Finding Meaning in the Flag: Contextualizing the Confederate Flag

This post is the first in a series about the Confederate flag in history, memory, and culture. It offers one Fellow’s individual perspective as she investigates different sources and opinions. Please feel free to engage with the author and the Civil War Institute community in the comments section.

By Olivia Ortman ’19

When I first learned about the removal of the Confederate flag from South Carolina’s state building in July of 2015, I was angry like many other people. For me, it wasn’t about the actual removal of the flag, but rather the arguments sparked around it. I understood not flying the flag on a state building; as such a building represents state and country, and the Confederate flag symbolizes neither the United States nor South Carolina. However, I didn’t understand the public hatred towards the flag.

A Confederate flag rally was held in Gettysburg in March 2016. Photo credit: Jeff Lauck.
A Confederate flag rally was held in Gettysburg in March 2016. Photo credit: Jeff Lauck.

People were demanding the flag’s removal from all public spaces on the grounds of the flag inspiring racism and violence, and I didn’t agree with this demand. I had read a very vague reference in the article I was perusing that connected the decision to remove the flag with a mass shooting in a historically black church, but I didn’t see how this incident made the flag inherently evil. The Christian cross has inspired far more cruelty and death, yet we still openly accept it. The flag is just a piece of history, a memorial to the Southern men who died fighting in the Civil War. It occasionally gets misused, as was the case with the mass shooting, but the blame with that should lie with the misguided shooter, not the object he may have been carrying. Removing the Confederate flag from all public spaces would only be a destruction of history, and that was inexcusable to me.

About a month later, the Gettysburg College Civil War Club invited an alumnus to talk about his experience in public history. At the end of his talk, the discussion inevitably turned towards the Confederate flag controversy, and this alumnus made a comment that I will never forget: “What would the Union officers think if they could see all the Confederate flags displayed throughout the nation?” This is a question I had never thought about before. As the alumnus pointed out, the Union soldiers had fought hard for their victory, and the continued display of the Confederate flag would be an affront to that victory. Nowhere else in history will you find an example of the symbol of the losing side being openly displayed with pride after its defeat. He wasn’t saying we had to hate the flag because a Union soldier would have found it offensive, but he was asking us to think about the situation from multiple perspectives.

I left that meeting feeling very confused. Had I been incorrect in my views of the flag? Was it wrong to sell miniature confederate flags in museum gift shops? Did the Confederate flag belong in the same category of taboo items such as the swastika? What should I feel about the flag? These are all questions I have yet to resolve, and when recently asked what my ideas were for my next blog post, I decided it was time to answer those questions.

I am a girl who grew up in northwestern Connecticut, a place that I feel is about as removed from the Civil War as you can get. In Connecticut, you don’t hear much about the Confederate flag. We learn the general summary of the Civil War, and we might see a picture of the flag in a text book, but its role in our lives there is very minuscule. We spend more time learning about the underground railroad and industrialization, topics that I now realize are biased towards the specific place Connecticut has in history. Half of Main Street in my town is home to rundown factories which had provided hundreds of jobs and made the town a prime destination just a century ago. In grade school we would take field trips to several homes which boasted secret compartments where slaves would hide on their trail to freedom. My town is not unique in those aspects; towns across the state have places that are identical. It wasn’t until I developed an interest in the Civil War and started traveling further South that I started to see and hear more about the Confederate flag. However, my knowledge and experience with the flag were still very small. I realized that maybe I had been too quick to jump to an opinion before getting all the facts.

Over the course of the next few months, I plan to use history to help me understand the Confederate flag. Each blog post will focus on a different perspective of the flag, from the moment of its creation to its interpretation in the present day. Through the analysis of first-person accounts, I will be able to learn how the flag has been used throughout history and the symbolic significance it has held. It is my hope that you, as the reader, will join me as an active participant on this journey. Whether you are confused about the flag like I am, or you already have a well-developed opinion, this will be a great opportunity to explore an important piece of history. My goal is not to tell you how to see the flag but simply to provide you with information and leave you with questions that will help you come to your own conclusion. As I analyze each new perspective, I hope that you will leave questions and thoughts and let me know what further perspectives you would like me to look at.


