The Confederate flag as long been a matter of controversy. Many on the left see it as a symbol of slavery, racism, or racial violence. Many on the right claim it is a symbol of national heritage for southerners. Of course, like any symbol, it can mean different things to different people. But what is the history of the flag?
What is the Confederate Flag?
Many have said that the the familiar flag we are used to seeing with the red background, the blue cross of St. Andrew, and 13 white stars, was not the flag of the Confederate government. That is actually not entirely true. The full story gets a bit confusing. But let's take a quick look at the facts:
The Confederacy's first flag had two red horizontal bars, with a white bar in between. In then had a blue square in the upper left hand corner with a circle of stars indicating the number of States in the Confederacy. At that time, there were only seven States in the Confederacy.
The big problem with that flag was that it could often at a glance be mistaken for the US flag. Flags carried in battle had to be clear for one side or the other, even if they were crumpled up or damaged. So, the Army of Northern Virginia decided to develop the familiar battle flag after the First Battle of Manassas. The flag was eventually carried by virtually all the Confederate Armies and also flown on Confederate Naval vessels.
Almost two years into the Confederacy the government put the familiar battle flag in the corner of its flag, replacing the blue field with stars, and making the rest of the flag completely white. But, because there was so much white, it was later decided it might be mistaken for a flag of truce. So, they added a vertical red bar to the flag to make it stand out more.
So, the familiar battle flag actually was at least a part of the official government flag for most of its short life span.
Some have said that the blue X in the battle flag is meant to represent the Cross of St. Andrew, from the Scottish national flag. Many Southerners were of Scottish descent and saw the cross as a symbol of the defiance of Scottish opposition to the domination by England, much as the Southern States were opposing domination by the North. In fact, the X was originally meant at least simply as a design element after an upright cross was rejected as being too sectarian. Here is a letter from the man who designed the flag to Gen. Beauregard, who had requested a new flag to avoid confusion with the US flag in battle:
Richmond, August 27,1861.
Gen. G. T. Beauregard,
Fairfax Court house, Virginia:
Dear General, I received your letter concerning the flag yesterday, and cordially concur in all that you say. Although I was chairman of the 'Flag Committee,' who reported the present flag, it was not my individual choice. I urged upon the committee a flag of this sort. [Design sketched.] This is very rough, the proportions are bad. [Design of Confederate battle-flag as it is.]
The above is better. The ground red, the cross blue (edged with white), stars white.
This was my favorite. The three colors of red, white, and blue were preserved in it. It avoided the religious objection about the cross (from the Jews and many Protestant sects), because it did not stand out so conspicuously as if the cross had been placed upright thus. [Design sketched.]
Besides, in the form I proposed, the cross was more heraldic than ecclesiastical, it being the 'saltire' of heraldry, and significant of strength and progress (from the Latin salto, to leap). The stars ought always to be white, or argent, because they are then blazoned 'proper' (or natural color). Stars, too, show better on an azure field than any other. Blue stars on a white field would not be handsome or appropriate. The 'white edge' (as I term it) to the blue is partly a necessity to prevent what is called 'false blazoning,' or a solecism in heraldry, viz., blazoning color on color, or metal on metal. It would not do to put a blue cross, therefore, on a red field. Hence the white, being metal argent, is put on the red, and the blue put on the white. The introduction of white between the blue and red, adds also much to the brilliancy of the colors, and brings them out in strong relief.
But I am boring you with my pet hobby in the matter of the flag. I wish sincerely that Congress would change the present one. Your reasons are conclusive in my mind. But I fear it is just as hard now as it was at Montgomery to tear people away entirely from the desire to appropriate some reminiscence of the 'old flag.' We are now so close to the end of the session that even if we could command votes (upon a fair hearing), I greatly fear we cannot get' such hearing. Some think the provisional Congress ought to leave the matter to the permanent. This might, then, be but a provisional flag. Yet, as you truly say, after a few more victories, 'association' will come to the aid of the present flag, and then it will be more difficult than ever to effect a change. I fear nothing can be done; but I will try. I will, as soon as I can, urge the matter of the badges. The President is too sick to be seen at present by any one.
