This is John Coski’s excellent book on the battle flag. I read it some years ago, and with recent events I thought it would be good to log a summary here on the blog.
This book is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the issues surrounding the battle flag. Coski is an excellent historian and provides us a balanced, judicious study of the flag that is often in the news.
He bases his evaluation of the flag “on the simple proposition that a symbol’s use determines its meanings and affects the way people perceive it. Common-sensical as this approach is, it is dismissed by those who believe that the meaning of the flag (or of any symbol) is fixed and absolute–that there is one true or legitimate meaning and that others are deliberate or ignorant distortions.” [p. viii] I generally agree with this, though I would modify it a very small bit. To me, context is the key. The way it is used goes a long way to showing us its context, but some usages provide no context and thus the meaning of the symbol is ambiguous. In that case, the person displaying the flag could intend one message while the person seeing the flag gets another message, and both can be legitimate. Not only that, but different viewers can perceive different messages, all of them different from the one intended by the person displaying the flag, and without the context all are legitimate interpretations.
While the confederate flag debate may irritate some students of the war, Dr. Coski tells us that it is actually very valuable to us. “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. More specifically, the flag debates offer a barometer of modern popular perceptions of the Confederate States of America. The Confederacy was the most important organized and armed dissent in American history since the Revolution. The conflicting attitudes toward it reflect accurately the divergent views on constitutional and racial issues that have persisted from the nineteenth century to our own day, despite the Civil War and despite the civil rights movement” [p. xi]
Part I discusses the flag in general. While there are a number of confederate flags, and the one that has grabbed the headlines was only one design, Coski tells us, “By the middle of the Civil War, however, it was the most visible Confederate battle flag pattern and had become the most important symbol of the fledgling nation. The blue St. Andrew’s cross (or, more correctly, the saltire) on the red flag became in effect what it never technically was: the Confederate flag. … The era from the Civil War through World War II was a relatively coherent period of the flag’s history, especially in contrast to the subsequent half-century. For those 85 years, the Confederate battle flag was the object of virtually uncontested public reverence in the South and increasing acceptance from the rest of the nation. Few people abused the flag, and few people complained openly about its public presence. Not coincidentally, African Americans were virtually excluded from the South’s public life during most of those years.” [p. 1] We learn here about William Porcher Miles’ designing the flag. “Recalling (and sketching) his proposal a few months later, Miles explained that the diagonal cross was preferable because ‘it avoided the religious objection about the cross (from the Jews & many Protestant sects), because it did not stand out so conspicuously as if the cross had been placed upright thus.’ The diagonal cross was, Miles argued, ‘more Heraldric [sic] than Ecclesiastical, it being the ‘saltire’ of Heraldry, and significant of strength and progress (from the Latin salto, to leap).’ ” Although Miles diplomatically described the cross as a saltire, a heraldic device (and an act of the Confederate Congress later described it as a ‘saltier’), his contemporaries and subsequent generations have tended to identify it as a cross, specifically as a St. Andrew’s cross–a familiar symbol in Western culture. The X-shaped cross derived its name from the first-century Christian martyr who did not believe himself worthy to die on the same kind of cross as Jesus Christ.” [pp. 5-6]
Confusion at the First Battle of Bull Run led to the battle flag’s adoption. “General Johnston suggested that the battle flag should be perfectly square and thus better proportioned and that they be standard sizes varying according to service branch: forty-eight inches square for infantry regiments, thirty-six inches for artillery batteries, and thirty inches for cavalry regiments. Beauregard and the other officers agreed. The army’s quartermaster, General William L. Cabell, also present at the Fairfax Court House meeting, was ordered to arrange for prototypes to be made. He delegated the task to another officer, Captain Colin M. Selph, who asked Mary Lyons (Jones), an Alabama woman living in Richmond, to create a model. Selph then gave this model to Constance Cary and her cousins, Hetty and Jennie Cary, to produce prototypes for the army’s consideration. The Cary flags assumed legendary proportions in Confederate history. ‘It is generally stated by historians that these flags were constructed from our own dresses,’ wrote Constance Cary, ‘but it is certain we possessed no wearing apparel in the flamboyant hues of poppy red and vivid dark blue required.’ Each girl presented her flag to a Confederate general: Jennie to Beauregard, Hetty to Johnston, and Constance to Earl Van Dorn who, for a brief time, commanded a division in Beauregard’s army. Selph purchased large quantities of silk from at least one Richmond dry goods merchant, and consigned the task of making 120 silk regimental flags to 75 women in four Richmond churches. Some units received flags of the new pattern at the end of October. Beauregard issued orders on November 24th that ‘in the event of an action with the enemy, the new battle flag recently issued to the regiments of this army corps will alone be carried on the field. Meantime regimental commanders will accustom their men to the flag, so that they may be thoroughly acquainted with it.’ ” [pp. 9-10]
