us] with our formations, flags, and bands for ages.10” In a rare show of backbone, authorities ordered the municipal police to disperse the NS marchers with live shots. In the violent confusion, sixteen NS members were killed, including a standard-bearer. Blood-spray from the fallen apparently stained, and thus sanctified, what was destined to become the most revered relic of the Third Reich: the Blutfahne, or “Blood-flag.”

Following Hitler’s Beer-Hall defeat, it seemed that he and his veteran-brigades had lost the war before it had truly begun. In reality, their gains more than offset their losses. Indeed, the NSDAP had shown Weimar republicanism the face of the future; it now had all the ritual-military trappings necessary to express its members’ vision of German distinctiveness, unity, and momentum. They only needed time to become sophisticated enough to wield their weapons to greatest effect. The state obliged them by sending Hitler and other NS ringleaders to prison and thereby to an enforced philosophical monasticism so they could refine their battle tactics. At every subsequent Party rally – attended by the faithful in their hundreds of thousands – the Blutfahne inspired “lusty cheering” that seemed to converge in one collective voice. Savitri Devi, exhibiting her typical poesy and earnestness, praised the Party’s

blood-red flags bearing the holy Sign . . . 
[they waved through] cathedrals in the gothic style, 
with sculptured spires reaching the sky, 
proclaiming the aspiration of the soul towards the Unattainable. 
And marching past [those places] of another age, . . 
Thy fair and strong Young men . . . in the immortal forms of bygone Grecian gods . . . sang the new hymn of the Strong and Free, . . 
who, ten years before, had died for Thee: 
‘Along all highways . . . will our banners flutter’ . . . 
the holy blood red flags . . . above the glittering helmets, 
above the cadenced March . . .  11

Devi’s description of the Nuremberg spectacles insightfully focused on the Blutfahne, and the sacrifice made “ten years before” during the 1923 battle for Munich. While the Confederacy limited their flag cult to small presentation ceremonies, the NSDAP/Third Reich held national rituals of “untold splendor, lasting days and nights in the warm air of June.” These high holy days culminated in a “consecration of that miraculous awakening” of the German spirit as embodied in the Blutfahne swastika-banner. Because holiness and emotion are more suggestible at night, this consecration took place after sunset. “Untold” numbers of “glittering helmets” caught the torch-light.12 Sixteen cannon shots representing the sixteen “martyrs” boomed in succession. Then, taking the corner of the Blutfahne in hand, Hitler touched it to each new flag brought before him in a transformative, Holy Communion-like rite. The solemn continuity was heightened by the fact that the Blutfahne’s standard-bearer was always the same man – original Party member Jakob Grimminger. There was the distinctiveness of the sacred relic, indicative of the distinctiveness of German blood; there was unity achieved as the special flag made all other banners sacred unto it; there was the peculiar vitality that death imparts to the living, for what is more vital to life than the magic elixir of blood?  

If there are still questions about how National Socialism seized the mass-imagination and inspired scenes of jubilation, look no further than the Blutfahne and its attendant Nuremberg ceremony. Is there a more dramatic example of “giving the [collective] face” to friends and enemies, alike? In Hitler’s words, the blood-flags of Germany gave its people what iconic devices have always given men in battle: “the strength to face a hostile fate and defy the risk of martyrdom” with a “calm, collected determination.”13 It is no accident, readers, that the most revered and hated nations/armies of the past were those that dared – if only for a short time – to give the face to their “foemen,” and to the world. 

The Blutfahne made its final appearance in 1944 at the induction of the Volkssturm, or “People’s Army,” as Germany mustered a final, doomed stand against the Soviet hordes. What became of it afterwards is unknown. I indulge in a romantic hope that it was either destroyed, or secretly hidden by an old diehard, one whose spiritual brothers were the Spartans who came back with their shields; the legionaries who recovered their eagles; the Guardsmen who drank deeply of their emblem’s ashes; the Rebels who gave their flag to the river, instead of giving it up to a conqueror.      

Conclusion

Western battle, the enjoining of citizen-peoples at an appointed place and time to decide The Great Matter, is the essence of dar la cara. We have taken for granted that this method of combat was universal. Not so. It was an innovation peculiar to the Western way of being and acting. Its ethos of collective individualism transformed mobbish raiders and single-champions into soldiers. But they were not the faceless cannon-fodder hordes so prevalent in other parts of the world and sometimes unleashed on the West. Neither were they under the thumb of despots; of an Eastern “King of Kings,” who would glare down at his troops from an imperious throne, and on a whim order his terror-lackeys to execute this timid company, or reward that successful one. In Western battle, every man knew he was an important part of the whole, which was yet greater than himself. Battle elevated the rank-and-file into national armies, and made icon-standards of these armies into the faces of their nations. In turn, these banners raised men to a pitch of heroism that seemed to transcend their mortal limits. Indeed, there was a magic element to battle that was – like all magic – transformative. Blood-flags possessed a sanctity like few other icons on the battlefield. Anything less than undying devotion was sacrilege.   

