Finding Meaning in the Flag: The KKK Era

By Olivia Ortman ’19

This post is the seventh 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. Read the first post here.

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Image drawn by Arthur Szyck in 1949. Bubble in top corner reads: “Do not forgive them oh lord, for they do know what they do!” Bottom bubble reads: “Each negro lynching is a national disaster! Is a stab in the back to our government in its desperate struggle for democracy…”

In 1972, black Vietnam soldier, Frank J. Francis sat down for an interview with Forward, an African American newspaper in New Jersey. The purpose of the interview was for Francis to share his experiences with racism in the army. At one point, Francis began talking about the Confederate flag. He told his interviewer, “If anyone is familiar with the South, then one knows that throughout the South black people have been and are still being terrorized by such organizations as the KKK or the White Citizens’ Councils, extreme anti-black, racist organizations. These people use the Confederate flag as a symbol of their allegiance to the racist South and all of its anti-black policies.” Francis further shared that the flag was often displayed by white men; there were four Confederate flags in his company alone. The black soldiers found these flags highly antagonistic because, as Francis explained, that flag could only mean one thing: The presence of racist organization members and sympathizers. Even in Vietnam, Francis’s most concerning battle was the one he had to fight over his skin color . Others, however, would have a very different experience with the Confederate flag and its symbolism in those circumstances.

Francis’s association of the flag with racism was not unique; it followed a century’s worth of tradition. One of the first hate groups to adopt the Confederate flag as their symbol was the Carolina Rifle Club of Charleston, South Carolina. The group was formed in 1869 to defend the white race against “negro aggression.” Although their official flag was their state flag with a C superimposed over the palmetto tree, in the late 1870s, the club’s president boasted that it was “the first military body of white men which paraded in the streets of the city or the State, bearing arms…under the Confederate Banner, since the struggles of the War had ceased.” The South Carolina Rifle Club would be the first of many hate groups to carry the flag while preaching white supremacy.

The hate group most commonly associated with the Confederate Flag, the Ku Klux Klan, did not pick up the Confederate flag until much later. Although the KKK was formed in 1865 by a group of ex-Confederate soldiers, their connection to the flag was individual, not organizational. Several of the founding members had Confederate flags draped over their caskets when they died, denoting their involvement in the Confederacy, but the group itself did not specifically identify with the flag. Actually, since the early 1900’s, the KKK’s official flag has been, and still is to my knowledge, the U.S. flag. The group’s goal was to defend America, which (to them) meant enforcing racial segregation and black subordination at the time.

The first serious connection between the KKK as an organization and the Confederate flag was made in 1946. Stetson Kennedy, a labor organizer and investigator from Florida, went undercover to investigate a Klan in Atlanta. During the initiation ceremony, Kennedy noticed the presence of a Confederate flag draped across the altar. His description of the ceremony was featured in the May 27th edition of Life magazine, along with a story of the Klan’s attempted comeback.

Although there is nothing that explicitly states why the different Klan factions began incorporating the Confederate flag into their iconography, it was most likely a desire to identify with their Confederate ancestors. Historian John Coski explains that World War II had reinvigorated a sense of regional identification and the flag’s connection to a unique southern identity. The Klan’s adoption of the flag coincides with the end of World War II and an overall southern desire to connect with the flag. The Klan members in the 1940’s were also amongst the first generations of Klansmen not directly connected to the Civil War. The original founders of the KKK and many of the members of early Klans were Confederate veterans. These early members did not need the Confederate flag to be identified as men who fought to preserve a distinctly southern way of life . For later generations of Klansmen who had not fought in the Civil War, the flag provided a tangible connection to since-deceased Confederate soldiers, men whom Klansmen upheld as heroes.

The Klan’s connection to the Confederate flag would continue to grow throughout the 1950’s and beyond. By the mid-1960’s, the Confederate flag became almost synonymous with the KKK and white supremacy. Life magazine did a series of articles on the KKK throughout 1965, each one featuring prominent Klansmen standing in front of large Confederate flags. The first article was printed in the February edition and discusses several hate groups in America. The section dedicated to the KKK is preceded by a full-page image of Imperial Wizard Robert Shelton in full regalia posed in front of a very large Confederate flag. The magazine quotes other Klan members stating, “Fools, traitors, and Communists seek to mix our race with the blood of an inferior and cannibalistic black race,” as well as, more simply, “We’re against the niggers.” The implication could not be made any clearer. By posing a prominent Klan member in front of the flag, Life and Shelton were claiming the Confederate flag as a symbol for the KKK and therefore intertwining the flag with the group’s racist agenda.

