John M. Coski states that ‘The debate over the proper place of the Confederate battle flag in American life is an important means by which citizens engage with the meaning of the Civil War and its legacies’. Undoubtedly, it would not be an overstatement to say that this is by now a well-worn debate. The Confederate battle flag could likely be considered as one of the world’s most problematic symbols – on one hand representing the bravery of the Confederate soldiers whom fought and lost their lives in America’s Civil War, and on the other acting as an emblem of slavery and oppression. This post will identify and examine the reasons why people still fly the battle flag, as well as discussing why it is such a divisive issue. However to begin with, it is worth taking a moment to say a few words on national identity.
Nationalism refers to the sense of self-identification that one feels towards the nation they are a part of; the idea that members of a nation share common belief systems individual to them. National identity can be political and cultural; Anthony D. Smith associates it with the collective ‘symbols, myths, memories and values’ that a nation has. It could be said that the states which seceded from the Union in 1861 to form the Confederacy did so because their identity differed ideologically from that of the rest of the Union. Robert E. Bonner draws attention to this point, noting that the Confederates considered themselves and the Yankees to diverge from one another in their ideas, manners and institutions; however he acknowledges that this has been a notion of contention among historians, as others – such as Drew Gilpin Faust – instead claim that a unique Southern identity was something fashioned following secession. What is clear is that the Civil War did result in the formation of Southern practices that actively contributed to the creation of a distinctive identity. Bonner writes that ‘wartime flag culture helped to push forward Confederate efforts to found a new republic and injected questions of national purpose into the vibrant realm of popular culture’. The construction of flags and banners gave women the opportunity to participate in the war effort, and the prolificacy of local flag-raising ceremonies facilitated the creation of various flag-related songs and literature. Therefore we can see that the displaying and waving of flags were a central component in Southern Confederate culture and identity, a factor which may aid in determining why the debate surrounding the Confederate battle flag is such a contested issue.
Before moving on to discuss the position of the flag in the post-war years, it is necessary to provide a brief overview of the flag itself. The Confederate battle flag refers to that containing the blue saltire cross adorned with white stars – representing each state in the Confederacy – on a red background. It was never the official Confederate national flag, but was instead used on the battlefield, as the original ‘Stars and Bars’ flag used confused soldiers due to the similarities it shared with the Union’s Stars and Stripes. Coski comments that ‘For a nation that survived only as long as its armies survived, the flag of the soldier understandably became the flag of the nation’. Thus the battle flag has endured in the minds of Southerners far longer than the Stars and Bars and the other ill-fated designs put forward, to become what is now remembered as the Confederate flag. So why does this symbol stir such strong emotions today? What should be said foremost is that the meaning of the flag is not static; it is open to interpretation, and there is no one true definition of what the battle flag represents. How an individual interprets the flag is likely to depend on a number of factors, such as race, age, heritage, and interest in and knowledge of the Civil War.
Franklin Forts argues that associations dedicated to the preservation of remembering the Confederate cause have been integral to the construction of a new South, with groups such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the United Confederate Veterans taking a central role in developing new traditions and culture. He claims that as such associations have worked to present a one-sided image of the Confederate army as honourable and heroic soldiers whom fought for a noble cause – to preserve their constitutional rights – and only failed in their quest due to a lack of manpower and resources. Forts states that:
In this myth of the Lost Cause, certain information is emphasized while other information is forgotten or simply not discussed. This omission is not a conscious effort to falsify history but an attempt to meet a particular need at a unique time in a society’s history.
This idea of myths is important when thinking about how nations formulate identities, as what happened in the past is central to how we move forward in the present. This is expanded upon by Thomas J. Brown, who comments that after the end of the war, ‘The celebration of reunion reinforced the notion that the white South had been united in the sectional conflict, when in fact the Confederacy enjoyed far more unanimous support in memory than it had during its tumultuous existence’. This notion of the noble soldier fighting for a unified cause was undoubtedly central in helping the post-war South come to terms with their defeat, despite how truthful a memory it actually is, allowing them to build a new national identity based on more favourable memories of the Confederation.