Of the Battle of Plataea, Herodotus recorded another revealing incident. The warrior Callicrates, “the most beautiful man, not among the Spartans only, but in the whole Greek camp,” did not die facing the invaders. As his commander Pausanias consulted with “his [captured] victims [i.e., Persians]” an arrow struck Callicrates in his side and stuck between his ribs. So, “while his comrades advanced to the fight, he was borne out of the ranks, very loath to die.” Addressing his orderly thus, he grieved that he had “not lifted [his] arm against the enemy, nor done any deed worthy” of his country. The regret wasn’t that he lay dying, but that his wound had reduced Callicrates to being a single-warrior, stranded and left behind. How fate had cursed him! No doubt he sought individual renown (“I have desired to achieve something”), but it was a special renown that the Greeks called a “beautiful death” – an accomplishment earned only in the presence of their fellow-countrymen. Yes, the extraordinarily beautiful Callicrates mourned himself not among the masses and standing “in his proper place in . . . line.” His entire life had been a preparation for this moment and this glorious battle. And now? Now the pain of a broken heart overwhelmed the pain from his mortal wound. Never would Callicrates die while fighting “shield to shield” with his comrades and face-to-face with their foemen.14 That was the Greek tragedy. 

Don Troiani, Forward the Colors, 1864 (1994); a Yankee remarked of General John B. Hood’s assault at the Battle of Franklin: it “was a living wall of men and glistening steel . . . magnificent discipline amid the hurricane of fire as they continued to advance in a solid body . . . just as if advancing against a hailstorm.” It was the kind of “giving the face” fighting, wholly gallant and half-crazy, that defined Western battle from the Greeks to the Southrons.
  1. Albert Pike, “Dixie,” in War Songs and Poems of the Southern Confederacy, “An Ex-Confederate,” ed. (Edison, NJ.: Castle Books, 2000), 29-30. ↩︎
  2. Robert E. Bonner, Colors & Blood: Flag Passions of the Confederate South (Princeton, NJ.: Princeton University Press, 2002), 67. 
    ↩︎
  3. J. Wright Simmons, “The Martyr of Alexandria,” New Orleans Crescent 1862.
    ↩︎
  4. Quoted from the Marshall Texas Republican, December 21, 1861. ↩︎
  5. Eliza Frances Andrews, The War-Time Journal of a Georgia Girl (Macon, Ga. 1960), 30–34. ↩︎
  6. Margaret Junkin Preston, “The Color Bearer,” in W. Gordon McCabe, Ballads of Battle and Bravery (New York: Harper, 1879), 143-46. ↩︎
  7. George D. Harmon, ed., “Letters of Luther Rice Mills — A Confederate Soldier,” North Carolina Historical Review, vol. 4 (July 1927), 303. ↩︎
  8. John N. Edwards, Shelby and His Men; Or, the War in the West (Cincinnati, Ohio: Miami Printing, 1867), 546-51. ↩︎
  9. Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, Andrew Dalton, trans. (Redpill Action Publications, 2021), 547, 256-257. ↩︎
  10. Heinz A. Heinz, Germany’s Hitler (London: Hurst & Blackett, Lmt., 1934), 149 -157; told as “Gottfried Schmitt’s Story,” a first-hand account of the Putsch. ↩︎
  11. Savitri Devi, Forever and Ever: Devotional Poems, R. G. Fowler, ed. (Counter-Currents Publishing, 2021), poem VII. ↩︎
  12. Ibid, poems VII and IX. ↩︎
  13. Hitler, 198. ↩︎
  14. Herodotus, 9.72. ↩︎

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It warms my heart to see the Rebel Flag in this article. Southerners today can’t fly it out in the open, but we all remember it. Some think fondly of flying it when they were young.

General Hood was gallant but some people say West Pointers like him unknowingly played right into the hands of the Yankees. The Yankees had a total population of about 18 million Whites with only about 500,000 blacks. The Confederates only had about 6 million Whites total population and a whopping 3 million blacks. The Yankees had blood to spare and didn’t shy away from targeting the civilian infrastructure, grain production, and turning the blacks loose. Those tactics are right in line with a West Pointer. The Yankees didn’t have to grow up with them or deal with them after the war. West Pointers are great with a near unlimited supply of troops and resupply. General Hood’s men never broke. Their lines were never routed. Great men indeed. Yankee lines were broke and routed frequently. Nevertheless, everyone knows how the war came out.

General Nathan Bedford Forrest was not a West Pointer 🙂

https://radicaldose.com/nathan-bedford-forrest/

Here’s a great article about General Hood by Asa Carter
https://radicaldose.com/the-life-of-gallant-hood/

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