Very respectfully yours,
Wm. Porcher Miles.
So most of the flag was really about stylistic reasons and not about any particular symbolism.
Was the Civil War Really about Slavery?
Proponents of the view that the Civil War was about slavery often point to a number of quotes from various State declarations which all state rather explicitly that the primary reason for secession was over the institution of slavery. You can read several of these here. There is no question for secessionists, that protecting slavery and assuring that slave owners would not lose their property was the key reason for secession. Incidentally, this was also the key reason Texas broke way from Mexico and joined the Union only a few years earlier.
As the States were announcing secession, incoming President Abraham Lincoln tried to assure the nation that the dispute was absolutely not about slavery. He made clear in his inaugural address " I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so." He goes on to say that his focus is on saving the Union, nothing about slavery. You can read the full speech here. A little over a year later, Lincoln reiterated this view in a letter to Horace Greeley, a newspaper editor in New York. He said "My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that." This was written only a month before he announced his imminent Emancipation Proclamation, where he proclaimed some slaves free while keeping others in bondage.
It seems clear in hindsight that Lincoln was in favor of full abolition of slavery. He had to deal with a country at war. His northern Union contained four slave States that could possibly still have jumped ship and joined the Confederacy. There were also large portions of the population in the north that supported the right of slavery, including his own commanding General George McClellan. He was a smart enough politician to realize he could not come out with an immediate end of slavery without potentially putting an end to the coalition that was supporting the War effort.
What his speeches do show, however, is that the north was most certainly not solidly anti-slavery. Views remained divided for much of the War. Passage of the 13th Amendment ending slavery, ratified shortly after Lincoln's death, was accomplished in large part due to the desire of many northern voters to punish the south for the War and for Lincoln's assassination, not necessarily out of any noble aspiration to end slavery.
Was the South solidly pro slavery? Again, that seems to be more nuanced than many are willing to admit. The prevailing majority view was that the right of slavery should be protected. But that is different than saying slavery itself is a good thing. A few years a before the was began, Robert E. Lee, future commander of all Confederate forces, wrote a letter to a friend where he said: "There are few, I believe, in this enlightened age, who will not acknowledge that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil. It is idle to expatiate on its disadvantages" He then goes on to condemn abolitionists for trying to end suddenly and by force something that must evolve over time. You can read more of his letter here.
I don't think Lee's views are an aberration. Many southerners seemed to have problems with the institution of slavery. At the same time, however, they were extremely hostile to the idea of outsiders telling them how to deal with the situation. It would be like if the United Nations tried to to force the United States to change some of its laws. As Americans, even if we agreed with the changes, we might resent the UN trying to force its will on us. Many southerners seemed to feel the same way about federal intrusion on their existing legal systems and social norms.
Of course, these justifications were also likely reinforced by the fact that abolition of slavery would impoverish the South and destroy many of the comforts that white southern elites enjoyed. If Americans today were told the world was putting in place a new economic system which would prevent our less than 5% of the world population from enjoying 20% of world GDP, we might oppose such a scheme. Many of us understand that it might seem unfair how much privilege and advantage we have under the current system, but giving up privilege is a hard thing. I sure don't want to see my income cut by 75% just because someone else might think it is "fairer."
Did the Confederacy stand for racism?
OK, so even though southern views on slavery might be a bit nuanced. Can we at least say that southerners of that time were racist? Yes, absolutely. Racism was a fundamental belief of virtually all Southerners. But virtually everyone in the north was also a racist. Abraham Lincoln was a racist if we can believe his speeches. During the famous Lincoln Douglas debates of 1858, he expressed this quite clearly:
“I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in anyway the social and political equality of the white and black races – that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied everything.”
Racism was the norm of that time period. I should also point out that there is a very real difference between racism and racial prejudice or racial hatred. These terms are often used interchangeably, but here are real differences. Racism is the belief that members of one race are inherently superior to members of another. It is simply a fact of nature, just as we believe today that human beings are superior to chimpanzees. It does not mean that the racist necessarily hated blacks, or treated them violently, just as we don't hate chimpanzees or support cruel treatment of them today. It simply meant that people believed that people honestly believed that blacks were not fully human and did not have the same capacities as whites.