Sources:

Coski, John M. 2005. The Confederate Battle Flag : America’s Most Embattled Emblem. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005. eBook Academic Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed October 21, 2016).

McCrummen, Stephanie, and Elahe Izadi. “Confederate Flag Comes down on South Carolina’s Statehouse Grounds.” The Washington Post, July 10, 2015. Accessed October 30, 2016.

McLeod, Harriet. “Battle Over Confederate Flag Unravels Across The South.” The Huffington Post. June 23, 2016. Accessed October 30, 2016.

Ruth, Michael. 2016. “U.S. Confederate Flag.” Salem Press EncyclopediaResearch Starters, EBSCOhost (accessed October 21, 2016).

22 thoughts on “Finding Meaning in the Flag: Contextualizing the Confederate Flag”

  1. For your consideration: had the American Civil War had a different outcome, the South being successful in its cesession and victorious in its war with the North, would the South, today, be flying the Stars and Stripes? Would said flag even be welcome in the South?

    1. My best guess for that scenario would be that the U.S. flag would have a similar place in the Confederacy as the British flag has in our country today. In the initial years of victory, the Stars and Stripes would no doubt have been taboo throughout Confederate states due to animosity caused by the war. After enough time, the Confederacy and the United States would have probably formed trade alliances and as long as relations between the nations were amicable, the U.S. flag would eventually show up on clothing and bags (like the British flag in our nation today). This would depend on whether the U.S. accepted the Confederacy as a new nation and if the two nations managed to avoid further war between each other.

    2. Hi Nancy -good points – I never thought of that!

      Keep in mind that the goal of most Northerners at the end of the war was to completely subjugate as well as punish the the South . The the goal of the Confederate’s never was the overthrowing and subjugation of the North , rather to be allowed their freedom from the Union. Of course a Southern victory would have likely meant no Stars and Stripes would fly at government buildings in the South.

      That said, Unionist living in the South or other Southern people wanting to honor their American heritage, probably would be allowed to fly the Stars and Stripes on private property or at their places of business with out a public outcry . I also speculate that it would fly at Chalmette Battlefield, at Yorktown, Monticello and Mt Vernon and other places in the South important to pre 1861 American history . Perhaps also adjacent to any monuments and statues to Washington , Jefferson, Jackson and other Revolutionary War and 1812 heroes. Maybe , maybe not, however I do argue strongly that Southern people would pay reverence to the Stars and Stripes and allow it placed on graves or at any Southern cemetery where Union soldiers and veterans were buried

      I might also speculate that you might actually see the Stars and Stripes at a few courthouses in areas like Eastern Tennessee , the German settled unionist Texas Hill country towns . Had the Confederacy won it’s independence, I believe we still might see a Paul Revere High School or Benjamin Franklin Middle School some where in the South with a 13 Star American Flag in the hallway. Of course we have no way to validate my imagination..

      I also seriously doubt there would be anybody from the South taking offense to images of the Stars and Stripes on t-shirts and that children would be expelled from schools for having a Stars and Stripes decal on their backpacks. I just don’t think we have ever seen descendants of Confederates marching in the streets to burn the Stars and Stripes regardless of where they are.

      We southerners have antibodies in our blood that protect us form the political correctness virus.

    3. My best guess for that scenario would be that the U.S. flag would have a similar place in the Confederacy as the British flag has in our country today. Immediately following the war, the Stars and Stripes would no doubt be taboo throughout the Confederate states. Depending on when they won the war, one of their own designs for a national flag would have flown. A flag is a representation of a nation, and since the Confederacy would have been a separate nation from the United States, it would have needed its own flag. Eventually, relations between the Confederacy and the United States would probably become amicable – through trade relations – and with less hostility between the two nations, the Stars and Stripes would stop being taboo. U.S. flags would be on clothing and bags like the British flag is in our country today. I can’t know for sure,though. If the Confederacy had been victorious in the Civil War, there are many possibilities for what might have happened to the Stars and Stripes.