Two months later, Life’s April edition featured a full article on the KKK alone. Halfway through the article, a Klan member is pictured holding a Bible and a copy of the Constitution and wearing a Confederate flag vest. Above the picture is the quote, “We love Negroes, in their place – like shinin’ shows, etc.” The May edition provides the most shocking connection to racism of all. Life covered the trial of Collie LeRoy Wilkins, a 21-year-old Klansman who murdered Viola Liuzzo, a white civil rights advocate. Throughout the trial, Wilkins ranted and raved about his violent ideas concerning blacks and the whites that helped them. Regardless of these horrifying comments, the jury found Wilkins not guilty and set him free. What was the first thing Wilkins did upon release? Wilkins marched in a Klan parade where he proudly waved a Confederate flag to the applause of the crowd. Growing up in an atmosphere like this, it is no wonder that Frank Francis would see the Confederate flag as being solely a symbol of racist hate groups.

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Imperial Wizard, Robert M. Shelton, signs autographs at a KKK rally in Hattiesburg, Miss. in 1965. The flag in the corner appears to be a Confederate flag.

Surprisingly, however, the flag was also used as the symbol of an anti-racist group. In 1970, just two years before Francis gave his interview, the newspaper Great Speckled Bird printed an article about a group calling themselves Young Patriots. The Young Patriots were young white activists based in Chicago who used community service to address issues of oppression within impoverished white communities. Although their primary focus was on poor whites, the Young Patriots used their work as a platform to foster a partnership with African Americans who were also being oppressed by rich whites. The group had modeled itself after the Black Panthers and actually worked very closely with the Panthers to spread acceptance and awareness of struggles faced by African Americans.

Members of the group were very proud to share photos of a rally held jointly with the Panthers in Chicago. In these photos, a Confederate flag hangs behind the podium right next to the Panthers’ flag. For these young white men and women, the Confederate flag represented their southern heritage and what they celebrated as a uniquely southern tradition of rebellion . The Young Patriots ignored the causes of the Civil War, reducing it simply to an act of resistance by southerners, therefore making the Confederate flag the ultimate symbol of resistance to authority. The group then used the flag as a connection between themselves and poor white southerners, visually stating that they all had distinct southern roots based in rebellion. By displaying the Confederate flag, the group hoped to rally impoverished whites to join African Americans in resistance against their mutual oppressors.

Support for the Young Patriots varied amongst African Americans. Those who supported the Black Panthers usually looked favorably upon the Young Patriots, although they acknowledge there were still some racist qualities that needed to be ironed out. Others who felt the Black Panthers were too militant typically classified the Young Patriots in the same category of radicalism. Although neither that article nor the other dozen articles I looked through specifically mentioned how African Americans felt about the group’s use of the Confederate flag, its continued use seems to imply a measure of acceptance from the African American community. The Young Patriots worked very closely with the Panthers and often displayed the Confederate flag beside the Panthers’ flag. Since the Panthers allowed this, they must not have been overly offended by the flag. Maybe the Panthers saw this as a small token of revenge against white southern supremacists: They were appropriating one of the most dominant pieces of those supremacists’ iconography and imbuing it with a message of black support in order to ultimately empower the African American community to defeat such racism. However, it is likely that the Confederate flag was still very jarring for African Americans unfamiliar with the Young Patriots . Most African Americans’ only experiences with this flag had been instances of hate and racism. For them, it was a symbol of oppression and white supremacy. Considering the pervasiveness of this interpretation of the flag, one can understand how wary many African Americans must have felt when confronted by the Young Patriots bearing the flag aloft. However, the group’s use of the flag proved that the flag’s symbolism was not, and never would be static and that – as is still true today – specific historical context matters when determining the flag’s multi-pronged messages.


Sources:

“Great Order Will Not Die, Confederate Veteran Says.” Wisconsin Kourier (Washington, DC), December 26, 1924. Accessed April 14, 2018. KKK Newspapers.

“Interview with Frank J. Francis.” Forward (Fort Dix, NJ), February 1, 1972, 7th ed. Accessed April 5, 2018. Independent Voices.

Joye, Barbara. “Young Patriots.” Great Speckled Bird (Atlanta, GA), March 9, 1970, 10th ed. Accessed April 5, 2018. Independent Voices.

Kelley, Robert W. “Pictorial Summation of a Tragicomic Mistrial.” Life, May 21, 1965, 32-39. Accessed April 5, 2018.

“KKK.” Life, April 23, 1965, 28-35. Accessed April 5, 2018.