Both Beauregard and Johnston served the confederacy in various assignments. In their travels, they attempted to gain standardization of battle flags. “Beauregard found that commanders in the West had adopted their own unique battle flag designs. General Leonidas Polk, a West Point graduate who was also an Episcopal bishop, adopted a flag featuring a red St. George’s cross on a blue field, while General William J. Hardee adopted a blue flag with a white disc. … Major General Earl Van Dorn, the officer to whom Constance Cary had given her battle flag prototype, introduced his own battle flag–an exotic red flag with thirteen white stars, a white crescent moon, and a gold border–in the Confederacy’s Army of the West late in 1861. A few of the Missouri units carrying flags with the Van Dorn design subsequently transferred east of the Mississippi River, further confounding Beauregard’s push for uniformity. Beauregard gave orders to have these other flags ‘replaced as soon as practicable by the Battle Flag of the Army of the Potomac [what Beauregard called the army that Lee renamed the Army of Northern Virginia].’ He arranged with Confederate authorities in New Orleans to have St. Andrew’s cross battle flags manufactured and delivered to his troops. The new flags arrived in March, and Beauregard apparently distributed them to Braxton Bragg’s division.” [p. 12] The quest to standardize battle flags, though, ultimately failed. “Many units in the Army of Tennessee willfully continued to use the flags they carried before Beauregard came west, including many variations on the Stars and Bars [the First National Flag of the confederacy]. Then, too, the St. Andrew’s cross flags that Beauregard arranged to have made in New Orleans differed in details from the flags used in Virginia (most notably by featuring six-pointed stars), and subsequent issues differed from the first. Far from being perfectly square (as in Virginia) or nearly square (as in the first issue from New Orleans), the second issue from New Orleans measured about forty-two inches on the hoist, or staff, edge and more than six feet on the fly edge.” [p. 12] Both Beauregard and Johnston continued to mandate use of the battle flag, and when John Bell Hood took command of a corps in the Army of Tennessee he mandated the battle flag for his corps. “The Johnston-Hood orders succeeded in diffusing the St. Andrew’s cross more widely throughout the western army, but the flag was not the same one found in Virginia. Instead, the Army of Tennessee’s flag was rectangular without a border, similar in appearance to the most popular twentieth-century reproduction flags. Ironically, the man who in 1861 suggested the square St. Andrew’s cross design in Virginia was responsible for introducing to the western army the rectangular version.” [p. 13] And the design spread even beyond the army. “In 1863 the Confederate navy adopted as the navy jack (the flag flown from the ship’s bow) a rectangular St. Andrew’s cross pattern. Further evidence of the St. Andrew’s cross’s primacy came in 1863 when Congress referred to it matter-of-factly as ‘the battle flag’ and incorporated it into a new national flag. By 1863 the St. Andrew’s cross had been consecrated on the battlefield. For a nation that survived only as long as its armies survived, the flag of the soldier understandably became the flag of the nation. … The exalted status of the battle flag associated most closely with Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia suggests that the Confederate battle flag was not only a soldier’s flag but a bona fide national symbol.” [p. 14]
The Second National Flag incorporated the battle flag. “The adoption of that flag, which soon became known as the ‘Stainless Banner’ for its pure white field, was the first official government recognition of the Confederate battle flag.” [p. 17] The white field, though, had its own meaning. “According to the editors of the Savannah Daily Morning News, the flag’s whiteness carried another symbolic significance. ‘As a people, we are fighting to maintain the Heaven ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race,’ the paper reasoned. ‘A white flag would thus be emblematical of our cause.’ The editors subsequently dubbed the second national flag the ‘white man’s flag.’ This was a rare, perhaps unique, overt wartime linkage of the flag to white supremacy.” [pp. 17-18] The Third National Flag, adopted in March of 1865, added a large red stripe on the outer edge of the flag, which maintained the battle flag in the canton.