Today, of course, this theory of racism has been utterly rejected and is held by almost no one, other than perhaps a few fringe types. Instead today, we call people racists who are racially prejudiced, that is associating certain traits to members of a race, such as laziness or violence. Typically even these prejudiced people today do not believe that all blacks are inherently inferior and incapable of operating as citizens within society. Racism as it existed in the 19th century is rightfully dead. But it is important to understand how it existed at that time in order to appreciate the debate over slavery and abolition.
So yes, southerners were racist, but that is not what separated them from northerners. All of them were racists. What separated them was the policies in place that would create a proper societal order in light of those racist views.
Post Civil War Racism
After the Civil War, the display of any Confederate symbol, including the flag, was a criminal act. The Courts had, shall we say, a much less enlightened view of the First Amendment back then. So the defeated south did not use the Confederate flag much at all after the war.
In the decades following the Civil War, I am not aware of much of any use of the Confederate flag, even by the KKK. It was the symbol of a lost cause and largely put away. Perhaps it was used in secret, but I am not aware of any public displays A generation later, once begins to see the use of the Confederate Flag again. Mississippi adopted the flag as a portion of its State flag, which it still uses today. This does not appear to be motivated by racism or any reaction to Federal control. Rather it appears to be a way for State leaders to honor the prior generation, their parents, who fought in the Civil War.
Into the early 20th Century, one begins to see greater use of the Confederate flag as a symbol of regional pride. Ironically, one place the flag was absent was in the KKK. Most Klan rallies of this era used the US flag. The KKK of the early 20th century considered themselves the standard bearers of US tradition and liberties, opposing not only reforms for blacks but also opposition to immigration, and religious traditions outside of Protestantism. The Klan of this era was not focused on the south either. Large Klan organizations existed throughout the north and midwest. The KKK associated itself with real America, not in opposition to it. Take a look at these pictures from early 20th Century Klan parades. Plenty of US flags, no Confederate flags.
The real changes came in the 1950's and 1960's when the Federal Government began passing laws related to desegregation and nondiscrimination. This led to a renewed resurgence in the South for the use of the flag as a symbol of opposition to federal "interference" with what were regarded as State and local issues.
It was during this period where one sees the Confederate flag incorporated into a number of southern State flags, or the flag flying over State capitols. It also became more popular with individual southerners or racist groups such as the KKK. But even here, the use of the flag was not directly racist. It was focused on opposition to interference in State polices. Of course, the State policies in question did seem to be based on racism. This is why many on the left today associate the flag with racism and want it abolished, or at least banished to museums, along side the "whites only" bathroom signs and KKK crosses.
Symbolism of the Flag Today
The Confederate flag, like all flags, does not have any real power or meaning other than symbolism. It symbolizes different things to different people. Simply saying the flag represents racism misses much of the point. Today at many leftist protests, we see protesters often wearing Guy Fawkes masks. Guy Fawkes, of course, is remembered for trying to pull off the terrorist act of blowing up the British Parliament in 1605 to protest British suppression of Catholicism. Of course, none of the protesters today are supporting terrorism, blowing up legislatures, or focusing the rights of oppressed Catholics - or even religious discrimination generally. Fawkes' symbolism is all about opposition to government power and bad government policies generally.
Similarly, for many, the Confederate flag is about opposition to government oppression or overreach. It represents the single largest effort since the American Revolution to oppose the power of the federal government. The flag is simply a way of objecting to federal power. For others, it is a way of remembering their ancestors. For others, though, the flag is inextricably linked to the racism of the mid 19th Century, and also to the opposition to civil rights of the mid 20th Century. It is a symbol of the continued attempts to oppress black people and to prevent them from fully participating in the US as full citizens.
The debate will, of course continue. My hope in this post is simply to show that there are a variety of reasons why people display the flag and how they view the flag.
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