“October 28, 1965, Ku Klux Klan Rally in a Hattiesburg (Miss.) Field Featured on the Front Page of the October 29, 1965, Hattiesburg American. Speakers on Stage. Robert M. Shelton, Imperial Wizard of the United Klans of America, Signs Autographs.” October 1965. Moncrief Photograph Collection, Mississippi Department of Archives and History. In Wikimedia Commons. June 22, 2005. Accessed September 16, 2018.

“Stetson Kennedy Dies at 94; Infiltrated Ku Klux Klan.” The New York Times. August 28, 2011. Accessed April 16, 2018.

Suiter, John. “Black Panthers: The Algerian Festival, Police Decentralization, and Hard Words to Student Radicals.” Berkley Barb, August 8-14, 1969. Accessed April 14, 2018. Independent Voices.

Szyck, Arthur. “Do Not Forgive Them, O Lord, For They Do Know What They Do.” Cartoon. New Caanan, CT. 1949. Wikimedia Commons. Accessed April 14, 2018.

“The Fearmongerers.” Life, February 7, 1965, 71-77. Accessed April 5, 2018.

“The Ku Klux Klan Tries A Comeback.” Life, May 27, 1946, 42-44. Accessed April 5, 2018.

Raising Questions: Gettysburg Rising’s Confederate Flag Forum

By Olivia Ortman ’19

On March 3, Gettysburg Rising–a group that encourages civic engagement by sharing information–hosted a forum on the Confederate flag. It drew a modest, yet eager crowd. The goal of the event was to create an opportunity for people to come together and share their thoughts and feelings about the flag. After Professor David Hadley delivered a brief history of the flag, the attendees took the mic.

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The March 3rd event sought to provide an open forum for discussion on the Confederate Flag and its legacy. Image courtesy of Gettysburg Rising.

One of the big themes during the ensuing discussion was time and place. While everyone disagreed on the specific circumstances, all agreed that the flag’s display was appropriate in some situations and unacceptable in others. Flags in museums were universally accepted by the group, as museums present a controlled setting where the history can be shared via accompanying informational plaques. On the other side, the flag’s use by white supremacist groups was deemed always inappropriate and offensive. When carried by these groups, there was no mistaking the flag’s message of hate. Everything in between – reenactments, historical sites, private property, merchandise – fell into different categories of acceptability for each person.

The question of whether the flag could be separated from Confederate ideals was also discussed. Anyone who reads the Articles of Secession must admit that slavery was a central factor in causing the Civil War. That’s not to say that individual Confederates weren’t fighting for other reasons, but the Confederacy itself was dedicated to slavery. As a symbol of the Confederacy, the flag necessarily championed slavery. However, many people in the room questioned whether the flag could be dissociated from the Confederacy and therefore from slavery. Take the case of using the flag to honor a dead Confederate ancestor: that ancestor is not the larger Confederacy, and the living relative is evoking a sense of personal history, not advocating for slavery. The group grappled with the question of whether the flag could be dissociated from slavery in this instance, or if the full sense of the flag’s symbolism must always be present.

When asked for suggestions on how the flag controversy could be solved, the room seemed to largely agree on the same tactics. The first proposal was that people needed a better education on the flag’s history. It’s hard to understand the full significance of something without knowing its background. The second proposal was societal shunning. The group also largely agreed that the government should not be involved in deciding when or where the flag is displayed. The public should thus decide when it is appropriate and essentially, perhaps relying on peer pressure and boycotting to keep people from using the flag inappropriately. It would be like society’s shunning of the N-word; although it is still used in some instances, that word has become mostly unacceptable in our world.

The most significant idea shared that night, however, was the importance of listening. When Professor Scott Hancock took a turn speaking, he explained how important it was to talk to each other about the flag. Although Professor Hancock’s research has led him to certain conclusions and opinions, he still actively seeks out other people’s thoughts. It’s important to listen to everyone’s views, even if those views go against your own, because this is the only way to truly understand the full meaning of the flag. Understanding is key to moving forward together in the flag controversy.

In the spirit of understanding, which was the motivating goal behind the forum, I hope that any of you that feel comfortable will use this post as an opportunity to share your own thoughts. I do want to set a few ground rules, though. Be respectful, no profanity, and no personal attacks. Also, this is a conversation, not a debate. You aren’t trying to prove each other right or wrong, simply exploring different thoughts on the flag. Here are some questions to get you started, but by no means do you have to answer all or any of them.

  • When and where do you think displaying the flag is appropriate?
    • Reenactments? Battlefields? Cemeteries?
  • What are your thoughts of Confederate flag merchandise?
  • What thoughts pop into your head when you see a Confederate flag?
  • Can the flag be separated from the Confederate Cause in some situations?
  • Any ideas of how we can move forward together on the controversy surrounding the Confederate flag?

