In September 1861, the first Confederate battle flag was approved in Fairfax, Virginia. One year earlier, a liberty pole supporting Abraham Lincoln was chopped to pieces in Occoquan, Virginia. We need a new liberty pole.
A historical marker in Fairfax says, “During the First Battle of Manassas, amid the smoke of combat, troops found it difficult to distinguish between Union and Confederate flags.” The solution? Three top Confederate officers met in Fairfax and “approved the first Confederate battle flag: a square red flag with blue diagonally crossed bars, and 12 stars.”
Since that time, the Confederate battle flag has been associated with white supremacy.
Southern historian Gordon Rhea wrote in 2011 that “it is no accident that Confederate symbols have been the mainstay of white supremacist organizations, from the Ku Klux Klan to the skinheads. They did not appropriate the Confederate battle flag simply because it was pretty. They picked it because it was the flag of a nation dedicated to their ideals: ‘that the negro is not equal to the white man’” — a quotation from the 1861 Cornerstone Speech of Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens.
In recent years, the Confederate flag has been removed from many public places including the South Carolina State Capitol. Following the George Floyd shooting, NASCAR banned the flag from races. The Commandant of the United States Marine Corps has ordered the removal of all Confederate-related items from bases around the world.
Clearly, it is time to raise a new flag. But what should it look like?
In my novel City of Peace, a Methodist pastor named Harley Camden is assigned to a church in Occoquan, fourteen miles south of Fairfax. The first person he meets is the town maintenance man, Tim Underwood.
“So, you’ve been here a long time?” asks Harley.
“Oh yeah, my family and I, we go back a long way in Occoquan. My last name is Underwood. I’m a direct descendent of John Underwood.”
Harley nods, but has no idea who John Underwood is.
“You know, Underwood the traitor.”
Harley nods again, trying to mask his ignorance.
“You might not know it, but Occoquan was an abolitionist stronghold during the Civil War,” says Tim.
“My ancestor John was arrested for his antislavery views,” he continues. “In the 1860 presidential election, Abraham Lincoln received only fifty-five votes from all of Prince William County. Only fifty-five votes! They all came from Occoquan.”
“Huh,” says Harley. Perhaps Occoquan isn’t as musty as it seems.
“Yeah, John was quite a rabble-rouser,” says Tim with a grin. “On the Fourth of July in the year 1860, a group of Occoquan Republicans raised a liberty pole in front of Rockledge Mansion. You’ve seen the mansion, haven’t you?”
“No, I just arrived. I’ve only seen the church.”
“Well, you’ll see it soon enough,” says Tim. He points and says, “It’s just over there, across from the ruins of the mill. Anyway, the liberty pole had Abraham Lincoln’s campaign banner on it, as well as the American flag.”
“That must have been quite a statement, being in the South and all.”
“You’re telling me,” Tim says. “Later that month, the Prince William militia rode into Occoquan. They were coming from Brentsville, the county seat. They chopped down the liberty pole and took the flags and pole pieces to Brentsville. The story even made The New York Times!”
“Interesting,” replies Harley, although he can’t help but think that the pole-chopping was probably Occoquan’s first—and only—fifteen minutes of fame.
Today, we need a new liberty pole.
Like the smoke of combat in the Civil War, the tear-gas used in recent protests for racial justice prevents us from seeing clearly. We look at people in the streets and cannot always figure out what is going on. We need a new liberty pole, one that carries a banner of justice, equality, and the biblical truth that all people are made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26).
But what should such a banner look like? Join the conversation through a comment below, and tweet images of your banner ideas #newlibertypole