We’ll Always Have the First National Flag

There is a reason why Confederate heritage groups like the Virginia Flaggers emphasize the public display of the battle flag. It’s not simply that the flag is widely understood as the soldiers’ flag, but that it is the most visible reminder of the Confederacy. It’s an iconic symbol. This is the flag that Confederate heritage advocates wrap themselves around. In recent years, however, that is becoming more and more difficult to do at least in public spaces throughout the South.

Last night in Escambia County, Florida the community decided that the battle flag ought not to be flown as part of a display outside the Pensacola Bay Center. What will be flown to connect the community to its Confederate past is the First National Flag or Stars and Bars. What’s that, you ask? Well, it was the first national flag of the Confederate nation, which was flown from March 1861 to May 1863.

A quick tour of a few Confederate heritage websites suggests that many view this decision as a victory. The decision likely brings the community in line with the history of what Confederate flags were flown early in the war, but beyond that the victory rings hollow to me. The flag was used in some of the early battles, but was discontinued because it was confused with the Stars and Stripes. Unless an information panel is provided it is likely that most people will make a similar mistake.

Given recent setbacks that are far too numerous to list (OK…from Lexington street light posts/Lee Chapel to Charlottesville’s recent decision to end Lee-Jackson Day) perhaps this does feel like a victory. Somehow this victory will have to accommodate the fact that the decision reinforces the community’s belief that the battle flag is a hopelessly divisive symbol.

13 thoughts on “We’ll Always Have the First National Flag

  1. Andy Hall

    Not a surprising decision, given that the “Five Flags” have been used as a theme in Pensacola going back many decades, just as the “Six Flags Over Texas” have been here. It’s embedded in their community identity, entirely apart from any Confederate connections. Most displays of the “Five Flags” in Pensacola have used the First National all along (as does its counterpart in Texas), without attracting much negative attention. The Confederate Battle Flag was never appropriate to use in that display of national flags to begin with.

    Confederate Heritage folks like to think of themselves as arbiters of historical accuracy when it comes to the Confederate Battle Flag, and can often cite obscure details about its history and design. They frequently mock people who incorrectly refer to the CBF as the “Stars and Bars.” But if they had been serious about it, they would have objected to the CBF being used in the “Five Flags” display in the first place. By failing to do so, they contributed to — and share blame for — the situation that cause Escambia County to take down the “Five Flags” as they did. Will they, in their crowing over a supposed victory in this case, acknowledge their own incompetence in letting this situation accrue in the first place? I wouldn’t bet on it.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      All good points, Andy. I still find it odd that some in the Confederate heritage community consider this to be a victory. Sure, a Confederate flag once again flies outside the complex, but it’s not the battle flag. Translation: Another defeat in the battle to lay claim to a positive interpretation of the flag.

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      1. Andy Hall

        They consider Danville a victory, too, although they were able to retain the flag in that case by an appeal to existing state law. They didn’t actually change any “hearts and minds” in that community.

        The Flaggers are very good at pulling in support from folks who already agree with them, but there’s little evidence that they’ve moved the needle much among the general public. Indeed, some of their antics (hey, Karen!) probably damage their credibility far more than they help. Virtually everything they do and say is calculated to win approval from their own supporters, rather than the vast majority of the public, who are mostly disinterested one way or another.

        Maybe more big-ass highway flags and craptastic photoshoppery will do the trick. We’ll see.

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        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          …but there’s little evidence that they’ve moved the needle much among the general public.

          Not only have they not had any influence on the general public’s perception of these issues, from everything I’ve seen they have have been unable to increase their own ranks. I am surprised that they’ve lasted this long. They are fun to watch.

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    2. Ken Noe

      I’m reminded of a friend at an early-war historic site who gets hate mail every year because he’s so “PC” and doesn’t fly the “Stars and Bars.” He then has to point out that no, sorry, he actually is flying the Stars and Bars, just like the soldiers who were there.

