The Confederate Flag in History, Memory, and Public Culture: Three Questions for John Coski

Image courtesy of Janet Greentree and the Bull Run Civil War Round Table.

By Ashley Whitehead Luskey

This post is part of our series of interviews with speakers from the upcoming 2017 CWI conference about their talks. It also intersects with our new bimonthly series on the Confederate flag in history in memory, which you can read by starting here

Today we are speaking with Dr. John Coski, the Historian of the American Civil War Museum in Richmond, Virginia.  Prior to 2014, he served as the Historian of The Museum of the Confederacy, where he had worked in various capacities since 1988, and was the editor and principal writer of the museum’s quarterly magazine. He is the author of several books, most notably The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem (Harvard University Press, 2005) and Capital Navy: The Men, Ships, and Operations of the James River Squadron (Savas Beatie, 1996), and more than 125 essays, articles, and reviews.  A leading authority on the history of the Confederate flag, he has lectured widely on Civil War topics and participated in many academic conferences and community discussions about Confederate symbols and controversies.

CWI:  What specific aspects of the Confederate flag and its history will you be focusing on in your upcoming talk?  What are some of the most common perceptions and/or misconceptions about the Confederate flag?

COSKI:  Not to be too evasive about this, the specific emphasis of my talk will depend on the current events that are shaping discussion of the flag as of June 2017. In the 28 years that I’ve been studying the flag, it has never not been in the news.  Assuming that the debates and actions that followed the June 2015 Charleston murders are still fresh in everyone’s minds next year, I will try to put what happened in the wake of Charleston into a larger historical context.

The most common misperception about the flag is that there’s only one (legitimate) perception of its meaning.  Even if someone believes fervently that her own perception of the flag is the only correct one, she quickly realizes that not everyone shares that perception. How she – and how we all – react to that realization is the essence of our modern discussions about the flag.

CWI:  How has the meaning, use, and memory of the Confederate flag changed or evolved over time and why?  What role has the flag played in public culture as well as in American memory?

COSKI:  Somebody could write a book on that subject!  The shorthand I’ve developed to explain this without regurgitating my entire book is that the flag has evolved from a battle flag to a de facto national flag to the symbol of the white South and of its defense to a symbol of rebellion generally to a symbol of divergent understandings of the Confederacy and its legacies.  This evolution has been accretive; each use, perception, and meaning adds to, not replaces, the flag’s historical and symbolic baggage.  The rise and fall of the flag as part of America’s public culture – as a part of the nation’s commemorative landscape – provides insight into the influence of the “Confederate tradition” in the national memory of the Civil War and into the history of American race relations.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

CWI:  With so much recent debate in the news and among the general public about the Confederate flag and its proper role in public culture, why does an understanding of the complex and evolutionary history of the Confederate flag matter today?

COSKI:  The Confederate flag has been and continues to be the most frequent stimulus for public discussion over the causes and consequences of the American Civil War.  Although that discussion is, unfortunately, often simplistic and emotional, it is occasionally insightful, instructive, and constructive.  An understanding of the flag’s complex history and evolution promotes the constructive discussion of the War and its continuing legacies that we all seek.

If you are interested in hearing more from John Coski and other distinguished scholars, consider registering for our 2017 summer conference

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