  2. Very impressive Im from California very far removed from the war however one must ask:Is the Confederate flag part of U.S. history! You can’t sweep in under the rug. Does that flag create hate? Yes so there has to be a “frontal assault” on open communication not confrontation between all sides and region’s but you can’t look away from history

    1. Personally, I think the Confederate flag is undoubtedly part of U.S. history. I agree with you on open communication. The flag has been a powerful symbol for over 150 years and part of that symbolism has been connected to hate. It has also been a symbol of heritage and love of ancestors. This has created a lot of emotionally charged controversy and argument where the flag is concerned. To remove a lot of the animosity surrounding the flag, we need to better understand the flag’s history and what that history has added to the flag’s symbolism. We will only be able to move forward by looking at all sides of the flag’s symbolism and communicating (with a heavy dose of listening) with others.

  3. Much of the reverence for “the” Confederate flag comes from descendants of the men who followed it into battle . Up until a few decades ago, we (at least in the South ), were taught that the reasons they fought were to defend their homeland from those who sought to do “us ” harm as well as the cause for independence of states to keep their powers and rights from a centralized, growing federal form of government set on depriving those rights . Of course slavery was one of these rights , codified in the Constitution .

    Now schools teach that our ancestors fought so they could keep their slaves. There is some truth to that as the plantation class of cotton barons were fighting for their economic survival, yet the majority of Confederate soldiers did not come from slave owning families .Your average Confederate soldier fought because of patriotism and the belief that his home and family was under threat and he didn’t fight so his rich neighbors could keep their slaves.

    There is also little evidence to support the argument that the North went to war in 1861 to “free the slaves” . Emancipation only came into play after 18 months and with only few military victories and Lincoln was convinced that slaves were a crucial part of the Southern war effort . Liberating slaves would be an effective weapon against the Southern economy, hence against the Confederate military.

    To say they fought “for slavery ” as is being currently taught, is an over simplified “bumper sticker ” version of history. The part about Lincoln demanding 75,000 soldiers to attack neighbors motivating 4 additional states to secede is often omitted. The part about President Buchanan wanting to negotiate a constitutionally legal solution is seldom taught. The blame his successor bears for refusing to negotiate at the expense of 650,000 American lives is forgotten. The part about our government taking political prisoners and many other unconstitutional executive actions is erased . The part about Lincoln and most Northern white abolitionist wanting to deport the slaves to Africa , Haiti or Latin America and not wanting blacks to live in the North is not taught.

    The false narrative that North was fighting to free the slaves is now is the dominant lesson being taught and portrayed about the Civil War and it is no longer politically correct to believe anything else. Because of this, many of us also see the Confederate flags (there are more than one) as well as our monuments , as symbols against political correctness.

  4. Hey Olivia- one other comment – I suggest you read the comments of Randolph Harrison McKim – a Confederate Veteran who became an Episcopal Minister and author – here is part of a speech he gave in 1895 concerning the duality of the reconstructed Confederate veterans :

    ” “..….Strange as it may seem to one who does not understand our People, inconsistent and incomprehensible as it may appear, , we salute the banner of the Stars and Stripes, – the symbol of our reunited country, at the same moment we come together to do homage to the Stars and Bars. There is in our hearts a double loyalty today, a loyalty to the present and a loyalty to the dear dead past. We still love our old battle flag with the Southern Cross upon its fiery fields! We have wrapped it around our hearts, we have enshrined it in the sacred ark of our love; and we will honor it and cherish it evermore-not now as a political symbol but the consecrated emblem of an heroic epoch; as the sacred monument of a day that is dead, as the embodiment of memories that will be tender and holy as long as life shall last.
    The Soldiers of the Southern Cross long ago bowed to the decree of Almighty God in the issue of the great conflict for his will is wiser and better than ours. We thank God that the sun shines on a reunited country. We love our Southland and we are Southern men but we are glad that sectionalism is dead and buried and we claim our full part in working out the great destiny that lies before the American people. “

    ~ Randolph Harrison McKim , Confederate Chaplain & Veteran of the Army of Northern Virginia, Episcopal Pastor

    From an oration on the motives and aims of the soldiers of the South

    1. Hi Robert, thank you for your comments. I am eager to look into the orations of Randolph Harrison McKim and possibly find a place for him in one of the future posts I will do on the symbolism of the flag. As you’ve pointed out, there is a discrepancy in what we learn about the flag and the Civil War based on where we live. True history is not an “either, or” account of events, but an acknowledgement that there are many different aspects to everything. You have made a lot of very good points from a pro-Confederate flag and Southern standpoints which I will attempt to include in future posts in this series which handle the pro-flag and Southern standpoints. (I hope you will bear with me on those posts because I do have a word limit so I have to try to summarize the feelings as best I can, but your comments are always welcome.) I will also be delving into the other views of the flag as well because I do believe that all views need to be given value and an opportunity to be heard in order to paint a full picture of a living, breathing history.

