Are you flying your flag today?
Today, June 14 is flag day. It is a day set aside to honor our national standard and what it represents. The many millions who have fought under the stars and stripes need not be reminded of why it's important to honor the flag. And for the rest of us, there is that longing that the flag fulfills: it allows us to belong to something greater than ourselves.
Back in 2006, I wrote about a color bearer for the Union army during the Civil War, Sgt. Benjamin Crippin, who has been memorialized for his courage on the first day of the battle of Gettysburg:
It was the first day at the Battle of Gettysburg and things were not going well for Abe Lincoln's boys in blue. Robert E. Lee's Johnny Rebs had arrived on the battlefield almost behind General Oliver Otis Howard's 11th Corps which panicked the "Dutchmen" and sent them flying towards the town of Gettysburg.
This left General John Reynold's 1st Corps all alone to face most of the Confederate Army. Surrounded on three sides, the "Black Hats" were taking a terrible beating. In the 143rd Pennsylvania, the color bearer, Sergeant Benjamin Crippin stood in full view of the enemy, waving the flag vigorously, trying to rally the troops to hold their ground and keep fighting.
But the inexorable logic of superior numbers ground down Reynold's men and eventually, they too broke and ran. As they retreated, Sergeant Crippin, still carrying the flag which now featured 23 bullet holes shredding the precious fabric, turned toward the enemy and in an act of defiance memorialized in legend and statue, shook his fist at the oncoming Rebels, daring his foes to take the flag from him. It is reported he did this several times, even eliciting sympathy from General Ambrose Hill when his troops, enraged at the taunting figure, shot him down in a hail of bullets.
There was no more deadly job in the Union Army than color bearer - and none more honored. Carrying the flag into battle made one an instant target, the enemy believing quite correctly that killing the color bearer would sap the will to fight in their opponents. It became a point of honor for a regiment that if the standard bearer fell, another would immediately pick the fallen flag off the ground and take his place. There was a reverence for the flag then, a feeling of personal responsibility for upholding what it represented. It was a tangible way for these men to express something inexpressible that lived in their breasts and enabled them to march into almost certain death and remain while their comrades fell around them. The flag gave them courage while reminding them of what they were fighting for.
What is it about the flag that brings to the surface such overpowering emotion and devotion? Grown men weep at its passing. And thank God there are still men and women willing to die protecting what it represents. But as a symbol, why does it take up such a large corner of our hearts?
There are so few things that actually unite Americans in a traditional sense that make us a nation. Other countries have hundreds even thousands of years of cultural touchstones and myth that are almost hard wired into their brains to make them a "nation." The United States on the other hand, is too young for myth making. Instant legends like Davey Crockett or George Custer exist alongside their more unattractive and definitely human historical selves, taking the luster off some of their accomplishments. And other symbols of nationhood found elsewhere like castles or palaces or ancient battlefields are absent here.
For Americans, it is in the flag that we infuse all of our feelings of love and respect for country, for home, for each other. Each of us are reminded of something different as the flag passes. This is what makes it a personal icon, a talisman to be touched and stroked so that the longing in our hearts to belong to something greater than ourselves is fulfilled. The flag is home. And no matter where home might be, we, the most mobile of modern societies, carrying that feeling of home with us in our travels, see the flag as an anchor, a permanent standard representing all the good and decent things in ourselves and our country.
Please honor the flag by thinking about those who have fought and died for it, as well as what our national symbol represents.