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The Confederate Battle Flag: America's Most Embattled Emblem

by Coski, John M.
Publisher: Harvard University Press
Retail Price: $29.95, hardcover
Issue: Fall 2005
ISBN: 0674017226

Flag flaps


From commemoration to provocation

A symbol of southern heritage and pride or racism and hatred? The Confederate battle flag means different things to different people; it especially evokes contrasting emotions among whites and blacks. Its display--on T-shirts, pickup trucks, football fields, and even state flags and capitols--has led of late to bitter public debates. Yet many involved in the confrontations have little understanding of the flag's origin. A book that explains its history has long been needed, and now John M. Coski has written a very good one which everyone on both sides of the controversy over the flag should read and appreciate. Coski provides a well-researched, clearly presented, and most important of all, scrupulously fair account of the history of the battle flag and the controversies surrounding it, one that avoids polemics and strives to be true to the historical record. The Confederate Battle Flag is a splendid example of how a careful scholar can contribute to an important public debate.

The Confederate Battle Flag begins with the story of how the Confederate States of America adopted a flag, though the plural flags would be more accurate. In four years, the C.S.A. went through three national flags. The first, the Stars and Bars, had three broad stripes, the top and bottom ones red, the middle white, with, in its right-hand corner, a square blue field with a circle of stars. The red banner with a blue St. Andrew's cross, what most today know as the Confederate flag, began as the battle flag of the Confederate armies in the eastern theater and, over time, became the most common, but far from the only flag of all the Confederate armies. Meanwhile, the Confederate government adopted two subsequent national flags, both of which incorporated the battle flag in the right-hand corner of a white banner. The third added only a red bar on its left edge because the Confederates feared the second flag, if not extended, could be confused with a white flag of surrender. The incorporation of the battle flag into the national flag, Coski argues, showed how the battle flag had become the Confederate flag. His succinct discussion provides an excellent introduction to the origins and use of the various Confederate flags, although anyone interested in wartime flag culture should also read Robert E. Bonner's, Colors and Blood: Flag Passions of the Confederate South.

After the war, white southerners furled the Confederate flag and brought it out mainly on special occasions. Between the end of the Civil War and the late 1930s, Coski finds, the Confederate battle flag served primarily as a memorial and ceremonial symbol. Although white southerners most often flew the battle flag, they honored other flags of the Confederacy as well. Coski notes that the United Daughters of the Confederacy adopted as its emblem the Stars and Bars, the Confederacy's first national flag. He might have made more of this choice. If the UDC, which many scholars credit with having been the most important organization in shaping the white South's memory of the war, chose that flag, it suggests the battle flag had not become as central a symbol of Confederate history as it would later. Certainly it had not become as popular. Coski, in an extremely important finding, observes how remarkably limited . . . the use of the Confederate flag was from the end of the Civil War through World War II.

The revival of the flag's use began around 1938, Coski argues. The movie Gone With the Wind helped spur the battle flag's growing popularity; not without irony, Hollywood played an important role in white southerners' embrace of what became an important symbol of their identity. College students, led by the Kappa Alpha Order, also began to fly the flag in the late Thirties, as did some American soldiers during World War II and the Korean conflict. But, as Coski shows conclusively, the flag's expanded role in southern culture fully emerged in 1948 during the Dixiecrat's third party revolt against President Harry S. Truman. Southern Democrats, championing states' rights and fighting any retreat from rigid segregation, made the Confederate flag an unofficial emblem of their revolt. Not long after, the flag was utilized by the Ku Klux Klan, the White Citizen's Council, segregationist mobs, and other white southerners committed to maintaining what they called the southern way of life, a society of black powerlessness and oppression. By the early 1960s, the close identification of the Confederate battle flag with opposition to integration and African-American rights had been sealed. The meaning and role of the flag in southern culture could never again be the same.

In the 1950s, the flag also came to serve as decoration on beach towels and bikinis, as a rallying symbol for football teams and stock car racers, as well as for a host of other uses that hardly constituted a dignified tribute to the sacrifices of Confederate soldiers. The UDC and other heritage groups at first protested such desecration of the Confederate flag as well as its use by the KKK. Five southern states passed laws to protect it. As the flag became embattled, Coski astutely argues, such desecration came to be seen by flag proponents as a form of honor. Neither the Daughters nor other groups continued the fight to keep the emblem from being used on clothes or trinkets, and states invoked the laws only against those who protested the use of the flag. By the late 1960s, the flag had become a prominent symbol, but of various things, including the South as a distinctive region, individual rebelliousness, a self-conscious redneck' culture, and segregation and racism.