The traditions of the UCV and other such groups are explored in detail by Gaines M. Foster, who says that they ‘accepted primary responsibility for preserving this history – in other words, primary responsibility for speaking for the ghosts of the Confederacy’. He establishes that they undertook the task of defining the meaning of the war: why it was fought and why the South was defeated, emphasising the issues mentioned earlier in this essay, of a heroic force fighting for their rights but overcome by the sheer number of their opposition. Foster states that a historical committee was formed by the UCV in 1892 in order to promote an ‘authentic’ appreciation of the war, and along with the UDC ‘devoted much of their effort to seeing that school children were taught only a southern understanding of the war’. Thus it is understandable that later generations would interpret both the meaning of the war and the battle flag in the same way that these groups promoted them.
Therefore, it can be said that the flying of the Confederate battle flag is a way for individuals to connect with their past and celebrate their history. John Shelton writes that ‘it serves as an emblem of the courage, honor and devotion to duty of those who suffered and died for that cause’. This interpretation of the flag has been recognised as such from at least 1889, when it was chosen by the United Confederate Veterans as the emblem of their association – again highlighting the impact that the traditions of these memorial groups have had in the shaping of Southern identity. Members of the UCV may have heritage ties to soldiers whom fought in the war, so flying the flag serves as a method of remembrance for family members.
Evidently, the battle flag is only likely to hold this heroic meaning for the South’s white population. Where they see this symbol in a favourable manner – as a representation of freedom from government oppression – African Americans are much more likely to associate the flag with the ‘peculiar institution’ of chattel slavery that denied them their freedom. Referring to a dispute over the flag’s use in Mississippi, Shelton notes that for most of the state’s black citizens, ‘the battle flag is a symbol of the white South, a symbol that excludes them and denies them respect’. Clearly this is a very different perspective to the one held by the UCV and the UDC, though this does not mean it is a wrong interpretation.
The battle flag did not become a source of controversy in the South until the 1950s, when the move for civil rights for African Americans became a vocal issue. It can be said that the lack of contention over the flag’s use up until then was due to the lack of rights granted to black citizens up until this point. Forts notes that not a week goes by now without yet another fall out in the South over a Confederate symbol appearing in the local media, with black southerners and their liberal white allies on one side of the debate, and conservative white southerners on the other.
The flag is forever tied to the notorious segregationist Southern Democrat George Wallace, who served as Governor of Alabama in the 1960s. In 1963 Wallace raised the flag above the Montgomery state building in opposition to the federal government’s attempts to desegregate the University of Alabama, and it remained there until 1987. This formed part of the governor’s ‘Segregation Forever’ campaign; the flag was raised by Wallace on the day that he met with U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy in order to figure out a resolution to the efforts of two black students to enrol at the university. Jonathan I. Leib, Gerald R. Webster and Roberta H. Webster state that ‘The meeting between Kennedy and Wallace accomplished little other than providing the Governor with press attention to defiantly restate his opposition to desegregation of the state’s all-white universities’. It is not hard to see why the battle flag is perceived by many as a symbol of racism – Shelton comments that those who attended Wallace rallies waved Confederate flags as they did so. He states that ‘it’s simply ahistorical to deny that the flag’s principal use in the 1960s was as a segregationist symbol – and black southerners haven’t forgotten that’.
However, it should also be remembered that the Civil War’s centennial was also in the early 1960s. Jon Wiener highlights how commemoration of the war became a ‘political battlefield’ during the centennial, an opportunity for both supporters and non-supporters of civil rights to ‘reconsider and redefine the meaning of the Civil War’. It seems quite fitting that these memorial events would take place at the same point in history that African American’s would seek to empower themselves, one hundred years after their ancestors’ emancipation, and that this would result in the creation of new meanings attached to the flag – with it being used to both celebrate the anniversary of the Civil War and as an emblem of opposition to civil rights.
An alternative argument is that the flag is more associated with class divides rather than race. Shelton recalls a time when he interviewed upper to middle class students about the flag, reporting that a large proportion of them viewed it as ‘a “redneck” symbol’. In which case, the flying of the flag can be viewed as a symbol of defiance, a refusal to give in to authority – this being emblematic of the mythical rebellious spirit of the Confederation. Thus this use of the flag by southerners acts as a continuation of the individual and states’ rights versus federal authority debate that Civil War enthusiasts have claimed as being the cause of the struggle, and have incorporated this ‘us against them’ sentiment into their national identity.
