Battle over the Flag

Published:June 25, 2015 by Brendan Wolfe


I posted Encyclopedia Virginia‘s entry on the Confederate battle flag to Facebook this week. In the wake of the massacre in Charleston, during which a white killer declared his hatred for African Americans, and after pictures surfaced of him brandishing the flag, lots of pundits think we’re at a watershed moment where symbols of the Confederacy are concerned. My Facebook friends are certainly part of this debate.

Commenting on my link, one wrote, “Actually don’t care. Not interested in the finer points of Nazi flagdom, either.”

Aside from being aggressively unpleasant, this comment misses the point. In order to fully participate in the debate—in order to have the authority, say, to compare the battle flag to a swastika—one needs to know its history. And that history can’t be reduced to “the finer points.” Where the Confederate battle flag is concerned, it’s a long and very complex history, full of irony and, yes, controversy.

The original design of the flag, for instance, was rejected by the very nation it has come to so viscerally represent. Only when army generals asked for a flag that was not so confusingly Stars and Stripes–ish did they claim as their own what became known as the battle flag. It was later appropriated by the Ku Klux Klan and, through Gone with the Wind, popular culture. By the 1950s and ’60s it had become a symbol of racially motivated violence and resistance to integration and civil rights.

At the same time, for many whites the battle flag also came to symbolize the Old South, the valor of Confederate soldiers, and what many refer to, a little vaguely, as “heritage.” As in “heritage not hate.” Perhaps my Facebook friend already knows this history well, but not everyone does.

Take even the revered historian Shelby Foote. In Tony Horwitz’s wonderful book Confederates in the Attic (1998), Foote defends the battle flag by arguing, rightly, that it was not a national flag. It was a combat standard, not a political symbol. “It stood for law, honor, love of country,” he said.

The problem with this understanding of history—and therefore of the battle flag—can be found in those words “law, honor, love of country.” The law of the Confederate States, indeed the very foundation of the country, was predicated on protecting slavery. To think, as Foote did, that it took the KKK’s “misuse” of the flag to transform it into an objectionable symbol is to be willfully blind to what the Confederacy was.

Confederate vice president Alexander H. Stephens did not pussy-foot around this. In a speech in Savannah, Georgia, delivered on March 21, 1861, he reckoned slavery to be “the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution,” and declared that “Our new government is founded … upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition.”

In Virginia’s Ordinance of Secession, the authors complained of how the federal government had perverted its powers in order to oppress “the Southern slaveholding States.” And yet when the federal government had used its powers to enforce the logic of slavery—through its various fugitive slave laws, for instance—states’ rights advocates hardly complained.

In this interview from our colleagues at BackStory, the historian Ed Ayers talks with a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans who attempts to circumvent the historical reality of slavery by claiming that blacks fought for both sides during the Civil War. Our entry on black Confederates argues what most historians have long accepted—that this is a myth.

In the meantime, read the depositions of Benjamin Summers for an example of a more typical wartime experience for African Americans. Summers was a free black man in Portsmouth who, as part of making a postwar claim for lost property, told the story of being kidnapped by Confederate soldiers in 1861 or ’62 and “made to work on the earth works with Ball & chain on my legs.” After two months, he attempted to escape. “I was given 500 lashes and then rubbed down with salt brine,” he said, at which point the government official taking his testimony made a note: “Claimant has shown me a fearful looking body where he has been whipped, his hips looking as though large pieces of flesh had been dug out.”

This was the ideology of the Confederacy in practice, beyond the abstractions of politics. And it helps explain how many people today, black and white, recoil at the flag, regardless of whether it was a battle standard.

Is this the only way to see the flag? Certainly not. But history can help us understand at least some of what’s going on in South Carolina and across the country today.

After finding a link to our battle flag entry on Facebook, a reader of the encyclopedia—a historian we all admire very much—wrote to tell us that our entry was fearfully incomplete and, if we weren’t careful, liable to be used by someone defending the flag. Leaving aside the issue of whether it’s incomplete, I want to make this point: we do not craft encyclopedia entries to win arguments. We craft them to inform arguments. And we’ll certainly do our best to keep this one up to date and as useful as possible. In the meantime, we hope that you’ll explore some of the content linked above. It may help us all make a little more sense of this post-Charleston world we’re now in.

PS—Oh, and please. For the love of God. The Stars and Bars are not the same thing as the battle flag.

IMAGES: One of the first Confederate battle flags, sewn by Constance Cary in the autumn of 1861 (The Museum of the Confederacy); a t-shirt of unknown provenance