Spreading the flag to different theaters and incorporating it into two of the three national flags had their effects. “By the war’s end, the saltire/St. Andrew’s cross had become in effect the Confederate flag. The flag was incorporated into the national flag, consecrated on battlefields in every theater of war, and flown over Confederate naval vessels. When seeking a convenient Confederate equivalent to the Stars and Stripes, modern Americans habitually chose the St. Andrew’s cross flag, and then they compound the identity problem by calling it the Stars and Bars. This identity confusion is especially ironic because Confederates embraced the St. Andrew’s cross flag as the practical and symbolic antithesis of the Stars and Bars.” [p. 19]
Dr. Corski next discusses the implications this had in post-Civil War America. “In the decades immediately after the war and in the century since, former Confederates and their partisans have insisted that the battle flag is an apolitical symbol, distinct from the Confederacy’s national flags, and therefore not objectionable to a reunited America.” [p. 19] He quotes Carlton McCarthy from the 1882 memoir, Detailed Minutiae of Soldier Life in the Army of Northern Virginia regarding the flag being “not the flag of the Confederacy, but simply the banner … of the Confederate soldier. As such it should not share in the condemnation which our cause received, or suffer from its downfall.” [pp. 19-20] Dr. Corski asks what cause was attached to the flag. “There was little explicit discussion during the war about the Confederate flag as a symbol of slavery or racism; the 1863 editorials were rare exceptions. Based on this evidence, one modern scholar concluded that the battle flag in its Civil War context was not a ‘racist symbol’ because it did not have an explicit racist referent. Men did not create or carry it as a statement of racism or as a symbol of an unequivocally racist objective. But since men carrying the battle flag preserved and perpetuated the Confederate cause and their flag became the symbol of Confederate nationalism, linking the flag to slavery and racism requires only linking the cause to slavery. Understanding and evaluating the battle flag’s historical meaning requires opening the ultimate Pandora’s box of Civil War history and examining the role of slavery in the origin and raison d’être of the Confederacy.” [p. 20] Modern neoconfederate denials to the contrary aside, all one need do is look at the statements of the confederates at the time to make that connection. “Mosby, Rhett, Davis, Stephens, and other Confederates had no difficulty conceding what their descendants go to enormous lengths to deny: that the raison d’être of the Confederacy was the defense of slavery. It follows that, as the paramount symbol of the Confederate nation and as the flag of the armies that kept that nation alive, the St. Andrew’s cross is inherently associated with slavery. This conclusion is valid whether or not most southern soldiers consciously fought to preserve slavery. It is valid even though racism and segregation prevailed among nineteenth-century white northerners.” [p. 26] But the symbology of the flag is complicated. “Modern Americans looking for this kind of definitive judgment go wrong, however, in concluding further that the St. Andrew’s cross was only a symbol of slavery. Historians emphasize that defense of African-American slavery was inextricably intertwined with white southerners’ defense of their own constitutional liberties and with nearly every other facet of southern life. Descendants of Confederates are not wrong to believe that the flag symbolized defense of constitutional liberties and resistance to invasion by military forces determined to crush an experiment in nationhood. But they are wrong to believe that this interpretation of the flag’s meaning can be separated from the defense of slavery. They need only read the words of their Confederate ancestors to find abundant and irrefutable evidence.” [pp. 26-27]
We also learn of the flag’s use during Reconstruction. “Former Confederates resisted federal Reconstruction policy, especially the enfranchisement and empowerment of freed blacks, with terrorist and paramilitary activity, but nearly all did so without unfurling their wartime flags. The most famous resistance group, of course, was the Ku Klux Klan, which was born in a Pulaski, Tennessee, law office in the winter of 1865-66 and had strong Confederate roots. Nevertheless, the original KKK did not use Confederate flags in its rituals or in its terrorist acts. The KKK’s use of the Confederate flag awaited its second reincarnation in the 1940s. In contrast to the Klan, the Carolina Rifle Club of Charleston, South Carolina, fulfilled its mission of providing ‘the only organized defence [sic] of the white race against negro aggression’ under the same battle flag carried by Confederate troops a decade earlier. Founded in 1869, the club’s moment came during the 1876 gubernatorial campaign when members patrolled the streets to prevent rumored Negro rioting. Former Confederate General Wade Hampton won the election, and South Carolina was ‘redeemed’ from Reconstruction rule. The club’s official banner was a state flag with the letter ‘C’ superimposed over the palmetto tree. In 1874 the club was presented with a ‘valued relic’: an old Secession Flag that had flown on a prominent corner in wartime Charleston. A year later, members of the club donated the stars that had been torn from two battle flags in 1865 just before the flags were burned to prevent their capture. Then, in June 1875, the club’s new president, C. Irvine Walker, presented to the club the original battle flag carried during the war by his unit, the 10th South Carolina (Infantry) Volunteers. The men of the club carried the flag through the streets of Charleston shortly afterward. Walker, who subsequently became a commander-in-chief of the United Confederate Veterans, later boasted that ‘the Carolina Rifle Club had the honor of being the first military body of white men which paraded in the streets of the city or the State, bearing arms and the first to march under the Confederate Banner, since the struggles of the War had ceased.’ ” [pp. 49-50] Mostly, though, it was used as a memorial and in ceremonies during this period.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries we saw an increase in the attempts to deny slavery as being the reason for the confederacy’s existence. This included attempts to dictate what would be taught in schools. “The UDC [United Daughters of the Confederacy] created a History Committee which reported matter-of-factly in 1898 that in any acceptable school history ‘we must insist on declaring our own principles, that we knew we were right, and that those who fought and died in that struggle were neither traitors nor rebels.’ … At its 1892 convention the UCV [United Confederate Veterans] appointed a Historical Committee, charged ‘to formulate a plan to secure a true and reliable history of the late civil war, and to select a proper and truthful history of the United States to recommend for use in the public and private schools of the South.’ ‘What is needed,’ the Historical Committee reported in 1895, ‘is history equally fitted for use of North and South, divested of all passion and prejudice incident to the war period.’ The committee in 1907 posed questions about the war that could ‘be discussed dispassionately, without engendering sectional bad feeling.’ The questions and the answers provided to them revealed, however, that underlying the UCV’s conciliatory rhetoric was an insistence that history show simply that the South was right. The committee asked: Which side was responsible for the underlying causes of conflict? If slavery was a cause (but not the cause), who was responsible for slavery? Which side provoked the conflict? ‘Which side had the legal right to do what was done?’ and “Which side conducted itself the better and according to the rules of civilized warfare pending the conflict?’ Predictably, Committee Chairman Judge George L. Christian answered all the questions in favor of the Confederacy. Accepting this historical interpretation effectively asked northern veterans to admit that their cause was unjust and illegal and their behavior uncivilized.” [pp. 60-61] After World War I, “While denying vehemently that Confederates fought for slavery, southern partisans of the era did not hesitate to boast that Confederates fought for ‘white supremacy.’ The Sons of Confederate Veterans sought to recruit members in the early 1920s by appealing to the need to preserve the ‘high ideals and principles’ for which their forefathers had fought. Having ‘strategically won the victory in arms,’ the Confederates succumbed to overwhelming odds only to fight during Reconstruction ‘another great battle for white supremacy and southern ideals, and won again..’ UCV Commander-in-Chief R. A. Sneed in 1930 elaborated on the South’s ‘Superb Victory in Defeat’: ‘Great in war, you were even greater in Peace, for by the exercise of wise patience and statesmanship, by the display of the same gallantry that characterized you at Manassas, Shilo [sic], Gettysburg, and the wilderness, you wrested Dixieland from the ‘Tragic Era’ of Reconstruction Rule, with its reign of ignorance, mongrelism, and depravity, and established once and all [sic] on southern soil the incontrovertible doctrine of White Supremacy. History records no parallel to your illustrious achievements, both in War and Peace.’ … Building upon Sneed’s tribute to the Confederate veteran’s postwar victory for ‘the supremacy of the white race,’ George H. Armistead, of the Nashville Banner, told veterans two years later that ‘in saving the South to Anglo-Saxon civilization, we can now see that, in large measure, [the Confederate soldier] saved the nation; and that service will be history’s greatest monument to him.’ ” [pp. 61-62] The confederate flag, during this time, represented what the UDC and other confederate heritage groups regarded as so-called “correct” history. “Just as the battle flag became during the war the most important emblem of Confederate nationalism, so did it become during the memorial period the symbolic embodiment of the Lost Cause ideology.” [p. 62] To the extent that the confederate cause was related to slavery and white supremacy, the confederate flag during this time also can be traced to those two things. But it can also be traced to other factors related to the confederate cause. “White southern reverence for the battle flag was related clearly to reverence for the Confederate cause–for the memory of the Confederacy and its martyrs and sacrifices and for the principles of states’ rights and white supremacy. Rhetorical efforts, then and now, to demote the battle flag’s historical importance in order to make it more universally acceptable ran afoul of overwhelming evidence that the battle flag was a powerful symbol of the Confederate cause and the entire Confederate experience.” [p. 63]
Union veterans, though, had a very different and very negative message from display of the flag. “Despite the Confederate veterans’ appeal for respect for their battle flags as symbols of apolitical soldierly valor, many of their old foes never surrendered their conviction that the flags were symbols of treason. In October 1887 Georgia Governor John Gordon, a former Confederate General, faced severe criticism when he traveled to Ohio months after he and former Confederate President Jefferson Davis reportedly paraded in Macon, Georgia, with Confederate battle flags. Gordon, soon to become the first commander-in-chief of the United Confederate Veterans, pointed out that there had been only a dozen Confederate flags in Macon among some 50,000 U.S. flags. He appealed to the Ohioans to understand the motives for displaying Confederate flags. ‘I should have no hope for liberty in America if those men had not loved those flags and cheered them … Was there any disloyalty in our cheers to our battle flags?’ GAR [Grand Army of the Republic] members decried the ‘rebellious spirit’ shown at the 1890 dedication of the Lee monument. GAR Commander-in-Chief John A. Palmer issued an order in 1891 which stated: ‘A Comrade wearing the badge or uniform of the Order and participates in any demonstration where the ‘Rebel’ Flag is displayed, violates his obligation ‘to maintain true allegiance to the United States of America’ … and brings disgrace upon the order of which he is a member.’ … The GAR national encampment subsequently endorsed the order. Palmer reiterated his order two years later when members of an Atlanta GAR post marched in a parade in which Confederate flags were carried. ‘A rebel officer … has as much right to bear the traitor’s flag through the streets of a loyal city as he has to wear the traitor’s garb. It is against the terms of surrender, and is an act of hostility against the government of the United States.’ ” [pp. 66-67] Attitudes changed over time, though. “For most of the era between the Civil War and World War II, Americans indulged white southerners in their celebration of their heroes and their cause. ‘Let no old passions men betray, for both were right and true,’ wrote a Spanish-American War veteran in a poetic tribute to the Confederate flag. Within a remarkably short time, the country accepted the white South’s profession of a ‘dual loyality’ and agreed to honor Confederate veterans and their battle flag.” [p. 77]
