The Confederate Battle Flag Was Not “Stolen From the South”

Thanks to Al Mackey for posting this short clip of a recent talk in which Professor James I. Robertson responds to a question about the current debate about the display of the Confederate flag. I was surprised and disappointed that Robertson didn’t simply suggest that the battle flag belongs in a museum where it can be properly interpreted. That would have been the right answer. Instead we are treated to a muddled response that attempts to remove the Confederate soldier from discussions of slavery and race.

According to Robertson there were two flags. There was “the flag under which my great grandfather fought, under which my great Uncle died… and when they went home that flag should have been put away.” We have heard this before. Presumably, the other flag that Robertson had in mind is the various Confederate national flags, which he likely would have identified as having something to do with the nation’s explicit goal of protecting and extending slavery and white supremacy.

After the war, according to Robertson the Confederate battle flag “was stolen from the South” beginning with the Ku Klux Klan and moving forward to racial segregationists in the 1950s and 60s and neo-Nazis. Unfortunately, Robertson conveniently ignores the steps taken by state governments to utilize the battle flag as a symbol of resistance to civil rights. The message is clear, for the soldiers the meaning of the Confederate battle flag was distinct from how it would be used later as a symbol of white supremacy and resistance to civil rights.

More than once I have rejected this distinction. Regardless of whether a soldier was a slave owner or whether he acknowledged why he was fighting in a letter, diary or memoir, every soldier was fighting for a nation pledged to protect the institution of slavery. The Army of Northern Virginia functioned as the military arm of that government. The harder they fought and the more battles they won the closer they came to bringing this goal to fruition.

And let’s not forget that there was a reason why the battle flag was integrated into both the second and third national flags of the Confederate government. By the middle of the war Robert E. Lee and his army in particular had become a powerful national symbol of the Confederacy. After January 1, 1863 every Confederate soldier had a stake in defending slavery and their place as free white men once Lincoln’s proclamation was issued and black men entered the military. The battle flag rallied these men on battlefields such as the Crater, which reminded Lee’s men of just what was at stake if the war was lost.

It is unlikely that these men viewed their regimental battle flags as distinct from the national cause.

The meaning of the battle flag was not stolen. It should be obvious to anyone as to why later organizations chose it. I have a great deal of respect for Professor Robertson, but this response does nothing more than perpetuate a confused interpretation of the history of the flag and of the Confederacy at a time when we desperately need clarity.

48 comments… add one
  • Don Feb 23, 2016

    I believe that the Confederate flag should be displayed in a museum so it can be properly interpreted, but I also believe that those that want to display it from their vehicles,windows,porches etc should have the right to be able to do so with out being attacked as racists etc. They are eve removing them from some Civil War gift shops around the U.S. and this is ridiculous. I display the Confederate Flag in my home and not because I am racists I love the “Dukes” lol. My relatives fought for the North too. I also display the U.S. Flag too. The ISIS and the Nazi Flags are allowed to be displayed and you don’t hear any out cries over them do you. How many millions of people have been murdered under those flags? They were and are trying to eliminate whole races and religions. Political correctness has gone too far.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 23, 2016

      Hi Don,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. I get your point, but I don’t think it is as clear cut as you would like it to be. Certainly you have the right to display the Confederate battle flag on your private property, but given the history of the flag from the very beginning you can’t expect others to just give you a free pass.

      • Don Feb 23, 2016

        People don’t have to like it, but they don’t rip it off my truck or come on my property and tear it down. As I stated, the Nazi and ISIS flags are not being protested against and they are still being sold online and in stores. There have been more killed under those flags than the Confederate Flag, but that seems to be ignored.

        • Kevin Levin Feb 23, 2016

          I think you would see protests if they were as visible as Confederate battle flags. I assume most people display their Nazi flags over the fireplace in their homes. In Germany it is illegal to display that flag publicly.

  • Ken Hoffman Feb 23, 2016

    What this usually boils down to is some claim that laws will be passed to prohibit the selling and display of the flag. That seems pretty absurd because we have yet to ban the Klan from flying the Nazi flag. This is the U.S.A. We defend the right of anyone to be a racist (and thanks to all of you who fly the flag for letting me know exactly what you are). But whining about it not being sold is ridiculous. Everyone has a right NOT to sell the flag. If you can’t buy it, sew one for yourself.

    If it comes to some legal measure to ban ownership of the flag, I’ll join a fight to resist such a law. I don’t want to live in a country that suppresses free speech. If I liked governments like that, I couldn’t have any objections to the southern states abrogation of free speech against slavery as they did for three decades before the war. Good riddance to the rubbish government of the Confederacy.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 23, 2016

      Let me be clear that I was not suggesting that we should pass a law banning the display of the Confederate battle flag or any other flag for that matter.