      1. you are welcome and thank you for your open minded approach!! It is refreshing to find a young person one willing to accept more than one side of an argument these days!

        I am not going to deny any of the negative aspects of the Confederate cause as there were forces at work in both the North and the South that were racists if not down right nefarious by todays standards. But that’s one of the keys to understanding all this – the standards and basis for peoples beliefs were so much different 150 years ago.

        When an entire civilization (European / American) was taught for centuries by their best and brightest scholars, scientist , political leaders and clergy that the European race was superior to the African race and it was presented as a moral and scientific fact then it is easy to understand how a society could accept slavery. The union of the 13 colonies barely addressed it when they bonded together for convenience sake to win independence from King George. Not sure they all envisioned a single nation with an epicenter of federal power when they met to represent what they thought would be their sovereign states. I also feel like Jefferson and the others deliberately overlooked or did not see or acknowledge he hypocrisy of the “all men are created equal” phrase in the Declaration of Independence.

        So to sum it up in 1861 95% of Americans North and South were racists by todays standards. To say that the South fought for slavery is an incomplete truth , and to say the North fought to end slavery is even further from being completely true.

        In addition to McKim’s, writings I would suggest you go one step further to obtain a Southern or as you say “pro Confederate” ‘ view point . I would suggest you find the nearest SCV Camp in your area – not sure there are any in Connecticut but they are in new York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania . Attend a Sons of Confederate Veterans meeting or event they sponsor , talk to some other descendants and discover that they are not bigots promoting hate rather if they are like my compatriots, here in Texas they are a group of history nerds who take pride in the struggles that their forefathers endured.

        Again thank you for your open minded approach to this.

  5. I must say that, in all honesty, I don’t care what the northern soldiers would think about seeing the southern flags displayed. Their invasion of the sovereign south was illegal, and in spite of the fact that they won the contest of arms, the southern cause of preserving the constitutional freedoms granted to all states is alive and well throughout the south – and indeed, throughout the nation. The War Between the States (the only correct term for the late unpleasantness) left this nation with a deeply unresolved issue – the issue that impelled the separation and the taking up of arms on both sides: does a dictator have the constitution right to change the fundamental structure of our nation from a constitutional republic (where the federal government is subordinate to the will of the states and the people) to a federal republic (where the states and the people are subordinate to the will of the federal government) through an illegal contest of arms without a corresponding ratification by the states and the people? We went from “these Unites States are,” to “the United States is” as a result of the war, but the people were never given the chance to approve this change. Nearly 500,000 men, women, and children died because Lincoln and the north wanted to change what the founding fathers established on this continent. The south surrendered its armies, but it did not surrender it’s rights guaranteed to the states and the people under the constitution. The flag in its historical context symbolizes the struggle of the south against the North’s illegal actions – actions that the north still has not been called to answer for either in the courts or the polls. Until the fundamental cause of the War Between the States is finally resolved, the flag will represent those who fought and died to preserve the constitution against the North’s attempts to usurp powers to the federal government that were never granted to the federal government, and it will be sacred and holy to those who, still, await the day when the issue that impelled the separation will finally be legally resolved according to the constitution, based on the will of the people and the states, and without being forced upon us by the sword and the bayonet of a despotic conqueror.

  6. The Confederate Flag, and the Battle flag are part of American History. The people trying to remove and ban it do not like America, or being American!!!

    1. As of right now, there is no legislation currently being steamrolled through Congress to ban the First, Second, or Third National. FBI agents are not plotting to infiltrate SCV chapters to sabotage their banners. President Obama has not nationalized the National Guard to topple flag poles bearing the Confederate Navy Jack.

