Does the Confederate Flag represent racism? Are we denying a part of our country the opportunity to celebrate their heritage by removing the Confederate Flag from public buildings? Are we making too much of this whole debate?
To answer that question, we need to first clarify two things: 1.) Why was the Civil War actually fought?, and 2.) What are the roots and meaning of the Confederate Flag?
Why was the US Civil War actually fought?
There’s a natural tendency to view history in a way that makes us feel better about the truth. The truth is that the Civil War was fought over slavery. Any other explanation is revisionist at best, and plain lies at worst. There is a strong tendency to say that the Civil War was fought over “states’ rights”, which is only true in that the right the states were fighting over was the right to have slaves. (Mississippi’s Declaration of Secession is a clear example of the true cause of the Civil War.)
That’s not to say that the fight over slavery was as simple as we’d like to believe. There wasn’t a line in the sand where everyone north of the line believed slavery had to be abolished and everyone south of the line wanted to keep it. In fact, the South seceded not because slavery was going to be abolished (there were no immediate, active federal plans to do so), but because the expansion of slavery into new territories was at stake. There were plenty of people in the northern states who would have been perfectly okay with the continued existence of slavery, and even many who were okay with its expansion into new territories. There were plenty of individuals in the South who were morally opposed to slavery and would have preferred to see it abolished.
Even at the start of the Civil War, President Lincoln, while morally opposed to slavery, was not actively planning for emancipation of slaves in the existing slave holding states. That decision came later, and the timing of the decision was made in part because of a need for increased troops to fight the war.
It’s also important to note that the end of the war and the treatment of the Confederate army after the war was, and this is an understatement, unusual. Pardons and immunity from prosecution for treason was offered to virtually all Confederate soldiers. President Lincoln initiated the lenient view, while President Johnson took that amnesty even further. Eventually even Jefferson Davis, who served as president of the seceded Confederate States, was pardoned.
That lenient view has led to 150+ years of a confusing Confederate legacy. Public monuments have been built to honor Confederate leaders. Streets, parks and buildings are named in honor of Confederate generals. We’ve created an environment that permits-even encourages-pride in the Confederate cause.
What are the roots and meaning of the Confederate Flag?
The Confederate Flag as we know it today was a battle flag, originally flown at the Battle of Bull Run by Confederate General Beauregard’s troops. After the Civil War, it saw limited use in the South, often flown at events memorializing fallen Confederate soldiers. Small controversies over the flag arose throughout the 19th century over whether captured battle flags should be returned to the South by the federal government (virtually unprecedented in any other civil war throughout global history).
It wasn’t until the 1948 presidential campaign of Senator Strom Thurmond that the Confederate Flag began to be universally recognized as a symbol of segregation and racism. Senator Thurmond ran on a segregationist platform, and used the flag as a symbol of that campaign.
In the 1960’s the flag was raised above the South Carolina Statehouse, ostensibly in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Civil War. However, at the same time, South Carolina lawmakers were resisting the adoption of Civil Rights measures – and the flag remained over the Statehouse as a symbol of the protest against Civil Rights.
So is the Confederate Flag the problem?
Flags are symbols that are given meaning by the people who adopt them. Is the flag the problem? No. But the problem is what the flag has been used to represent – and to allow the flag to continue to fly over the state capital building in South Carolina IS a problem. (South Carolina has voted to remove the flag, and their debate to do so highlighted many of these points.)
If we look to recent history, allowing the flag to remain on the capital building is problematic because it was left there in the 1960’s to represent a protest against Civil Rights. If we take a longer view of history and go back to the original meaning of the flag, allowing a flag that represents secession and treason to fly over a state capital is misguided at best.
I am not advocating that we should ban the Confederate Flag. It certainly should exist in museums and should be understood in the context of history – the good, the bad and the ugly. (Although let’s agree that most of its history is bad and ugly.) I believe that you should be allowed to wear a t-shirt with the Confederate Flag, fly it on the back of your pick-up truck and put it out on your front lawn; because I believe in your 1st Amendment Right to free speech. (I have a right to assume that by flying the Confederate Flag, you are either racist or uneducated.) I think every retail store has a right to decide for themselves whether they choose to sell Confederate Flag merchandise, just like I have a right to decide whether or not I choose to shop at those establishments.
So many sources…
I’ve waited to wade into the debate on the Confederate Flag until I had an opportunity to do some research. I have, like everyone else, immediate, visceral reactions to current events – but before it hits my blog, I’ve vetted those reactions through more than one source of information. There are a lot of sources for me to mention, and I’m sure I’ll miss some. This list includes only the online sources, and not the books I’ve read over the last year:
- The Confederate Flag: Controversy and Culture (David Sarratt – Student project, University of Virginia)
- The Confederate Flag Symbolizes White Supremacy and It Always Has (Libby Nelson – Vox)
- Why is the Confederate Flag still a thing…? (Amber Phillips – Washington Post)
- …the Confederate Flag was a symbol of Endless War (Greg Grandin – In These Times)
- Confederate History – Dispelling the Myths (Uncited Author – and I offer a personal warning on this “fact sheet”. I used it as a source to understand the misconceptions and revisionist view of the Civil War.)
- America Urgently Needs a History Lesson… (Charles D. Ellison – The Root)
- The History of the Confederate Flag in 180 Seconds (Wanderlust: Travel, History and Science.)
- 6 Key Moments from the South Carolina Senate’s… Confederate flag debate (Amber Phillips – Washington Post)
2 thoughts on “The Confederacy, Racism and the Legacy of a Flag”
Thanks for this, Chris, I didn’t know the history. Up here when we see a confederate flag we just think “ignorant rednecks” but we don’t know the history.
I appreciate your researched commentary and agree with the sentiments! Bravo