  • Sandi Saunders Feb 23, 2016

    I love Bud Robertson but he does work at separating the soldier from the Confederate cause. Many do.

  • Sandi Saunders Feb 23, 2016

    You do have the right to display any flag you want without being “attacked” but there is no way that your display will not be interpreted as white supremacist, racist, anti-government or many other negative perspectives by many people due to the documented history of the flags. That is just a fact of life. You would form an opinion of anyone displaying a Nazi or ISIS flag and yet think no one should do the same for yours? What that flag means to you is your perspective not what others are obligated to see.

    This nation has one flag. The Confederacy is 150 years in the past. If you cannot let it go, do not expect others to applaud that. Many see it as the greatest tragedy in this nation’s history and see nothing noble, respectable or honorable in anything to do with the Confederacy. Just like the ISIS and Nazi flags, yours is allowed, but none are free from derision as that is our right.

  • Don Feb 23, 2016

    I resent the whining comment. In the local gift shop at a Battlefield they banned the flag in every form except in pictures, books etc. I wanted to buy a figurine of a Confederate soldier holding the flag, but it was banned and they won’t sell them any more. This is what I am talking about

    • Kevin Levin Feb 23, 2016

      I guess you will have to go elsewhere for your figurine.

      • Don Feb 23, 2016

        My sons are Confederate reenactors and while at Gettysburg they were told that they couldn’t display the battle flag for reenactments and a number of the groups left. It’s getting out of hand.

        • Kevin Levin Feb 23, 2016

          I guess your sons should reenact at another location if their performance hinges on being able to display a battle flag. Don’t know what else to say.

      • Don Feb 23, 2016

        Sarcasm??

  • James Harrigan Feb 23, 2016

    Don, you of course have every right to display the Confederate flag in your home, on your truck, etc. Nobody should use force to stop you. But to do so is a racist act, because it says you don’t care what the flag means to your black fellow citizens. Simply saying “I’m not a racist” doesn’t make it so.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 23, 2016

      Let’s not confine this to just African Americans. Plenty of white Americans are offended by the sight of that flag as well.

  • Ken Hoffman Feb 23, 2016

    Yes. I know. My comments were in response to this statement “I also believe that those that want to display it from their vehicles,windows,porches etc should have the right to be able to do so with out being attacked as racists etc. They are even removing them from some Civil War gift shops around the U.S. and this is ridiculous.”

    If a particular person is called a racist for flying the flag, then they can test to see if such a claim constitutes slander. But when speaking broadly, there isn’t anything that protects Confederate flag owners from being labeled racist. And there shouldn’t be. Free speech works both ways.

    .

  • James Harrigan Feb 23, 2016

    Plenty of white Americans are offended by the sight of that flag as well.

    Of course, including me. But my point was that it is racist to say “I don’t care what black people think”.

  • Ryan A Feb 23, 2016

    While I think Robertson’s comments were misguided somewhat, I think I understand his point. Kevin, you and others have mentioned before that in the decades after the war, the veterans organizations and UDC chapters made it a point to “leave the flags furled” except for special occasions like reunions where they would be shown to the public and then put away. There was an understanding that the war was over and the time for showcasing or promoting of the battle flags or any flags of the Confederacy was over as well. When the Klan and other groups in the South, and admittedly around the country, began using the flag for the overt opposition to blacks and eventually the Civil Rights movement, this flew in the face of the tradition begun by the veterans and the UDC. I can understand if Robertson is making the argument that the flag should never have been utilized again after the war, especially in that way.

    That being said, it’s impossible to divorce the obvious from the flag, even in a historical context – it stood for an army and a people committed to protecting a nation built on slavery and an assumption of inherent white supremacy. I agree – it seems like Robertson is trying to separate the soldier from the cause, which would mean his ancestor fought for . . . nothing? Or that the entirety of the soldiers in the Confederate army fought for a completely different cause than the Confederate government did? I have always enjoyed Robertson and his value as a historian and will continue to do so, but it’s obvious that he’s trying his hand at some revisionism.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 23, 2016

      If Robertson was simply attempting to make the point that Confederate veterans exercised strict control over the display of their battle flags than he should have left it at that. What he appears to want to ignore is that the choice of symbol for later organizations was not accidental. They didn’t add meaning to the flag that wasn’t already impressed upon it during the war.

      Sounds like we are pretty much in agreement.

