The United Daughters of the Confederacy’s Curious Silence on the Confederate Flag Debate
We have heard quite a bit from Sons of Confederate Veterans over the past week in response to the debate over the Confederate flag on the state house grounds in Columbia, South Carolina and beyond. Members claim a direct ancestral connection to Confederate soldiers, which they believe translates into some kind of privileged status regarding all things heritage.
Silent on these issues has been that other venerable Confederate heritage organization, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, founded two years before the SCV in 1894. [The best history of the organization is Karen Cox’s Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture.] Their silence surrounding the Confederate flag debate is curious given their consistent position limiting the display of the battle flag. The UDC’s position was born out of a concern that any use strictly apart from carefully orchestrated ceremonial events in honor of the soldier would distort its meaning.
First, it is important to remember that the UDC was in the business of controlling memory of the Civil War from the beginning, most notably in their focus on the content of school textbooks. Their position on the flag was an extension of this broader mission. In 1948 the Sons of Confederate Veterans publicly announced their support of the States’ Rights or Dixiecrat Party as the political expression of their ancestors. Dixiecrats made ample use of the Confederate battle flag during conventions and on their party’s logo.
The UDC took a very different position in a resolution passed at its annual convention in November of 1948.
The attention of members of our organization has been called to the facts that in certain demonstrations of college groups and some political groups at times the Confederate flag or insignia has been displayed with seeming disregard of its significance. Perhaps this was done purely in the exuberance of youth with no intent of disrespect, but, so that the flag and insignia of the Confederacy may be protected as the United States and other insignias are protected, this Convention deems this bill appropriate and needed at this time. [quoted in Coski, p. 106]
At that same time the president offered the following:
Now all good Daughters know that after that sad day at Appomattox, when the South surrendered to the weight of numbers, the flag of the Confederacy was furled forever … It is now a sacred symbol to be used only by Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy … Our flag is not to be used in connection with any political movement–we are not in politics … If we regard our flag “with affectionate reverence and undying remembrance” we must not permit improper use of it–and should let this be understood by the people at large. If the misuse of our flag occurs again–it will be our fault. [quoted in Coski, p. 162]
Over the next two decades the UDC took a position against the battle flag’s use by college fraternities, schools, the Ku Klux Klan, as well as its commercial use on a wide range of products such as beach towels. Such actions constituted the trivialization of the meaning of the flag.
This included a decision in the Georgia legislature in 1956 to adopt a new flag that included a Confederate battle flag. According to Coski, it is unclear why it was adopted, though the timing places it just after the Brown v. Board of Education decision and the heated debates surrounding desegregation. Apart from a few chapters, the SCV supported the change, while the Daughters remained consistent with their earlier position. Coski writes:
While the flag bill was still pending in late 1955, the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s general convention passed a resolution against the new flag, which it declared an “incorrect use of the Confederate Flag.” According to the Correct Use of the Confederate Flag Committee, which proposed the resolution, “The Battle Flag of the Confederacy is a Flag of history of sacred and cherished remembrance and it belongs to all thirteen states of the Confederacy … No one state can claim it for its own.” [Coski, pp. 254-55]
Given the history of the flag’s use over the course of the twentieth century the battle flag will never again be seen simply as the flag of soldiers or attached to the events of 1861-65. The UDC understood this well and did their best to protect it.
It would be helpful to hear from the UDC at this time. One could even say that they have a responsibility to speak up given their efforts regarding the flag in the past. A statement from the Daughters would serve as a reminder that not everyone who wishes to honor their Confederate ancestor needs to see a battle flag at every turn. They may even convince those who truly wish to honor their ancestors that removing the flag from public land can be done in their name.