Reviving the Past: The Battle Flag in the Confederate Memorial Period

By Olivia Ortman ’19

In the years immediately following the Civil War, the Confederate battle flag mostly disappeared from public view. In their diaries, Southerners wrote about hiding flags and other Confederate symbols for fear of Union retaliation. In most cases, Southerners intuitively understood that these symbols were now taboo, but occasionally, they stated that Union troops explicitly forbade displays of the battle flag. Some Southerners did still flaunt the flag as a means of defiance against Union troops, as mentioned in my last post, but most people quietly tucked it away. A mere five years after the war ended, though, the flag began to reappear.

After the war ended, Southern ladies and veterans began forming organizations to care for war survivors and honor the dead. At first, this meant transferring dead Confederate soldiers from battlefield graves to Southern cemeteries and aiding survivors with medical and monetary support. The first Confederate battle flags accepted in public again were those used to drape the coffins of Confederates being reinterred. Then, during the 1870s, these ladies’ and veterans’ groups turned their efforts toward memorialization. After Reconstruction, Southerners became increasingly concerned with the Confederacy’s legacy. Thus, between 1880 and 1920, there was an explosion of Confederate memorial events: monument dedications, veterans’ reunions, and memorial days. The Memorial Day we celebrate today is actually an offshoot of Southern memorial days. Started as local holidays organized by ex-Confederate women to honor local Confederate dead, they grew into a nationwide celebration honoring fallen soldiers from all wars.

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The United Daughters of the Confederacy lay a wreath and hold up a Confederate States of America flag at the Confederate Memorial during Confederate Memorial Day services at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington County, Virginia, U.S. on June 5, 1922. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

The flag’s reintroduction to the public started slowly. At the beginning of the Confederate memorial period, few flags were displayed at memorialization events, and they were displayed mostly by women, probably to avoid angering Northerners. Southern men were afraid of being accused of treason by occupying Northern troops, but women were afforded a measure of protection by their gender. Southern journalists were also careful to mention that the national flag was displayed in equal, if not greater, proportion to the Confederate flag. In the newspaper articles I found between 1878 and 1879, only one Confederate flag was mentioned at each memorial occasion, while multiple national flags were present. Journalists wanted to make it very clear that the South was loyal to the Union. Furthermore, the few flags that did appear at these early events were always old wartime flags, nothing new. Newspapers took great pride in describing “the shell-torn and tattered banner which had waved…on many a hard fought field.”

Throughout the Confederate memorial period, the presence of the Confederate flag quickly increased. At the unveiling of Lee’s statue in Lexington, Virginia in 1883, there was only one U.S. flag displayed, while four old Confederate battle flags surrounded Stonewall Jackson’s grave alone. When another Lee monument was unveiled in Richmond in 1890, a North Dakota journalist complained that the Confederate flag was everywhere, and the authorities “refused to remove the traitorous colors.”

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George Washington Custis Lee, 1832-1913, on horseback, with staff reviewing Confederate Reunion Parade in Richmond, Va., June 3, 1907, in front of monument to Jefferson Davis. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Around this time, reproductions of the flag became widespread, which sparked a large debate over the flag’s place in the nation. Union veterans were especially upset about the reproductions. General William Jackson Palmer started a press war in the early 1890s when he suggested banning the flag from memorial events. He and many other Union veterans had been tolerant of original flags, which were mementos of the war, but reproduction flags were outright treason. Even some Confederate veterans were upset about reproductions, believing they cheapened the integrity of the original war flags. Most Southerners, though, insisted their flags were just for commemoration of Confederate soldiers, not acts of disloyalty.

In the long run, Northern upset quieted down, and the Confederate flag was seemingly accepted in public. The 1905 Congressional act calling for the return of captured Confederate flags to Southerners appeared to signify the end of the debate. Some historians, like David Blight, have chalked acceptance up to reconciliation. Ultimately, Northerners were tired of fighting, and the presence of the Confederate flag was a small price to pay for peace and union. Other historians, like Caroline Janney, have argued that this acceptance was mostly for public show. Union veterans continued to harbor resentment towards the Confederacy and its battle-flag, but they accepted it at public events because it served their purposes. Using reunions to remember the war, soldiers could gain personal clarity and closure while connecting with other men who understood their traumatic experiences, even if those men had fought as their enemies during the war. By talking about the Confederacy and its flag in positive terms, Union veterans also glorified their own role in the war. Fighting and defeating a worthy Confederate army made Union troops all the greater. Both historians are right; people accepted the flag for a variety of personal reasons. However, an acceptance of the Confederate battle flag in public does not necessarily correlate to an acceptance of the flag’s symbolism. While the flag was tolerated at commemoration events, many Northerners, especially veterans, continued to hate it.