      Now that that’s settled, let’s look at what has actually happened. South Carolina removed the Confederate flag that flew above their statehouse. Mississippi is considering (although is unlikely to actually commit) to changing their state flag to get rid of the Confederate symbolism. Distributors like Eastern National, Walmart, and Amazon have removed the flag from their catalogs. Not because the federal governments made them do it, but because in each case their constituents wanted them to do it. In South Carolina, the state legislature did it because they believed the South Carolina voters would reward them for doing so. At Walmart, the company decided that it would help their standing with customers. These actions demonstrate the basic tenants of democracy and capitalism, which are as American as apple pie.

  7. I believe people are being disrespectful to the everyday soldier claiming it’s a symbol of hate & bigotry. 270,000 soldiers lost their lives fighting under that flag. The flag served only as rally point to keep soldiers abreast to where they were to be. Nothing more and for people make it more than that, they are the problem. I had 13 GG uncles who fought against that flag, one was killed, several wounded. All soldiers both North & South were Americans. They met & shook hands at the reunions because they had respect for each other. They all fought for their homeland, to defend what was theirs. These pc people need to demonize something that is evil, not an animate object because of misuse by some mentally challenged people.

    1. the false narrative that the Confederate flag represents racism has been bought by many Americans as it has been sold hook line and sinker by the P C Crowd in academia, the media and in Hollywood . Because of the misinformation and omission of facts by America’s education system, it is an easy target and “low hanging fruit” and vilifying White Southerners and their heritage is one of the first steps in rewriting and re-contextualizing all of American history to fit the agenda of the socialist who are successful when they can keep the population divided into different groups.

      1. I think that the flag has changed over time, much as symbols often do. The thoughts that Confederate veterans had about the flag was different than the thoughts that other groups hold about it. For example, the flag does not always represent the veterans. When groups such as the KKK utilize the Confederate Battle Flag, the St. Andrews’ Cross, the flag is no longer merely a symbol of heritage.

        1. and the reason people equate the Battle flag with the KKK is due to nothing but ignorance and the misinformation and stereotyping perpetuated by the media and academia . The KKK is frequently and commonly seen with the Stars and Stripes at their appearances yet no one seems to equate that flag with racism or slavery – here is something to consider – prior to 1808 Ships flying the stars and Stripes did carry African slaves to this continent. None of the flags of the Confederacy ever flew on a slave ship.

          The narrative that battle flag represents hate and racism has been drummed into us during the last 3 or 4 decades by disingenuous or lazy academics and a complacent media and is now engrained into the beliefs of so many people . These so called educators and purveyors of knowledge have succumbed to the political correctness movement for fear that any further investigation or presentation of the complex truth would result in the presenters being labeled as racists.

  8. As to your Feeling of Confusion, over what would the Union soldiers think about all the Battle Flags being displayed today? Starting in the 1880’s and on into the 20th Century, there were many Blue-Gray Reunions, were Veterans from Both sides came together in the Spirit of Reconciliation…..if you have ever seen any pictures of these Reunions you will see that The Confederate Battle flag was displayed. So I don’t think they would mind at all! So the point brought on by this alumnus is Moot!

    1. I am sure that many Union vets, especially those who committed themselves to the ideology of reconciliation (namely Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.), would have had little objection to the Confederate flag. As you note, many soldiers in blue met with those in gray at reunions. They both physically and symbolically “clasped hands across the bloody chasm.” But to equate these Union vets with all Union vets is a mistake. Surely Union veterans were not a homogeneous group. Many likely abhorred the Confederate flag until the end of their days. After the guns fell silent at Appomattox, soldiers on both sides engaged in a new battle to fight for their own interpretations of what they had just fought for. Not everyone simply wanted to befriend their adversaries. Moreover, it is hard to imagine that many of the nearly 200,000 African American soldiers who fought for the Union Army (about half of whom were runaway slaves) were indifferent to the Confederate flag. For more information on how former Union (and Confederate) soldiers fought hard to preserve their own memory of the war, I would consider checking out Caroline Janney’s Remembering the Civil War (UNC Press, 2013).

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