A long time ago, in a country far, far away, my great-great-grandfather fought in a war of independence. Not for the United States, but, rather, for the Confederate States of America. His name was Harris Levin, and he served in Company L, 2nd Virginia Reserves, which saw limited action in and around defense lines in Richmond, Virginia, in 1864. Our family has always been proud of Levin’s service, and my grandfather’s autobiography opens with stories heard at the knee of his grandmother — tales recounting the battlefield courage of CSA soldiers and the rough times faced in old Virginia when the Confederacy collapsed.

I note this personal history because I now live in Maine. And the odd Confederate nostalgia that’s popping up here in northern Maine surprises me. I neither wave the Stars and Bars nor revere “The Lost Cause.” In fact, it’s just the opposite. I’m proud that Maine supplied so many soldiers and heroes — like Joshua Chamberlain — to cleanse the stain of slavery from the nation and fulfill the promise of equality enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.

The fact that so many Mainers now fly the Stars and Bars, which represents rebellion against the United States of America and its ideals, and that so many Mainers and people with Maine roots were apparently involved in the recent racist demonstrations in Charlottesville, indicates something’s apparently gone wrong in our classrooms, in our society and even our homes.

History matters. We live with its legacy every day. And if we fail to honestly and candidly address historical issues — with our families and in public discussion — we’re doomed to ignorance and the misunderstanding and violence that inevitably result.

In my family, the question of slavery and the Confederacy came up when my boys were in elementary school and first studied the Civil War. When I was a child, my great-great-grandfather’s military service constituted a legacy to celebrate. My mother was enrolled as a “Daughter of the Confederacy” at a young age, and the Levin family line has been traced back to “Light-Horse Harry” Lee of Revolutionary War fame. But Levin’s biggest influence was on my grandfather, who so enjoyed hearing those Civil War stories that in 1917 he dropped out of Columbia Law School to fight in World War I. He’d seen a poster on a bus in New York City proclaiming the Marines as “First to Fight,” so he impetuously rushed down to Times Square, enlisted and was shipped out.

He survived a massacre in Belleau Wood, when German gas killed all but 11 of the 200 men in his unit. Simply by surviving, he made sergeant. From then on Mel Krulewitch dedicated his life to the Marine Corps, retiring a major general in the 1950s after some horrific and hair-raising experiences on Saipan, Kwajalein and Iwo Jima and even in Korea.


My two sons know our family’s military history. But the older one once asked, when he was little, why Harris Levin fought against the United States. Did he own slaves? (No.) Did he hate Abraham Lincoln? (I have no idea.) I tried to explain it as basically as I could in a way that dishonors neither Levin nor the United States of America. I told him simply that our relative “fought for the wrong side.”

And therein lies the issue. I would argue that any general celebration — or even representation — of Confederate heritage demands an honest and candid conclusion about the full meaning of Confederate service. Flying a Confederate flag in Maine doesn’t simply celebrate a romantic rebellion, or express pride in one’s race or family. It represents the greatest tragedy in American history, when too many misguided and misled citizens unfortunately fought to break apart this great nation and reject its revolutionary ideals. Though my relatives fought for the South, I’m thankful so many courageous Mainers in the 1860s enlisted — and died — to reconstitute the Union. Flying the Confederate flag up here dishonors their service and insults their memory.

In Maine, we should replace the Stars and Bars with the Stars and Stripes. If voters up here in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District want to make American great again, they should at least know this nation’s history.

Michael J. Socolow, author of “Six Minutes in Berlin: Broadcast Spectacle and Rowing Gold at the Nazi Olympics,” teaches in the Department of Communication and Journalism at the University of Maine.

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