The inclusion of Confederate flags in memorial events had a profound impact on the flag’s symbolism. The most notable consequence was the adoption of the battle flag as the Confederate flag. During the war, the battle flag only represented ideas related to battle, whereas in the memorial period, it came to represent the ideals and principles of the Confederacy as a whole. The choice of the battle flag instead of the Confederacy’s national flag speaks a lot to the values Southerners wanted to favor in the Confederacy’s legacy. When discussing the Confederacy, orators spoke in great detail about military prowess of Southern soldiers and bravery on the battlefield. Although the Confederacy lost, its soldiers could still be hailed as heroes. As Jefferson Davis stated at a Memorial Day in Georgia in 1878, “it is better to have fought and lost, than never to have fought at all.” This focus on battle ensured that the Confederacy’s legacy would largely revolve around politically-neutral military tactics instead of the controversial causes of the war.

When speakers did mention the Confederate cause, they waxed poetically about states’ rights, carefully avoiding slavery. Only one of the dedication speeches I read included the word slavery. A Virginia senator acknowledged at an 1879 monument dedication that the Confederacy fought for the Constitutional right to hold slaves. All other speakers were either vague or completely silent about slavery. A speaker in 1894 shared, “in our Union there is trouble. Social disorder vexes the soul of the patriot,” which vaguely points towards the freedom of blacks but is not explicit.  However, Southerners were comfortable asserting that the Confederacy, and therefore the flag, was dedicated to white supremacy. It was made clear that these memorial events, and the Confederate flag, were for white Southerners only. During this time period, African Americans held separate memorial days and commemoration events in the South where they could celebrate the Union and emancipation.

During the Confederate memorial period, the Confederate flag became an assertion of a unique Southern identity, one deeply intertwined with the Confederacy. Southerners may have lost the war and submitted to Northern demands, but they were still unique in their white heritage. They clung to their past and their flag to preserve their honor and pride. We can also see the start of many arguments that still surround the flag today: the acceptability of originals vs reproductions; where and when to display flags; heritage vs hate. A century later, we are no closer to resolving these arguments than Americans during the memorial period.


Sources

“Corner Stone Laid.” Daily Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, North Carolina), May 23, 1894. Accessed February 17, 2018. Readex.

“Corner Stone Laid.” The Knoxville Journal (Knoxville, Tennessee), May 22, 1891. Accessed February 17, 2018. Readex.

Coski, John M. Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem. Harvard University Press, 2006.

Gallagher, Gary W., and Alan T. Nolan. The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2000.

Ingraham, William M. “Address at the Dedication of the Virginia Memorial at Gettysburg, Friday, June 8, 1917 By Hon. William M. Ingraham, Assistant Secretary of War.” Address, Dedication of Virginia Memorial, Virginia Memorial, Gettysburg, PA, June 8, 1917.

Janney, Caroline E. Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2013.

“Lee Monument; Washington.” The Daily Herald (Grand Forks, North Dakota), May 30, 1890. Accessed February 17, 2018. Readex.

“Memorial Day.” The Macon Telegraph (Macon, Georgia), April 27, 1880. Accessed February 17, 2018. Readex.

“”Mustn’t Do It Again”.” The Macon Telegraph (Macon, Georgia), February 6, 1892. Accessed February 17, 2018. Readex.

Stuart, Henry Carter. “Address at the Dedication of the Virginia Memorial at Gettysburg, Friday, June 8, 1917 By His Excellency Henry Carter Stuart, Governor of Virginia.” Address, Dedication of Virginia Memorial, Virginia Memorial, Gettysburg, PA, June 8, 1917.

“The Confederate Dead.” The Inter Ocean (Chicago, Illinois), June 7, 1879. Accessed February 17, 2018. Readex.

“The Confederate Flag.” The Columbus Enquirer-Sun (Columbus, Georgia), October 27, 1891. Accessed February 17, 2018. Readex.

“The Historic 26th. Memorial Day in Macon.” Georgia Weekly Telegraph (Macon, Georgia), April 30, 1878. Accessed February 17, 2018. Readex.

“Unveiling Lee’s Statue.” The Sun (Baltimore, Maryland), June 29, 1883. Accessed February 17, 2018. Readex.