  • Jimmy Dick Feb 23, 2016

    Don,
    I read this article. http://www.fredericknewspost.com/news/human_interest/confederate-flags-fly-but-feelings-waver-at-gettysburg-battle-sites/article_8620a4f7-1b96-5053-bc47-e29538fe9709.html

    This is due to the reason the CBF is flown. I see it all the time and when I ask the person who is displaying it why they do so, the answer is always about southern pride and support for state’s rights. When I tell them the war was fought over slavery they without any hesitation at all say it was over state’s rights. When I ask them to name one of those state’s rights they can’t do it. When I tell them the people of that time period said it was about slavery they immediately reject that fact. They begin to walk away when I ask them to prove what they claim.

    The CBF today is used for racist purposes and or total ignorance. It has more to do with modern political ideology than the past. You can say whatever you want to say. I don’t see ISIS and Nazi flags in this area. If I did, I would assume those flags were flown for the displayer’s political ideology and stupidity. That’s what I see when I see the CBF as well now outside of an obvious historical context.

  • Eric A. Jacobson Feb 23, 2016

    Kevin,

    I understand the point of your point, but I do think Robertson is far from incorrect. Note his reference to “the flag” being a “regimental flag.” That is what the battle flag was, but, of course, not solely. National flags, for the most part, denoted brigade, brigade, and corps commands by 1863 forward. So the battle flag was a military unit’s symbol, and it was also incorporated into the government’s official symbol. All this being said, it is also true that anyone fighting for the CSA in 1861-65 was fighting for a rebellion founded on the supremacy of the white race over the black race.

    However, Robertson is correct that the flag was, in practical terms, stolen or hijacked. Let’s use this approach, if I might. The vast majority of Confederate veterans used the flag in very particular ways, i.e. parades, reunions, at cemeteries, and during funerals. They didn’t sell hats, or belt buckles, or make silly shot glasses and stickers. This statement has no bearing on their racial attitude(s) – rather it is simply about how they used the flag. They also didn’t shove it in people’s faces – black, white, Republican, or otherwise.

    Then comes the late 1940s and the movement toward desegregation. The likes of Strom Thurmond and his Dixiecrats picked the flag as their symbol, even though fellow Democrats like Hubert Humphrey were sickened by it. But Thurmond’s movement was not the same as 1861-65. I might say that 100 years AFTER the Civil War folks like Thurmond had even less excuse than Southern boys and men of a different time who were not running for politics, but were volunteering and being drafted into service to potentially die.

    So, yes, Thurmond, et al, and right down the line to George Wallace, and other bigoted thugs did steal the flag, at least on some level. Beyond the movement against Civil Rights, there was additional theft. For the last 20-30 years the flag has been plastered on every piece of clothing and poster and kitchy material one can possibly think of. Dixie Outfitters. for example, has stolen it and made it cartoonish. What the heck the battle flag and a large mouth bass have to do with one another is among the great puzzles of life.

    In closing, I might add that groups like the Virginia Flaggers have performed perhaps the greatest theft of all. They use the flag to “honor” the Confederate veteran, but conveniently ignore the varied use of the flag and insist that it has only one true meaning, which, according to them, has nothing to do with race. Even most Confederate veterans, like John Mosby and Nathan Bedford Forrest and, dare I say, Sam Watkins, said otherwise.

    I think Robertson’s comment is more thoughtful that it appears on the surface.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 23, 2016

      Hi Eric,

      I appreciate the comment, but I am not clear as to where we disagree. It is true that Confederate veterans didn’t “sell hats, or belt buckles, or make silly shot glasses and stickers” emblazoned with the battle flag, but in my view the flag’s adoption later by organizations Robertson mentioned did not constitute a significant narrative shift. They used it to promote white supremacy and deny African Americans civil rights. The flag’s place in the regiment and as part of national flags ties it directly to the Confederacy’s goal of protecting and expanding slavery.

      Where I think we disagree is in our reading of what motivated Robertson in the framing of his response. He seems to be committed to drawing a distinction between soldier and Confederate government and I simply do not believe that such a clean break is possible.

  • Mark Snell Feb 23, 2016

    When the film _Gods and Generals_ first came out, Bud and I were on a panel at some conference, and the topic of the film’s accuracy came up. A uniformed Confederate reenactor, who had not yet seen the film, asked if the screenwriter got the “story right”–that the war was about states rights and not slavery. Bud shot back, “But it WAS all about slavery!” At that point several members of the audience departed the auditorium.

    I think Bud’s response concerning the current debate about the flag was probably appropriate for the audience he was addressing. (I’m guessing it was a Civil War Round Table or similar gathering.) We all have given responses to questions after a presentation that, in retrospect, are not as thorough as we might have liked. And remember, Bud is 86 years old. I hope I am still giving talks when I am his age!