Since World War II, the flag has become ubiquitous in American culture. “The widespread visibility that the flag has enjoyed–and from which it has suffered–in modern times simply did not occur until its association with the States’ Rights (Dixiecrat) Party campaign of 1948, a ‘flag fad’ in the early 1950s, and the battle against racial integration.” [p. 79] Some of the visibility is due to changes in state flags, some of these well before World War II. “The legislatures of Alabama and Florida in the 1890s adopted new state flags featuring a plain red St. Andrew’s cross on a white field. The red cross on the white field was (and still is) the whole Alabama state flag. The governor of Florida (a Confederate veteran) recommended adding a red St. Andrew’s cross to Florida’s flag, which bore only the state seal in the middle of a white field. Voters approved that change in November 1900.” [p. 79] Why make the change? “Late twentieth-century Confederate heritage activists claimed that the Alabama legislature settled with the vague suggestion of the battle flag because it did not want to risk retribution from the federal government. This reasoning seems weak, however, given the explicit use of the battle flag in neighboring Mississippi in 1894. With no apparent provocation and with little evident public attention, Mississippi in 1894 adopted a state flag that featured the Confederate battle emblem in the canton of a flag that also included three horizontal bars (red, white, and blue instead of the red, white, and red of the Stars and Bars). Confederate veterans organizations did not pressure the state to adopt the flag, nor did they lavish praise or attention of any kind when the change was made. When the state’s press reported the change at all, it did so without commentary. The flag changes in Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida coincided with the passage of formal Jim Crow segregation laws throughout the South. Four years before Mississippi incorporated a Confederate battle flag into its state flag, its constitutional convention passed pioneering provisions to ‘reform’ politics by effectively disenfranchising most African Americans. According to the white conservatives (including many Confederate veterans) who controlled the convention ‘hucksters and their ignorant negro dupes’ had been allowed to ‘pull down civilization’ since the introduction of Negro suffrage. The so-called Mississippi Plan required a literacy test and poll tax for all voters; but those who had enjoyed the right to vote prior to 1866 or 1867, or their lineal descendants, could register to vote without paying the tax or taking the test. Since former slaves had not been granted the franchise until the Reconstruction Acts of 1867, these ‘grandfather clauses’ prevented blacks from voting while awarding the vote to many impoverished and illiterate whites. Despite later suspicions, there were no tangible links connecting the two acts aside from the chronological coincidence.” [pp. 80-81]
Overt usage of the flag for racist purposes during that time, though, is difficult to find. “Fierce race-baiters such as James K. Vardaman of Mississippi, ‘Pitchfork Ben’ Tillman, and ‘Cotton Ed’ Smith, both of South Carolina, spoke at rallies to the strains of ‘Dixie’ but apparently did not share the platform with Confederate flags.” [p. 82] Dr. Coski postulates a reason for this: “Perhaps it was the flag’s ‘sacredness’ that prevented or at least severely limited its use in connection with racist violence before World War II. Late twentieth-century flag critics claimed that the Confederate flag accompanied mobs during the half-century of lynching that occurred in the South and Midwest from the 1880s to the 1930s. Accounts of lynchings do not support these claims, however. When civil rights activist James Forman visited Little Rock, Arkansas, in the late 1950s, a local resident recounted that when a mob of whites lynched twenty-two-year-old John Carter in May 1927 and then mutilated his body, ‘they took the American flag down and ran up a Confederate flag.’ Contemporary news accounts of the brutal lynching were silent on the subject of flags. Similarly, the Ku Klux Klan did not use the Confederate flag with any visibility until the 1940s. Much to the dismay and outrage of Confederate heritage groups today, no organization has had a greater role in shaping the media’s perception and presentation of the Confederate flag than the KKK. The anti-flag camp in modern debates often claims that the Ku Klux Klan adopted the flag early in its history and has been using it consistently in the 135 years since. Evidence suggests that, to the contrary, the KKK did not embrace the Confederate flag until the mid-twentieth century.” [p. 84]
While the original KKK was made up of confederate veterans and the second KKK was [re]born at Stone Mountain in Georgia and had its own confederate connections, “The earliest documented use of Confederate symbols by the Ku Klux Klan was in its third incarnation in the late 1930s and 1940s. … Stetson Kennedy, a Florida-born labor organizer and KKK investigator, uncovered use of the Confederate flag in the symbolism and ritual of several home-grown fascist groups. A small tract published in 1938 by the Florida-based White Front pictured the U.S. and Confederate flags on a page inviting membership in the White Front and its sponsoring military order, the White Guard. The United Sons of Dixie, a group incorporated in December 1943 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, used an initiation ritual requiring candidates to give the right answer to a battery of questions about segregation and making the United States ‘a white man’s country,’ then to take an oath on the Bible and the Confederate flag.” [pp. 87-88]
Part II focuses on the flag’s use after World War II. Dr. Coski starts by describing a scene on July 17, 1948 in Birmingham, Alabama: “Students from several southern colleges and universities serving as delegates to the States’ Rights Party convention carried the Confederate battle flag into the convention hall as the other delegates stood silently with hats over their hearts. The moment announced the marriage between the flag’s emerging pop-culture status and its ideological roots. Once again, in the 1940s as in the 1860s, the Confederate battle flag was the chosen symbol of people dedicated to defending states’ rights as a means to preserve a social order founded upon white supremacy. In the 1860s white supremacy meant slavery; in 1948 it meant legalized segregation.” [p. 98] At the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia that same month, the delegates approved a platform plank praising Truman’s civil rights program and calling on Congress to support civil rights. “Minneapolis Mayor Hubert H. Humphrey exhorted his fellow Democrats that ‘the time has arrived for the Democratic party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.’ In response to this obvious challenge, the Mississippi delegation and part of the Alabama delegation walked out of the convention hall. According to some reports, the Alabama delegates carried Confederate flags.” [p. 99]
