Unexpectedly, A Confederate Flag

Being somewhat of a nature and wildlife photographer and in the general area, I decided to visit the Point Lookout State Park in Southern Maryland. For those not acquainted, this is a remote location where the Potomac River joins the Chesapeake Bay. It was a clear and windy day, and very peaceful. A very few sightseers were around, but mostly I had the place to myself. I did see a variety of wildlife: bald eagles, brown pelicans, ospreys, great blue herons, swans, and assorted ducks and seagulls. I had come to Point Lookout innocently, unaware of the dark history of the area. But history overtook me.

Point Lookout Marker
Point Lookout Marker

Almost immediately I noticed markers telling that a Civil War prison had been located here. The Union had established it after the Battle of Gettysburg, and it had housed more than 50,000 Confederate soldiers and Confederate-leaning citizens of Maryland. Some 4,000 had died and were buried here (the number is approximate because no accurate records were kept). There are no individually marked graves of these dead; all are buried in a common mass grave. 

No prisoner of war camp has ever been a happy place. The prison at Point Lookout had no buildings for the prisoners, only military tents. Summers were hot and winters were cold. Water was contaminated and diseases were frequent. Food was scarce and poor in quality. It should be understood that neither the Union or the Confederacy was adequately prepared to handle prisoners of war, and that conditions on both sides were disgraceful. It is believed that 26,000 Confederates died in Union prisons, representing 12% of all captured. And some 15% of Union soldiers died in Confederate prisons. Clearly neither side has anything to be proud of. More information can be found here.

US Cemetery Monument
US Cemetery Monument

A cemetery for these Confederate dead is maintained at Point Lookout by the National Cemetery Administration of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Although called a cemetery, it is actually just a mass grave location; there are no tombstones or individually marked graves. The site is marked by an impressive 80-foot-tall monument with bronze tablets containing the names of those known to be buried here. There are 3,382 names.

The American flag flies here, although none of the soldiers buried here fought under this flag. The soldiers buried here (all of the Union soldiers’ remains were moved to Arlington Memorial cemetery) fought against that flag. So the business of flags at Point Lookout is something of a paradox.

None of this history was in my head when I first noticed the other memorial.  The other memorial also honors the Confederate dead and proudly flies their battle flag. I slowed the car and did a double-take (also popularly known as a WTF). Driving around in Maryland and Virginia you do notice the occasional Confederate flag displayed in someone’s yard or in the back window of a pickup truck. But this was much more than a yard display. This was a large memorial area with the Confederate flag flying uppermost, surrounded by flags of the 13 states of the Confederacy. There is not an American flag in sight. And this is not South Carolina or Mississippi, this is in my own home state of Maryland. 

Confederate Memorial at Point Lookout
Confederate Memorial at Point Lookout

Then I discovered that although some trees separate the areas, the Confederate memorial is located right beside the Government memorial. So, in a sense, we have dueling memorials here. 

The Confederate memorial is on private land and operated by a private group known as the Point Lookout Prisoners-of-War Descendants Organization. The group tried unsuccessfully to have the Confederate flag flown at the adjoining Government memorial. In walking around and reading the plaques, I gathered that as in much of American life these days, the issues of the Civil War still live on. Lincoln famously said that a house divided against itself cannot stand, but America still manages to stand even as our divisions seemingly increase. 

The issue of soldier burials in any war is a potent one, but especially so in a civil war. The American civil war began with no plan for soldier buriels on either side. In 1864, a Confederate private from Virginia wrote a letter to his father as follows: “Dear Father. This is my last letter to you. I have been struck by a piece of shell and my right shoulder is horribly mangled and I know death is inevitable. I am very weak but I write to you because I know you would be delighted to read a word from your dying son. I know death is near, that I will die far from home and friends of my early youth but I have friends here too who are kind to me. My friend Fairfax will write you at my request and give you the particulars of my death. My grave will be marked so that you may visit it if you desire to do so. It is optionary with you whether you let my remains rest here or in Mississippi. I would like to rest in the graveyard with my dear mother and brothers but it’s a matter of minor importance. Give my love to all my friends. My strength fails me. My horse and my equipments will be left for you. Again, a long farewell to you. May we meet in heaven. Your dying son, J. R. Montgomery,