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  2. Eric A. Jacobson

    “…the battle flag is a hopelessly divisive symbol.”

    Indeed, and no matter what “heritage” folks might claim, it means different things to different people. In fact, in 1861 a certain President elect stated:

    “The rule of a minority, as a permanent arrangement, is wholly inadmissible; so that, rejecting the majority principle, anarchy or despotism in some form is all that is left.”

    This is a timeless principle. The “heritage” is a minority and thinks they should just get their way. Well that’s not really how it always works.

    Anyway, I have often said that, in my opinion, the First National Flag (or Second National) are the most appropriate public symbols to display when the CSA is a subject of interpretation. That doesn’t mean the battle flag should not be on display, but it is usually too abstract, or too simplistic, or entirely out of context.

    The United States of America fought a war against a group of states which rebelled and attempted to form their own nation. The aforementioned National flags were the official flags of that nation. United States troops (flying their own National flag known as the Stars and Stripes) were not just fighting a bunch of armed rebel soldiers – they were fighting soldiers who served the CSA. Now many of them may have thought they were fighting for their State, but they were actually fighting for the CSA. Intent and reality are two entirely different things. And they were not fighting for a battle flag, they were fighting for the CSA. In fact, those Southern soldiers who died in, let’s say 1861, were mostly dying under the First National banner, or something else, but not the battle flag as we know it today.

    Thus I say the First and Second National flags are more than appropriate choices, and certainly more based in the history of the CSA rather than just some of the soldiers who fought to defend it. Moreover, if “heritage” groups see the National flag(s) as victories, perhaps that shows a growing understanding among said groups that the battle flag is often more trouble than it is worth considering its multiple layers of history.

    On a side note, Patrick Cleburne’s men didn’t want the battle flag representing them. They rejected it outright. They flew the Second National and their own Hardee flag in 1863 and 1864. If it was good enough for them it should be good enough for any genuine “heritage” supporter.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      All good points. As I’ve said before, I believe Confederate veterans would be appalled with how their supposed advocates handle their flag.

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  3. Rob Baker

    Well said Kevin. The same thing happened here in Georgia in the 90s. Gov. Roy Barnes took the flag down in the 90s. It was replaced by a flag which included a plethora of flags that had flown over Georgia including the 1956 flag. When Gov. Perdue took office, he replaced that flag with the current flag which features the first national.

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  4. Jimmy Dick

    I like the fact that the people in that county are seeing the ordeal as a way to investigate serious problems that exist there today. If they explore those problems and take action to solve them in a positive way then the whole thing is a victory for everyone except the racists who are causing the problems.

    Flying the First National would be the historically correct thing to do. Maybe this decision will help some of the heritage crew to realize that the CBF was not a national flag and in many cases is the wrong flag to use. It also might help them to realize that the CBF is perceived to be a symbol of ignorance, tyranny, and racism. Why some particular groups think putting that symbol up on a pole with no attempt to explain its purpose other than proving they are fools is of course foolish.

    For the heritage groups to call this a victory is like the British claiming Bunker Hill as a victory.

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  5. Dan Weinfeld

    Considering that the Florida state flag still bears the St. Andrews Cross added via consitutional amend in 1900, maybe another flag should also be scrutinized. The wikipedia reason is that the previously white background made the 1868 flag look like a flag of surrender. Sounds like there’s a lot more to the story.

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  6. Conrad

    This is a huge win for the Confederates, and a thumb in the eye of their political adversaries and philosophical antagonists. And while I personally prefer the simple elegance of the Battle Flag, or the sheer beauty of the Third National, any symbol of the Confederacy which earns the imprimatur of public officials and is proudly displayed is a victory. The Confederates are gloating, and the day is theirs.

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    1. Jimmy Dick

      A huge win is when the President of the United States of America delivers a speech condemning the people that used the CBF as a racist symbol 50 years ago in Selma, Alabama.

      Reply

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