Truman’s integration of the US military and his push for other civil rights legislation led to increased opposition from the Dixiecrats. “In Jackson, four thousand white Mississippians had gathered on February 12–Lincoln’s birthday–to sing ‘Dixie,’ wave Confederate flags, and adopt resolutions denouncing Truman’s recent civil rights proposals. Even the newly elected governor, Fielding Wright, held a small battle flag as he entered the auditorium. The self-declared States’ Rights Democrats condemned the federal government’s civil rights proposals and urged ‘all true white Democrats’ to convene in Jackson to plot a course of resistance. The conference occurred in early May. On the day it opened, the streets of Mississippi’s capital city reportedly were ‘bedecked’ with Confederate flags. The day before, Governor Wright gave a radio address in which he told the state’s blacks: ‘If any of you have become so deluded as to want to enter our white schools, patronize our hotels, and cafes, enjoy social equality with the whites, then kindness and true sympathy requires me to advise you to make your home in some other state than Mississippi.’ South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond delivered a keynote address that anticipated the one he would give in Birmingham two months later, warning the federal government not to force integration on the South.” [p. 100] Because the Democrats nominated Truman for another term, the Dixiecrats met again in Birmingham, Alabama, where they nominated Strom Thurmond for president and Fielding Wright for vice president. “Thurmond reportedly strode to the dais to deliver his acceptance speech escorted by the Stars and Stripes and by a Confederate battle flag. ‘No true southerner could fail to answer the call of his people,’ Thurmond told the overflowing, enthusiastic convention. He then delivered his infamous warning that ‘there’s not enough troops in the army to force the southern people to break down segregation and admit the negro race into our theaters, our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.’ ” [p. 101] The Dixiecrats were popular on southern college campuses. “There was a clear connection between the battle flags that appeared on college campuses and the flags associated with the Dixiecrat Party. It is tempting to conclude that the Dixiecrats’ association with the flag at football games and fraternity parties. The testimony of the student-delegates–and the use of the flag during the May meeting in Jackson–contradicted this explanation. The Ole Miss students told a Birmingham newspaper that they were in Birmingham on ‘serious business’ and not ‘as college students on a lark.’ A University of Alabama student-delegate told a reporter, ‘We’re just here to protest. Every fraternity at Tuscaloosa is flying a Confederate flag from the roof today.’ ” [p. 102] And they weren’t the only ones to support the Dixiecrats. “The Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) at a national convention in Montgomery in October 1948 passed resolutions supporting the States’ Rights Party: ‘We stand within the very shadow of our Confederate ancestors in affirming our stand.’ In contrast, the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) in November 1948 passed and sent to the southern states model ‘Legislation to Protect the Confederate Flag from Misuse.’ In its preface to the legislation, the drafting committee explained its rationale: ‘The attention of members of our organization has been called to the fact that in certain demonstrations of college groups and some political groups at times the Confederate Flag or insignia has been displayed with seeming disregard to its significance. Perhaps this was done in the exuberance of youth with no intent of disrespect, but, so that the flag and insignia of the Confederacy may be protected as the United States and other insignias are protected, this Convention deems this bill appropriate and needed at this time.’ The push for legislation came to naught in 1948, but the UDC maintained its wariness of flag ‘misuse’ and gathered support as flag use spread in the 1950s.” [p. 106]
The 1950s saw a wave of confederate flags in popular culture, a so-called “flag fad.” Even several instances of this fad had ideological overtones. “The flag fad in Korea occurred during the first stages of the racial integration of America’s armed services. Confederate flag wavers in Korea insisted that the black soldiers in their units did not protest or object openly to the rebel banner. However, it was a new African-American company commander who compelled a white Georgia infantryman to remove a Confederate flag from a tall pole on the company street. Men on the battlefield found it easier to ignore what they considered trivial orders and, they claimed, easier to comprehend that Confederate flags were in a real sense ‘American’ flags–reminders of home and sources of good-natured regional rivalries among American soldiers. By the end of the decade–owing largely to the racial strife that followed the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education–rebel flags at U.S. military bases were more likely to be interpreted as symbols of racial intolerance.” [p. 118] Dr. Coski tells us, “there was abundant testimony that anti-federal ideology indeed lay behind the flag’s popularity. ‘The Truman Democrats have been trying to move in and tell the South how to live,’ explained one [white] southerner. ‘We resent it and flagwaving expresses our general attitude.’ A Chicago woman bought a large battle flag from a Savannah, Georgia, store and told the clerk that she was sick of the Truman administration and that she replaced her Stars and Stripes in front of her home with the battle flag and tacked up a sign reading ‘We have seceded from the Union.’ Roy V. Harris, the king maker of Georgia politics and editor of the segregationist weekly Augusta Courier, believed fervently that the flag had ‘become associated with the movement to defeat Truman from one end of the nation to the other and most of the people who carry this flag do so as an expression of their sympathy for the southern cause and their opposition to the President.’ Warming to his subject, Harris declared that the flag was ‘a symbol of rebellion of the white people of this nation against Harry Truman and his damnable schemes.’ He urged his readers to ‘get your Confederate flag today and raise it.’ Following his own advice, Harris added a flag to the masthead of his five-year-old paper the following week and kept it there for decades.” [pp. 119-120] And a familiar organization got into the mix as well: “The SCV’s commander-in-chief in 1950 urged white southern men to join the organization to defend the southern ‘way of life.’ ‘We need increased membership of Confederate ancestry in our fight to preserve these traditions,’ which included ‘certain regulations regarding race segregation.’ ” [p. 120]