This letter is read in a PBS “American Experience” episode titled “Death and the Civil War.” It illustrates the fact that if dead bodies were buried and graves marked, it was done by friends or relatives or fellow soldiers or by volunteers. Private Montgomery had made his own arrangements, but most soldiers could not. After the war, the Union launched an effort to identify the remains and mark the graves of Union soldiers. But although the war had officially ended, the effort did not include Confederate graves. Southerners interpreted this as revenge and retribution, not a promising step toward national reunification. It is estimated that about half of the 750,000 Civil War dead were never identified.

I did not come to Point Lookout to get involved in all of this. It was like walking along and tripping over something you didn’t know was there. 

8 thoughts on “Unexpectedly, A Confederate Flag”

  1. Here in Asheville, the last two issues of "Mountain Xpress" (a weekly independent news magazine about arts and events in Western North Carolina) feature opposing views with regard to the historic Zebulon Vance monument, a tall granite-block obelisk at the center of Pack Square. In a letter to the editor for the March 30 – April 5 issue, a writer directs her objections to local politicians "who promote or turn a blind eye to racist policies and places…not remembered fondly in history. So, my question for you politicians today is: How do you think you will be remembered? Will your service be noted by your inaction to remove the name of the horrific slave owner ([Zebulon] Vance) from the monument at the center of our town? Or will it be noted for creating a more inclusive tone in the heart of our city by renaming the monument for someone more deserving?" In declaring her basis for suggesting such action, the writer noted that other cities "are removing Confederate symbology and monuments." Vance was descended from a local pioneer family of means and was governor of North Carolina at the time the state seceded from the Union (the last one to do so). "Let's not waste any more time," wrote the letterwriter, "Asheville needs to join them, now."

    In a response that appeared in the following issue for April 13 – April 19, the author of an opposing view suggested that the writer of the letter noted above "sounds like that of the ISIS gang in the Mideast." The terror organization, noted the responder "has destroyed many precious archaeological sites because they disapprove of anything and anybody who disagrees with them…. Does she want the scultpures of Washington and Jefferson blasted off the face of Mount Rushmore?" As the basis for his opinion, the responder suggested that history "should be left alone to be understood and appreciated. It should not be a matter of current approval."

    I recall a comment made for a recent BBC documentary about the English castles of Ireland, a remark from a local official who suggested that some of her fellow citizens had at one time wanted all the castles destroyed and removed from view as a means of erasing the ugly past: when the English Crown dominated the whole of Ireland. But now, she insisted, we (meaning those authorities who promote tourism for the country) want to maintain them and prevent their deterioration because it informs us of our past and reminds us of the progress made by patriots who achieved independence against a foreign invader.

    Larry's comment encourages this discussion and brings to mind that Ed and I share great-grandparents (or so the record thus far indicates it to be so) with the first president of the Virginia Abolionist Society (elected to that post in 1795), a former slave-holder from a Virginia family of Quakers who freed his many slaves and hired them to stay on to work for his tobacco enterprise. I have transcripts of letters he wrote to Washinton, Jefferson and Patrick Henry in which he reasons that manumission legislation should be enacted to end slavery in the commonwealth. But he was but one of many such planters who freed their slaves decades before the Civil War.

    It is one of those paradoxes Ed has introduced, a strange matter to me that such facts of history are omitted from popular accounts.

  2. Fine discussion above, covers a lot of bases.  I had GGF on my mothers side who went on Sherman's March to the Sea. My fathers side were Amish/Mennonites, among the first to settle the Black Swamp 

    of NW Ohio, 1835. There were Underground Railroad positons there at Civil War times.

