The Rebel Flag. The Southern Cross. The Dixie Flag. Despite having never actually been adopted by the Confederate States of America, the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia is generally associated with the South and is commonly referred to as the Confederate Flag in modern times.
Recently, there has been a nationwide push to reduce the presence of this flag, because many associate it with racism and white supremacy movements. Some have cried foul, asserting that the removal of this symbol is an attempt to erase an important historical record. So which is it — an icon of our past or a rallying symbol for racists? The answer is, quite simply, that the Confederate Flag is a historical symbol that has primarily been used by racists.
At the outset of the Civil War, the Confederate States of America adopted a national flag known as the Stars and Bars. On the battlefield, this flag proved problematic, because it strongly resembled the Union’s flag, the Stars and Stripes. Battlefield commanders quickly adopted their own most distinctive flags, and the Army of the Potomac, known more formally as the Army of Northern Virginia, soon adopted a square banner that resembles the modern Confederate Flag. As Robert E. Lee went on to achieve several stunning victories in 1862-63, this flag was at the forefront of many rebel successes.
However, in the decades following the war this flag had essentially faded from memory, and the flags used at most southern memorial services were the flags of each respective local unit. Outside of Virginia, the Confederate Flag was mostly gone, except for its depiction as a portion of the “Stainless Banner,” a flag of the Confederacy adopted later in the war. In all likelihood, the Battle Flag of Northern Virginia likely wouldn’t be visible outside of history books or museums if it were not for its resurgence at the end of Reconstruction and during the rise of Jim Crow.
In the late 1800s, and especially nearing World War I as many Civil War veterans began to die of old age, there began a push throughout the South by the United Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy to promote the ideology that the true cause of the Civil War was just and noble. This has become known as the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, and it endorses the supposed virtues of the antebellum South, viewing the war as a struggle primarily to save the Southern way of life, or to defend “states’ rights” in the face of overwhelming “Northern aggression.” As part of this push, Mississippi incorporated that Confederate Flag into its state flag in 1894.
Make no mistake, the Civil War was not fought against Northern aggression. The South struck first with an attack on Fort Sumpter. Furthermore, the Civil War was fought over slavery, not “states’ rights.” The reason the southern states seceded from the Union was wholly over the issue of slavery. Four days after South Carolina seceded on Dec. 20, 1860, the state adopted a document titled “Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union.” This document laments the election of Abraham Lincoln “whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery,” and it outlines grievances related exclusively to slavery and slave trade, including particular states’ refusal to abide by the spirit of the federal Fugitive Slave Act, by utilizing the Northern States’ individual rights and passing local laws which rendered the Act effectively useless.
However, as the 20th Century dawned, the idea that the Civil War was a just war began to take hold throughout the South. As this sentiment rose, a unifying symbol was needed to represent this movement. In 1904, the United Confederate Veterans issued a report listing the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia as the “correct” symbol of the Confederacy, partly because it was uniquely distinctive from the American Flag. The United Daughters of the Confederacy published material that discouraged the use of many other symbols of the Confederacy, including the Stars and Bars and the Naval Jack standard of the Army of Tennessee. The Confederate Flag also features prominently in the 1915 film “Birth of a Nation.” This film was based upon the 1905 novel “The Clansmen,” and it is widely credited as inspiring the rise and rebirth of the Klu Klux Klan.
The KKK, for its part, immediately took up the Confederate Flag, and has used it as a symbol since 1915. It has been present at lynchings, church and cross burnings, and hung as a symbol to instill fear in black people throughout the South.
The prominence of the Confederate Flag only grew from there, and it became more and more commonplace as the Jim Crow era fully took hold. By the 1950s the Confederate Flag was used universally in campaign material by Southern “Dixiecrat” Democrats, and it was adopted as part of the Georgia State Flag as a direct counterpoint to the civil rights movement. A Georgia legislator at the time stated that the only reason the Confederate Flag was added to the state flag was for it to “telegraph a message.” It was a gesture of defiance in the face of the federal government’s rulings on integration. Unquestionably, the Confederate Flag was utilized as a symbol of racism throughout the last century. It has been venerated by racists, it was present at racist gatherings, and it became a symbol of white oppression.
Modern defenders of the Confederate Flag insist that its use is now more about heritage than hate. However, one cannot ignore that it has been used as a symbol of hate for far longer than it was ever used as a symbol of the Confederacy. Recall, the Civil War lasted only four years. The flag was then rarely seen outside of Virginia memorial services for the next 30 years. The heritage that this flag represents is one of revisionist history in the South and racist atrocities against people of color for over 100 years. This is a heritage that is best left to die.
The Confederate Flag is a symbol of hate.
John Judkins is a Greenfield attorney.