- A photographer named Saul Loeb captured an image of a man carrying a large Confederate battle flag during the pro-Trump riot inside the US Capitol on Wednesday.
- Though the Confederate battle flag originated during the US Civil War, it never entered the Capitol during that time.
- Behind the man in the photo, two portraits reflect the fractured nation of the country during the 1860s.
- To the man’s right is a portrait of Charles Sumner, an abolitionist. To his left is a portrait of John C. Calhoun, a defender of slavery.
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As rioters stormed the US Capitol on Wednesday, a photographer named Saul Loeb managed to encapsulate the siege’s dark historical context in a single image. His photo shows a man waving a Confederate battle flag in front of two portraits of Civil War-era figures in the Capitol building.
To the man’s right is a portrait of Charles Sumner, a Massachusetts senator who protested slavery. To his left is a portrait of John C. Calhoun, the seventh US vice president, who was a staunch defender of slavery and heavily influenced the ideology that ultimately led to the South’s secession.
The proximity of the two portraits calls to mind the fractured nature of US civil society in the 1860s â€” and the recent cleft that has widened in the lead-up and response to the 2020 election.
“What I find fascinating about that juxtaposition is its connections to violence, because of course [Sumner] was a victim of violence in the Capitol when he was attacked for having had made a speech critical of slavery,” Judith Giesberg, a Civil War historian at Villanova University, told Business Insider. “What that image should remind us of is that there’s a history of having violent political confrontations in Congress.”
Congress met Wednesday for a joint session to certify the electoral-vote count. At about the same time, thousands of supporters of President Donald Trump gathered in Washington, DC, to protest the certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s victory.
Trump urged his supporters to head to the Capitol, and with Congress in session rioters stormed the Capitol, forcing the House and the Senate to abruptly enter recess. Lawmakers, Hill staffers, and reporters took shelter in their offices before being evacuated. Trespassers sat in Vice President Mike Pence’s chair in the Senate chamber, vandalised congressional offices, and stole items from the building.
Multiple police officers were injured in the violence, and a woman was fatally shot in an altercation with law enforcement, MSNBC’s Pete Williams reported. Finally, shortly after 5:30 p.m. local time, the House of Representatives’ sergeant at arms announced the Capitol had been secured. A 6 p.m. curfew was established for Washington.
The photo’s historical significance
The Confederate battle flag originated during the Civil War for the pro-slavery secessionists, but historians say its significance as a political symbol emerged in the 20th century as a sign of resistance to racial integration. During the entire Civil War, from 1861 to 1865, the flag never entered the US Capitol.
“The flag’s significance during the Civil War has been grossly overstated,” Giesberg said. “We have projected our experiences backward.”
A January 2020 YouGov poll found that a plurality of Americans had come to view the Confederate flag as representing racism in general. It’s been a common sight, however, at rallies for Trump, who has defended people’s decisions to fly the flag in public.
Giesberg said there’s a deep irony behind the man carrying the Confederate flag in front of Sumner’s portrait.
“It’s striking to see [Sumner] juxtaposed with this person who represents what he most was offended by and what he stood against,” she said.
All the more ironic, she added, was the proximity of Calhoun’s portrait as well.
“Calhoun is perfect in this way, in so many ways, because this is a man who was no stranger to treason,” Giesberg said. “He had done more probably than anybody else in the country to rehearse the events that would lead to secession, starting in November of 1860.”
In July, the House voted to approve legislation to remove statues of Confederate figures and others such as Calhoun, who died before the South actually seceded, from the Capitol.
The decision was in part a continuation of Sumner’s legacy. In 1865, the abolitionist proposed that paintings hanging in the Capitol shouldn’t portray scenes from the Civil War. In particular, he objected to a bust of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, who ruled in 1857 that Black Americans could not be considered citizens.
Sumner “was certainly a vocal and resolute abolitionist,” Giesberg said. “He was uncompromising in his critique of slavery and for that he paid, ultimately, a very heavy price.”