    Larry in NH

  3. Ed, the comments expressed above are varied for obvious reasons, and your sensitivity to the fact that freedom of thought and expression are fundamental to the story places the discussion in a hopeful context: these freedoms, in my view, are paramount to a shared sense of liberty and to an evolving sense of what it means to be human (issues as relevant today as they were then, to the sentiments of General Grant). The evolving scholarship about that senseless conflict inform us that the true causes for the war were greed and politics: competing interests over improved technological capacity and output and the control of resources that fed into the economics of growth. The issue of slavery was already a matter of moral concern in all corners of the West: Great Britain had outlawed the practice decades earlier. Basically, the struggle for freedom of thought and expression continues to this very moment in the war at large against terror and competing ideologies between East and West…and in the current struggle at home over matters of inequality relative to the basic right to healthcare and a living wage, and the relevancy of a democratic society to control its own destiny in the face of a threat for control by the financial elities of the World. Just yesterday, I came across a quote attributed to the nineteenth-century railroad magnate, Jay Gould: "I can hire one-half of the working class to kill the other half." In my view, it is important that ordinary Americans continue to discuss the sensitive issues that remain over points-of-view about the War Between the States. I also believe there are still those "elities" who would love to get one half of the working class to fight the other half. When ordinary folk are at war with each other, the folk at the top can hide behind the smoke and go on with their game for control, and do so with impunity. 

  4. Thank you, Ed. I like your thoughts in response to Pedro, but I might not have thought them on my own. What will stick with me from your initial comments is that the Northerners deeply offended the Southerners in not trying to identify etc. and bury properly the Confederate dead. That war was the stimulus on both sides for figuring out how to do this, keep decent records, e. g. There is so much more to say and do. All this is heartbreaking. I guess I have to say I'm glad there's that memorial with all those flags. I had ancestors on both sides. Nana

  5. Pedro, I also have mixed feelings about Confederate memorials. At first, on seeing the one at Point Lookout, I was somewhat outraged. I would wish that their private memorial might have included more of the spirit and wisdom in the Grant words you have shared. But I also, on more reflection, am pulled toward the American ideal of freedom of thought and expression. The struggle has much to do with that, and I often have to lecture myself about respecting those rights and freedoms in others with whom I disagree. It does get complicated. Best to you, my friend.

  6. Pedro Saavedra


    I am both a Civil War buff and the husband of a descendant of men who fought on both sides. I recently wrote,  but did not send this letter to the editor, which reflects my views on the controversy:

    While I totally support removing the Confederate flag to appropriate museums, I am ambivalent about memorials to Confederate soldiers.  Remembering Appomatox, Ulysses Grant wrote, "I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse."  I believe that placing an inscription with the words of General Grant by a Confederate memorial would place that memorial in context and reflect the sentiments many in our community have towards the matter. 

  7. Ed, Thank you for sharing this sad and tragic story. I am moved to respond by suggesting that had the private been from the Union, it would have been equally sad and tragic: broken hearts were endured by civilians on both sides of this senseless conflict, a civil war brought upon ordinary folk across the country by the elites from North and South…by them and their political operatives in the state houses at state capitols, and especially in the nation's capitol.

    I heard it said recently that less than two percent of the Southern population were slave-holding citizens. And it was in Ken Burns' history of the civil war (if I recall correctly) that the fact was given about how as many as 40 percent of free African-American landholders in Maryland at the time were slave-holding entrepreneurs.

    In my view, the divisions that continue to this day are held in place by ignorance in both the North and the South. The truth behind so many dramatic episodes of the conflict remain hidden or subdued, and it is this lack of sensitivity that causes old wounds to fester. As a Southern Highlander from the Blue Ridge whose family extends far into the past, all the way back to the very beginning of this nation, I am sensitive to the sad fact that my dear ancestors were left to endure hardship over matters that had little to do with their isolated lives. They were among the 98 percent in the South who were not slave-holding American citizens. The more I learn about these distant lives, the more grateful I become that our ancestors were hard-working, decent folk who probably wanted nothing more but to be left in peace, to mange their lives through honest work and good fellowship with dear neighbors.

    Thank you, again, Ed, for writing about this moving experience and observation.


    1. Thanks for sharing these thoughts and also for your recent contributed article. 

      In researching about Civil War prison camps, I was surprised to find that the death rate in Union and Confederate camps was not much different. There is a popular conception that southern camps were greatly more inhumane than northern ones. This was not the case. The sad fact, of course, is that all were sorely lacking on both sides.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top