For many it is likely that the meaning they ascribe to the flag is shaped by its use in popular culture. The recent film Dallas Buyers Club – set in Texas during the eighties – shows a rebel flag adorned on the wall of a bar. As the bar’s clientele are depicted as rural folk, working class and intolerant; it can be gathered that placement of the flag in this setting is meant to act as a visual manifestation of this hostility, matching the redneck portrayal of flag wavers mentioned above. Earlier works such as Gone With the Wind have used the flag in a manner that is more in line with the romanticised mythic memories that the UCV have created. Perhaps the changing nature of the role of the flag in popular culture is a sign of a changing – more liberal – national climate. What is evident is that far more people are exposed to such cultural artefacts than they are to history and Civil War texts, therefore perceptions are likely to keep changing in the future as the flag is used to perform different functions in popular culture.
For now however it is unlikely that the South will designate the Confederate battle one single definition. In recent years public battles over the flag have been fought in Georgia, Alabama, Southern California and Mississippi. Some have said that the flag’s prominence in Southern life is bad for business investments in the area; this argument was put forward prior to Atlanta – the capital of Georgia – having the spotlight thrust upon it due to its hosting of the 1994 Super Bowl and the 1996 Olympics, as it was thought that visitors to the city may have considered the flag to be racist. While many businesses and institutions took down their flags, Lieb, Webster and Webster say that ‘Flag defenders in the state legislature threatened to cut off state funding to any city, including Atlanta, that refused to fly the flag’. This serves as evidence over how heated the flag debate can get, and of how divisive the issue remains for many in the South.
Such division indicates that the former Confederacy still has many matters to resolve; it still has not come to terms with its past, and many among its population do not yet feel unified. Tony Horwitz notes that the third week in January marks the birthdays of not only Confederate heroes Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee, but also of Martin Luther King Jr. He states that Virginia had once attempted to create the holiday ‘Lee-Jackson-King Day’, but it had never caught on, and the celebration of Civil War soldiers and civil rights leaders continue to be conducted separately. Clearly these two histories sit uneasily with one another, both embattled in a struggle over public memory. It could be said that the South now has two separate national identities drawn along racial lines, each fighting with one another over their separate perceptions of the past and the shaping of their future.
This work has identified and analysed some of the main arguments relating to why the South still flies the Confederate battle flag. It has been reasoned that this is due to commemoration of the past, the forming of a new southern identity, and maintaining the old Confederate vision of a nation fighting for freedom from federal government. However, since the African American civil rights movement in the mid-twentieth century, the flag has taken on new meanings – as a symbol of oppression and pro-segregation. It is unclear whether such issues amongst the South’s population will ever be resolved, but what should be remembered is that all perspectives are valid. As Shelton eloquently points out: ‘we need to recognize that there is no intrinsic meaning to colors on a cloth. A flag is a “text” to which different “interpretive communities” bring their own meanings’. The South is now in a unique opportunity to show that despite its differences, it can recognise its troubled past and learn to live in harmony.
Bonner, Robert E., ‘Flag Culture and the Consolidation of Confederate Nationalism’, Journal of Southern History, 68 (2002), pp. 293-332.
Forman Jr., James, ‘Driving Dixie Down: Removing the Confederate Flag from Southern State Capitals’, The Yale Law Journal, 101.2 (1991), pp. 505-526.
Forts, Franklin, ‘Living with Confederate Symbols’, Southern Cultures, 8 (2002), pp. 60-75.
Leib, Jonathan I., Gerald R. Webster and Roberta H. Webster, ‘Rebel with a Cause? Iconography and Public Memory in the Southern United States’, GeoJournal, 52.4 (2000), pp. 303-310.
Shelton, John, ‘The Banner that won’t stay Furled’, Southern Cultures, 8 (2002), pp. 76-100.
Brown, Thomas J., The Public Art of Civil War Commemoration: A Brief History with Documents (New York, 2004).
Bonner, Robert E., Colors and Blood: Flag Passions of the Confederate South (Oxford, 2002).
Coski, John M., The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem (London, 2005).
Foster, Gaines M., Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South (Oxford, 1987).
Horwitz, Tony, Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War (New York, 1999).
Smith, Anthony D., Ethno-Symbolism and Nationalism: A Cultural Approach (Kentucky, 2009).
Wiener, Jon, ‘Civil War, Cold War, Civil Rights: The Civil War Centennial in Context, 1960-1965’, in The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture, ed. Alice Fahs and Joan Waugh (London, 2004), pp. 237-257.
Dallas Buyers Club, Jean-Marc Vallée (Voltage Pictures, 2013).
Gone With the Wind, Victor Fleming (MGM, 1939).