Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Grover Cleveland and the Confederate Flag Controversy

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

With all the whoop-dee-do about Confederate flags these days I thought I might revisit an episode in the flag saga writ large. No, we are not dealing with Rebel flags flying above statehouses in the South, or kids wearing Confederate t-shirts to school.

This story has to do with the president of the United States returning captured Confederate battle flags to their previous owners - former Rebels who many considered traitors. Here's a snippet from my upcoming book on Civil War veterans regarding this troubling affair:

The plan, spearheaded in 1887 by President Grover Cleveland, the only Democrat elected to the White House between Lincoln’s election in 1860 and the election of Virginia-born Woodrow Wilson in 1912, suggested a reconciliatory gesture on the part of the federal government. Cleveland was already at odds with Union veterans – especially with the comrades of the GAR. Having avoided military service by purchasing a substitute – a Polish immigrant named George Brinski – Cleveland spent the war years practicing law safely in Buffalo, New York. This did not sit well with veterans who had faced death on the battlefield. Further, suspecting corruption within the veterans’ pension lobby, Cleveland vetoed a number of allegedly dubious pension bills, actions that did not win him support from the veterans of the GAR, MOLLUS or any other Union veterans’ organizations.

But nothing rankled the veterans more than Cleveland’s proposal to return Rebel flags to the South. Members of the GAR, including Commander-in-Chief Lucius Fairchild, turned vicious. Cleveland even received threats of physical violence. In June 1887 a group of Ohioan veterans resolved that the order to return Confederate flags was “a Dastard outrage and Disgrace to all Patriotic American citizens.” Although Cleveland eventually reconsidered his plans, he could not turn back the clock. Quite possibly, considering the narrow election results in 1888 and the number of voting GAR comrades, Cleveland’s actions in this regard might have cost him reelection.

Any indications that Confederate flags, considered treasonous emblems by many Union veterans, would be returned to southern states fueled bitter opposition. A few disparaged the flags’ very existence. One Union veteran even suggested destroying the treasonous banners. “I confess a regret that we did not burn them up 40 years ago,” he lamented, “They are about as valuable as confederate money.” Early in the twentieth century, when President Theodore Roosevelt and reconciliationist members of Congress once again proposed reuniting former Confederates with their captured colors, GAR men and other veterans fired away with bitter rancor. One collection of post minutes suggest discussions in unanimous agreement concerning what many considered no less than a diabolical scheme to honor treason. Reporting on an address given to Brooklyn Post, 233, Department of New York, by department commander Alan C. Baker, the post recording officer noted in March 1905 that the congressional bill supporting the return of Confederate flags “was in every way a most reprehensible thing to carry out.” For an organization where “No discussion or controversy of partisan political character, or of nature to impair harmony [was] permitted,” veterans took a decidedly partisan stance.

So, as you can see...the whole flag controversy thing has been around for quite a while. And I don't see it going anywhere soon.




  1. I'm curious as to whether you were able to examine the National Tribune in your research. Until this year it's been maddeningly difficult to peruse unless one lived near the Library of Congress or one of the few other large libraries that had copies. The LoC recently digitized most of the issues. I don't recall seeing anything directly relating to the flag controversy (although I wasn't looking) but there were a number of scornful references to stay-at-home Cleveland.

  2. Sorry it has taken me so long to reply, Will. But yes - I have looked at the National Tribune...at the Library of Congress, no less. At the time I was not researching the flag controversy, but I am most certain that there are mentions of it. I would have to roll back through the issues to the pertinent dates and see. But like you said - the Union vets did not pull punches when it came to Cleveland...or their southern enemies.
    I am happy to hear that it has been digitized. Once upon a time, I thought of compiling a critical index to the paper. Maybe now is the time to reconsider! What a useful tool that would be, yes?

  3. [...] and policies…particularly his purchase of a substitute during the war and his efforts to return captured Confederate [...]