Having carefully traced the history of the battle flag's use and discussed its multiple meanings, Coski examines the fights over the display of the flag, which, he contends, occurred in two waves, first in the late 1960s and 1970s and then after 1980. In both eras, opposition to the flag was led by African Americans who, for the first time, had the political power to object to the display of a flag they had long resented as a symbol of their oppression. These flag flaps, a term Coski adopts from press coverage, centered on the use of the flag on high school and college campuses, as school and university symbols, and as public symbols when flown over the state capitols of Alabama and South Carolina or incorporated into the state flags of Mississippi and Georgia. The ensuing controversies, Coski concludes, polarized the people of each state into readily identifiable camps: African Americans and civil rights groups allied with business leaders and progressive' political leaders and newspaper editors concerned for their state's image, in opposition to southern heritage organizations and powerful pro-flag political leaders who collectively galvanized the white majority in support of the Confederate flag, aided and embarrassed by right-wing hate groups whose presence fulfilled flag opponents' stereotypes of flag supporters. His characterization of the division seems apt, although beyond discussions of the role of the NAACP and various Confederate heritage groups, Coski does not provide a rigorous analysis of the divisions. He finds it remarkable that three of the four states managed to craft compromises that reduced the public presence of the Confederate flag. Only in Mississippi, where a referendum resulted in keeping the battle flag a part of the state flag, did existing practices continue.

Coski sees little chance that the Confederate flag's importance in southern culture will decline and ends his book with an argument that the Confederate flag is The Second American Flag, one that modifies the American flag by defiantly symbolizing constitutional ideals and, for an untold number of people, social and cultural values they believe that modern America has rejected. He then goes on to argue that, rather than banish the flag, southerners should try to understand its role and meaning for different groups.

Few would banish the private display of the flag by law, although some would prefer that it not be worn or flown. Flags, by their very nature, serve less to memorialize the past than to rally people in the present. Therefore, to fly a flag almost inevitably becomes an endorsement of certain values, not merely a commemoration of the past. For many white southerners, the Confederate battle flag is closely identified with the history of the Confederacy. Champions of the flag most often come from the ranks of those intensely interested in Confederate history and fully convinced that slavery had nothing to do with the Confederate cause. They fear, as one southerner quoted by Coski observed, that attacks on the flag represent an attempt to make white southerners ashamed of their past. Yet a 1994 Southern Focus Poll, conducted by the Odom Institute at the University of North Carolina, found that a majority of white southerners were not that interested in the history of the Civil War. The same poll showed only 23 % of white southerners felt strongly about the Confederate flag, but that 32 % strongly disagreed and another 23 % somewhat disagreed with the assertion that the Confederate flag should not be flown with official sanction. In other words, while less than a quarter felt strongly about the flag, a little over half wanted it to fly atop the capitol or in some other position of honor, and Coski cites other polls, taken in the midst of a flag flap, that put the white majority in favor of the flag at 65 or 75 %. Why did a majority want to fly the flag but only a minority claim to be strongly committed to it? During the debate in South Carolina over flying the flag on the capitol, one lawmaker observed that African-American legislators complained about it for the sole purpose of trying to show white people how far they can push them.' Coski's account provides ample evidence that African Americans had real grievances about the flag, but many whites may have interpreted the demand to remove the flag as an assertion of African-American power and have seen keeping the flag flying as a means of denying what those whites perceived as one more in a string of political concessions to African Americans. As much as the flag flaps are about history, they are--like all fights over history--as much or more about the present and future. Whether the flag is taken down from a capitol or removed from the state flag may really be a test of the balance of power between whites and blacks.

Making the Confederate flag a, if not the, symbol of the South and southern pride helps perpetuate such a racial divide and ignores the way racism is a fundamental part of the white South's heritage. To ignore that racial history, to not be ashamed of that aspect of the South's (and for that matter America's) past, makes racial reconciliation and the creation of a truly integrated South (and America) more difficult. To adopt as the symbol of southern pride the Confederate flag, with which African Americans have had no positive associations, as Coski makes abundantly clear, is to define the South as white--and to discourage the emergence of a South both whites and blacks can claim as their own. So it is best to quit flying the Confederate flag and to retire it to museums. To relegate it to a museum is not to deny its place in southern history. It is not even to repudiate the South's use of the flag. Rather, as Coski's outstanding history shows, it is to return to the way the South treated the flag before World War II and before the battles over civil rights and developments in popular culture made it so much a part of the cultural landscape. A respectful place in a historical exhibit may in fact do more to honor the sacrifice of those who fought under it in the 1860s than many of the uses to which it has now been put.

Gaines M. Foster teaches history at Louisiana State University and is the author of Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South.

Foster, Gaines M., review of The Confederate Battle Flag: America's Most Embattled Emblem, by Coski, John M., Civil War Book Review, (Fall 2005).