The late 1950s and early 1960s saw the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, and also a rise in the use of the confederate flag. “The assault on racial segregation by the federal government and by southern blacks intensified white southerners’ consciousness of their traditions and symbols at the same time that a federal initiative encouraged all states to develop and promote their Civil War history and resources. This was the era in which Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina incorporated the battle flag into their official symbolism, setting the stage for the rancorous flag wars of later decades.” [p. 128] The Civil War Centennial itself even had racial undertones. State delegations went to Charleston, South Carolina for the opening event. The New Jersey delegation included Madaline Williams, an African-American woman. She attempted to register at the hotel and was denied because of her race. When the President of the United States personally requested the hotel to make an exception to its policy of not allowing black folks to stay there, the hotel refused. The New Jersey and New York delegations then left the hotel. President Kennedy stepped in and moved the place for delegates to stay to the Charleston Naval Base, where black folks would be allowed to stay in the same building as white folks. “The tension escalated during the Sumter commemoration itself. The keynote speaker, Saturday Evening Post associate editor Ashley Halsey, a native South Carolinian, took the opportunity to express his disdain for what he believed to be the deliberate confrontation provoked by the New Jersey delegation. Halsey related a story of his unreconstructed grandmother hanging out ‘an enormous Confederate flag’ during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s visit to Charleston in 1936 and declared that current events compelled him to show ‘our flag’ again. He argued that the Civil War was not caused by slavery, that secession was understood to be constitutional in 1861, and that the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution were not passed legally [all historical lies]. Those amendments ‘which were railroaded into our Constitution are today the basis of our present racial unrest.’ Once asked, ‘Why won’t the South give the Negroes their rights?’ Halsey replied that ‘the South never has consented to those rights.’ … George C. Wallace [on taking office as Governor of Alabama] reminded white Alabamians of their grievances against the North during the Civil War and Reconstruction and promised them that he would never again sacrifice the southern ‘way of life’ to the federal government. Standing at a podium flanked by a Confederate battle flag as well as the Stars and Stripes and the state flag, Wallace intoned: ‘Today I have stood, where once Jefferson Davis stood, and took an oath to my people. It is very appropriate then that from this Cradle of the Confederacy, this very Heart of the Great Anglo-Saxon Southland … we sound the drum for freedom … Let us rise to the call of freedom-loving blood that is in us and send our answer to the tyranny that clanks its chains upon the South. In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny … and I say … segregation now … segregation tomorrow … segregation forever.’ ” [pp. 133-134]
From confederate flags used to protest against the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery to photos of KKK members with confederate flags to ordinary white southerners using confederate flags to protest against racial integration, Dr. Coski presents case after case of the use of the confederate flag in a racist context. “Civil rights leaders came to view the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of racism because they encountered it in situations in which white people intended it as a symbol of racism. The late legendary Congress of Racial Equality leader James Farmer saw the flag as a symbol of ‘aggressive racism.’ He remembered seeing Confederate flags whenever he was conscious of ‘people assembling for racist purposes.’ Civil rights lawyer Oliver Hill also associated the flag with encounters during ‘massive resistance days.’ ‘It was always used by ardent segregationists,’ he recalled, and it will always mean ‘ardent segregationism’ to him. For many African Americans, the battle flag evokes a dark sense of physical threat, often because of actual experiences in which the flag accompanied groups of people intent on doing them harm.” [p. 135]
And what about confederate heritage organizations like the Sons of Confederate Veterans? It seems they not only didn’t do anything to prevent or even protest against this use of the flag, but they also agreed with it. “Confederate heritage organizations did not advocate use of the battle flag as a symbol of defiance, but leaders of the Sons of Confederate Veterans sympathized explicitly with the fight against integration and even tried to align the SCV with the segregationist cause. ‘If you believe the true reasons for the War Between the States and that your ancestors were right in fighting for the privileges of each state to govern itself, it is your duty to assist in forming a larger organization that we may exert influence in the affairs of our state and nation,’ declared SCV Commander-in-Chief Belmont Dennis in January 1951. ‘We are against the national Administration’s effort to eliminate segregation in our Southland.’ Hatley Norton Mason, of Virginia, adjutant general of the SCV in the early 1950s, served later as president of the Virginia Defenders of State Sovereignty and Individual Liberties. He warned of groups ‘working to destroy the South and to some extent aimed at destroying the white race in America, then take over.’ ” [pp. 140-141] As Dr. Coski tells us, “The implication of this well-established pattern is that Confederate heritage leaders were not apolitical and that they saw links between the Confederate cause and the cause of segregation. While it is notable and significant that flag defenders refrained from dragging the flag into the struggles over segregation, it is also significant how many people who revered and protected or promoted the flag also held segregationist views and drew direct links between their Confederate heritage and the fight to preserve segregation. Their own segregationist tendencies may have muted their opposition to others who used the flag as a segregationist symbol.” [p. 141] Wherever racists protested against civil rights or demonstrated their opposition to civil rights, the confederate flag was present.