Finding Meaning in the Flag: Furl that Banner

By Olivia Ortman ‘19

Hello again, readers. I hope you enjoyed the summer and are now as eager as I am to jump back into our conversation about the Confederate flag. Although I spent the summer at Minute Man NHP, the Civil War was never far from my mind. Even in a northern park dedicated to the American Revolution, I still heard a lot about the Confederate monument debates, and as I spoke with visitors who were following this topic in the news, I was reminded of a similar debate several years ago concerning the Confederate flag.

After researching wartime perspectives, I wanted to write a post focusing on Confederate attitudes toward the flag after the war’s end. I wondered how losing the war affected Southern feelings towards the flag. Were there any former Confederates who rejected it? How did demographics play into this issue? While researching these questions, I stumbled across a 2014 article in the Washington Post about the removal of Confederate flags from the Lee Chapel at Washington and Lee University. A group of students had spoken with the administration and shared their discomfort with having the flags, which they believed to symbolize racism, present on campus. These students cited the Confederate flag’s connection with the interests of slaveholders in the Civil War and its appropriation by hate groups later on. After much deliberation and discussion, the University agreed to the students’ demand and moved the flags from the chapel to the museum in the basement. As part of the justification for this action, the university president cited Robert E. Lee’s own feelings for the flag.

For many Southerners in the immediate post-war years, the Confederate flag underwent an amplification of its war symbolism. It became the ultimate representation of hope, strength, and resistance to the Yankees, who were trying to control the South through Reconstruction and brief occupation. Some Southern women would drape themselves in Confederate flags or stick them in their hats and dresses before walking by occupying Union soldiers. U.S. Army Sergeant Mathew Woodruff, stationed in Mobile, Alabama, reported one of these instances of defiance. Walking down the street one day, he saw a black woman reprimanding three girls for waving rebel flags. The girls’ mother justified their actions by saying that the South “was not whipped [and] if they got a chance would rise again.” The war may have ended, but many Southerners were not ready to admit full defeat, especially not in the face of people who used to be considered property. The flag was their proof that the South would rise again and when it did, it would finally crush the North and return to the correct social order.

Some Southerners, on the other hand, rejected the flag and other symbols of the Confederacy in the post-war years. Robert E. Lee, a man who is every bit as symbolic of the Confederacy as the flag, wanted nothing to do with Confederate memory and war memorialization. When asked by David McConaughy to return to Gettysburg in 1869 to recollect battlefield events for posterity, Lee politely declined. “I think it wiser moreover not to keep open the sores of war,” he wrote, “but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife & to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered.” In a letter to John Letcher, the governor of Virginia during the Civil War, Lee firmly stated that all citizens should put aside bad blood and unite in efforts to forget the effects of war.

The Confederate flag is one of the marks of war that Lee removed from his own life. In one popular story, a Southern woman wrote to Lee asking what she should do with an old battle flag. Lee supposedly responded, “Fold it up and put it away.” This has been a source of some contention, however, because no letter has been brought forward with these words. Regardless of whether Lee actually wrote these words, however, he did ask his children to keep the flag out of his funeral. He was buried in a plain suit, not his Confederate uniform, and other former Confederates in attendance were also asked not to wear their military uniforms. The Confederate flag was nowhere in sight that day. Its presence would only have served to open old wounds and forever connect him with one of our nation’s greatest failures.

William Roane Aylett, a colonel under General George Pickett , also publicly denounced the flag in a speech at the 1887 Gettysburg Reunion. “Southern men don’t care who keeps the flags; the past went down in the war,” he stated at the beginning of his speech. He continued with, “what matters who shall keep the battle flags? They passed into your hands in brave and manly combat…and we are as willing your people should keep them as ours.” He effectively ended his discussion of the Confederate flag by pronouncing it dead. This was met with great applause from the audience, which was equal parts former Union and Confederate soldiers.  During the war, Aylett had been a staunch Union hater, as were many of the former Confederates in the audience that day, but during this speech they seemed determined to reconcile with their Yankee brothers, even at the cost of their beloved flag.

Lee and Aylett were not the only ones who recommended moving away from the flag, but they were only a small minority of the Southern population. Many former Confederates, like Jubal Early, became very vocal in their support of the flag after Reconstruction. Interestingly, all of the people I found in that small group of anti-flag Confederates had been officers or clergy during the war. This could just be that these men were literate and important enough for their letters to be preserved, but I think there’s more to it. Each of these men had more to gain from putting the flag aside than honoring it. They were leaders of a failed rebellion that had generated political hostility and tension. If these men wanted any hope of holding a  in the post-war America and in posterity, they needed the North and South to reconcile. No one wants to be history’s villain, which is what you become when attached to a flag that protected slavery and stood against its country. The only way to reconcile and save the manhood/honor of defeated Confederates was by putting aside some of the more unpleasant aspects and connotations of the war. Although I do truly believe these men wanted to see the country reunite for the good of the nation, I think self-preservation was a motivating factor in their views.