There are those today who claim the flag was “hijacked” and “perverted” during this time. “While being dragged into interracial controversies represented a major change from the flag’s use in the era before World War II, it is not exactly accurate to say that this use was a ‘gross perversion’ of its original meaning. The flag’s latter-day association with racial controversy has had more to do with a change in its relationship to society than with a change in its inherent symbolic meaning. Before World War II, the flag was a staid symbol of an established, explicitly white supremacist social order in the South that enjoyed the tacit support of the federal government. After the fight over civil rights was joined, the flag became, in some hands, a belligerent symbol of an order under attack by the federal government. In circumstances and in attitude, there is a fundamental difference between a symbol of the status quo and a symbol of protest. It was the circumstances of protest that called forth ‘slack-jawed juveniles’ to flaunt flags and heckle civil rights marchers on the road to Montgomery. The flag’s previous immunity to racial controversy relied on a consensus belief that the flag represented the soldierly valor of Confederate soldiers, which everyone could respect. This was an artificial consensus rooted in an explicitly white supremacist order in the South and its toleration by the rest of the nation. Once that order began to crumble and the toleration ended, so, too, did the flag’s exemption from racial controversy.” [pp. 159-160]
Part III takes us to the flag controversies of the present day. Dr. Coski does an excellent job of going over the various controversies and arguments over the flag, as well as its banning by a number of organizations from the Boy Scouts of America to Dupont and other businesses. After discussing several examples, Dr. Coski lets us know about the confederate heritage nuts who have gone way off the deep end: “A congress of southern heritage organizations at New Albany, Mississippi, in October 1996 adopted a declaration based on the ‘historical regard for the integrity of distinct peoples’ and the necessity of resisting the subversion of this ‘in a multicultural ‘melting pot.’ ‘ Defining ‘southerners’ as ‘a Christian people of Northwest European descent, with predominantly Anglo-Celtic institutions, traditions, culture, and heritage’ (wherever they ‘may abide’), the New Albany Congress observed that ‘the European-derived peoples who constitute the American South’ are the most threatened of all ‘distinct peoples.’ The Civil War had been a campaign to subjugate and obliterate the southern people, as were Reconstruction, the subsequent three-quarters of a century of continued ‘economic exploitation,’ and the ‘second, more terrible reconstruction’ in the civil rights era. Civil rights ‘was thrust on us through propaganda, deceit, and force of arms by adherents of the Marxist, universalist ideology known as liberalism, an ideology alien to the southern people, contrary to God’s laws, and destructive of all who are deceived by it.’ The attack continues today in a ‘relentless campaign of slander and abasement against our institutions, traditions, symbols, and history through destructive laws, biased reporting, and teaching of false universalist doctrines.’ In response to these destructive tendencies, the New Albany Declaration offered a seven-point ‘Southern Creed’ and a five-point ‘Resolve for Southern Self-Determination.’ The first two points of the resolve declared that ‘we shall never accept the defeat of the Confederacy, the subjugation of our people, nor the eradication of our symbols as the final judge of history’ and that ‘no honorable retreat or compromise is possible’ in the ‘defense and preservation of southern symbols, monuments, relics, and history.’ The third point resolved ‘that the Confederate Battle flag is the banner of the southern people and stands preeminent as the most powerful symbol of liberty and southern nationhood in a constellation of venerable southern symbols.’ ” [p. 297]
This wonderful book is an outstanding discussion of the battle flag, its historical context, and the background of the various battles over the confederate flag we’ve had. I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to understand this issue.
You can read an update article by Dr. Coski that appeared in the October 2015 issue of the magazine Civil War Times here.