If asked their opinions on the removal of Confederate flags at Washington and Lee, I believe Lee and Aylett would both express approval. The flag had a place in their lives at one point, but that ended when the Confederacy lost the Civil War. All of this has left me with a question that I’m now going to put to you: is it right for us to use the Confederate flag today when some of the men to whom it belonged wanted it put aside? To go with that, to whom does a symbol belong? Father Abram J. Ryan expresses his feelings in, “The Conquered Banner,” a poem written mere weeks after the Confederacy surrendered:

Furl that banner, softly, slowly,

Treat it gently – it is holy –

For it droops above the dead;

Touch it not, unfold it never,

Let it droop there, furled forever,

For its people’s hopes are dead


Sources

Carmichael, Peter S. “Prologue.” In The Last Generation: Young Virginians in Peace, War, and Reunion, 1-3. UNC Press Books, 2015. Accessed April 28, 2017.

Coski, John M. “Unfurl the Old Flag.” In Confederate Battle Flag : America’s Most Embattled Emblem. Harvard University Press, 2006. p. 45, 48-49. Accessed April 28, 2017.
ProQuest ebrary.

Cox, David. “Cox: Honoring Lee anew.” Roanoke Times. July 14, 2014. Accessed April 28,
2017.

Evidence Suggests That Robert E. Lee Would Agree: The Flag Had To Go.” Yabberz.com. July 10, 2015. Accessed April 28, 2017.

Feimster, Crystal N. “General Benjamin Butler & the Threat of Sexual Violence during the
American Civil War.” Daedalus, Emerging Voices, 138, no. 2 (Spring 2009): 126-34.
Accessed April 28, 2017. JSTOR.

Freeman, Douglass Southall. “Vol. I Vp215 Chapter XIII.” Robert E. Lee (by Freeman) – Vol. IV Chap. 13. Accessed April 28, 2017.

Pollard, H. R. “William Roane Aylett.” The Virginia Law Register 6, no. 8 (1920): 570-72.

Robert E. Lee to David McConaughy. August 5, 1869. In MS – 022: David McConaughy Papers. GettDigital: Civil War Era Collection, Special Collections and College Archives, Gettysburg College, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Accessed April 28, 2017.
http://gettysburg.cdmhost.com/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p4016coll2/id/841/rec/1

Shapiro, T. Rees. “Washington and Lee University to remove Confederate flags from chapel after protest from black students.” The Washington Post. July 08, 2014. Accessed April 28, 2017.

Finding Meaning in the Flag: Ex-Slaves and Newsies

By Olivia Ortman ‘19

This post is the fourth 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. Read the first post here, the second post here, and the third post here.

Thus far we’ve talked about predominately white Union and Confederate views of the Confederate flag, so for my last piece on perspectives during the war I want to talk about the views of African Americans. For African Americans, especially, the Civil War was tightly intertwined with the matter of slavery. They realized that the outcome of the war would be instrumental in determining the fate of slavery as an institution and believed that a Confederate victory would be detrimental to the prospects of their freedom. If Southerners had their way, slavery would likely never die.

FredDoug
Frederick Douglass in 1887, as photographed by J.W. Hurn. Via Library of Congress.

None express this better than Frederick Douglass, one of the most eloquent and influential African Americans of the time. In his newspaper, Douglass’ Monthly, Douglass printed a copy of a lecture he delivered on June 30, 1861. He stated that slaveholders “have written piracy and robbery upon every fold of the Confederate flag” and that “they are for slavery, and for all its kindred abominations.” Douglass leaves no room to doubt that the flag stands for human atrocities. He also sees no difference between slaveholders and Confederates. They are one and the same to Douglass and many other African Americans.

Continue reading “Finding Meaning in the Flag: Ex-Slaves and Newsies”

Abolitionists Day: Why Now?

Olivia Ortman reports on Gettysburg’s first-ever Abolitionists Day, offering her take on the event as a day of coming together.

By Olivia Ortman ’19

This past Saturday, I attended the very first Abolitionists Day here in Gettysburg. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived at the Seminary Ridge Refectory, but the crowded room seemed like a promising sight to me. When the event started, I was greeted with the words of famous abolitionists—William Loyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Beecher Stowe—being spoken by reenactors in period garb. As I listened, I couldn’t help wondering why now? This was a question I heard echoed by many of the other event goers. Why hold the first Abolitionist Day on March 4, 2017?

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Several of the reenactors who attended to commemorate the abolitionists. Photograph by author.

Thankfully one of my professors explained that this day was also Confederate Flag Day. Last year at this time, Gettysburg was home to a Confederate flag rally. Although I was not present at that event, I heard stories about it from friends. Fellow blogger Jeff Lauck compared the event to battle as angry demonstrators turned the day into a hostile debate of whose view of the flag was right. This Abolitionist Day, activity was meant as a response to that Confederate flag event. It was an alternative for people who didn’t want to celebrate the controversial history and separation evoked by that divisive symbol. Continue reading “Abolitionists Day: Why Now?”

Finding Meaning in the Flag: Rebel Flag

This post is the third 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. Read the first post here and the second post here.

By Olivia Ortman ‘19

I’m sure that as fans of history, at some point in your pursuit of knowledge, you have either read or heard the phrase “language is key”. This is something my professors have harped on, class after class, explaining that the way we talk about things shapes the way they are viewed. This lesson holds true for the Union perspective of the Confederate flag during the war. In all the documents written by Northerners that I looked over for this post, I did not come across a single mention of the “Confederate flag.” This was because the flag was pretty consistently, and intentionally, known as the “rebel flag.” This term was used for each subsequent version of the flag, showing that each of the flags had the same meaning for Northerners, regardless of the changing design.

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Rebel prisoners and battle flags captured at Chancellorsville, being taken to the rear by cavalry and infantry guards. Sketch by E. Forbes, 1863. Via Library of Congress

The language “rebel flag” is important for two reasons. The first is that by using the word “rebel,” Northerners gave Southern actions a negative connotation. These “rebels” were people throwing tantrums and acting out against the government. The second reason is that calling it the rebel flag gave the Confederacy an air of illegitimacy. The flags of established nations always have the country’s name in the title. Northerners refused to acknowledge the Confederacy as a true nation and that is reflected in their refusal to call the flag a Confederate flag. These ideas were illustrated in a stanza of a poem written by John Northrop.

“So up they hoist a Rebel flag;
They shake it in the Nation’s face —
An insolent old slavery rag —
To all the land disgrace!
Then Lincoln to the loyal said:
‘What will my brothers do?
You as the people, I the head,
To Justice must be true!
Come forth to meet this traitorous horde;
Defeat them where they stand;
They’d wreck the Nation with the sword,
Come and redeem the land!
They challenge us; shall we be brave,
Or cowards shall we be?
From basest treason shall we save
What God proclaimed was free?” Continue reading “Finding Meaning in the Flag: Rebel Flag”

Finding Meaning in the Flag: Birth of a Symbol

This post is the second 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. Read the first post here.

By Olivia Ortman ’19

The only logical place to start our journey with the Confederate flag is at its birth to examine meanings bestowed upon it by the Confederate soldiers. To do this, we must look at the history of flags within the Confederate nation. Upon its creation in 1861, the Confederate nation immediately set out to design a new flag. Headed by South Carolina’s former state representative, William Porcher Miles, a committee was formed to choose a design that would be original to the Confederacy while remaining reminiscent of the U.S. flag. Although Southerners had split from the Union itself, they were not splitting from their shared history. Southerners were very proud of the founding fathers and the rights they had guaranteed, particularly property rights and the rights of the people to choose their government. It was these very rights and the legacy of the founding fathers that Southerners saw themselves defending when they made the decision to secede. This led to the acceptance of a design known as the Stars and Bars, which mimicked the original United States flag in color and arrangement.  George Pickett emphasized the importance of this connection when he wrote in a letter in May, 1862 that he would fight “till our Stars and Bars wave over the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

Photo credit: Clay Moss
Photo credit: Clay Moss, crwflags.com

However, the connection to the U.S. design was also the Confederate flag’s doom. Very quickly after its adoption as the national flag, generals began complaining that it was causing confusion on the battlefield by being indistinguishable from the enemy’s. On the battlefield, the flag was instrumental as a communication device. It was a way to denote advance or retreat and friend or foe. Confederate Soldier George Lee wrote on December 9, 1861, “the enemy knows our national flag and had already tried to deceive us by hoisting it at their head.” He did not clarify at which battle the enemy had supposedly done this, and it is possible that he mistook the Union flag for the Stars and Bars, seeing as how similar they were. For these reasons, it was imperative for the flags on the field to be easily distinguishable from the enemy’s. Continue reading “Finding Meaning in the Flag: Birth of a Symbol”

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

coski1
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. Continue reading “The Confederate Flag in History, Memory, and Public Culture: Three Questions for John Coski”

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. Continue reading “Finding Meaning in the Flag: Contextualizing the Confederate Flag”