    • Kevin Levin Feb 23, 2016

      Hi Mark,

      Nice to hear from you. I have heard that story before. There is no doubt that Robertson knows his history, which is part of the reason why I was disappointed with his response. This is an approach to the question that I have seen over and over during the past few years and especially since the shooting in Charleston. Yes, he is 86 years old, but he still appears to be quite capable of formulating a reasonable response.

  • Andy Hall Feb 23, 2016

    Sandi Saunders wrote:
    ___

    You do have the right to display any flag you want without being “attacked” but there is no way that your display will not be interpreted as white supremacist, racist, anti-government or many other negative perspectives by many people due to the documented history of the flags. That is just a fact of life.

    ___

    We should be clear about what constitutes an “attack.” Confederate flag advocates seem to think that the First Amendment should protect them not only from censorship by the government, but also from criticism or ridicule from everyone else. They love to depict themselves as victims of oppression, and merely to challenge them is characterized as an “attack.” It’s preposterous.

    Real Confederates were made of sterner stuff.

  • Al Mackey Feb 23, 2016

    The confederate flag was banned from the Lutheran Seminary property, which is the seminary’s right. It was not banned from all reenactments, nor has it been banned from the battlefield. Someone’s given you bad information, speaking of overreaction.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 23, 2016

      Hi Al,

      I thought that was what he was referring to, but wasn’t sure.

  • Al Mackey Feb 23, 2016

    Kevin, my sense is that he was saying confederate flags today are symbols of racial hatred and oppression. I agree with you that he’s divorcing the soldiers from the cause. He’s taking the view that the soldiers had a number of reasons for fighting, which we all agree is not controversial.

    Perhaps his forebears didn’t consider slavery worth fighting for and had different motives. This wasn’t part of his prepared remarks so I think maybe he spoke from the heart and had his ancestors front most in his thoughts.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 23, 2016

      Hi Al,

      Thanks for the comment. Do you know if Robertson’s ancestors left a written record that indicates why they fought and/or how they understood the purpose of the war?

      Nothing that I have said negates the fact that soldiers fought for multiple reasons. We agree.

  • Boyd Harris Feb 23, 2016

    I expected nothing less from the man who “saved” the centennial. Dr. Robertson is a different generation of Civil War historian.

  • Al Mackey Feb 23, 2016

    I don’t know if they did, Kevin, but I know for a fact Professor Robertson is no lost causer, so I was just speculating. In my view, he was saying the confederate flag of his ancestors isn’t the flag being displayed these days. In that vein, I find much to agree with in Eric Jacobson’s comment above.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 23, 2016

      I have never even hinted that Professor Robertson ought to be understood as a lost causer.

      In my view, he was saying the confederate flag of his ancestors isn’t the flag being displayed these days.

      It’s certainly a reasonable interpretation, but I think he was suggested more than this.

  • Paul Taylor Feb 23, 2016

    Kevin, with regard to your comment in this post about the Confederate battle flag belonging in a museum, I recently read an article proposing that the flag should not be in public museums, either. The logic was that the same “white power structure” that erected Confederate monuments and battle flags on public property with no regard for African-American sensibilities is the same structure that determines what gets venerated in our public museums. In the author’s opinion, Confederate relics like the flag are not worthy of such space. You have written in the past about local communities deciding whether Confederate iconography stays or goes. Would love to get your opinion on this article’s additional proposition and logic. I can try to dig up the article if you wish.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 23, 2016

      Hi Paul,

      Definitely send me the link. Sounds like a variation of an argument made by some who do not trust institutions to correctly interpret certain aspects of American history.

  • Ellissa Mays Feb 23, 2016

    Generally speaking, mainstream Americans work far more assiduously and tirelessly trying to separate the plethora of human rights abuses and crimes against humanity committed under the authority of the U.S. flag than contemporary Confederate sympathizers do in separating the imperfections represented by their flag. For many, when they see the U.S. flag, they see the My Lai Massacre, Tokyo firebombings, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Native American genocide, slavery, slave-trading, waterboarding, theft, looting, and mass-murder. Surely, if it is possible to separate the endless litany of violence and cruelty perpetrated under the U.S. flag, it is also possible to separate the CBF form the errors perpetrated by its citizens and apologists.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 24, 2016

      Surely, if it is possible to separate the endless litany of violence and cruelty perpetrated under the U.S. flag, it is also possible to separate the CBF form the errors perpetrated by its citizens and apologists.

      I reject this comparison. The United States flag represents a nation that from its beginning has worked to perfect its Union. There would be no Confederate battle flag apart from a nation that was established to protect and expand slavery.

      • Kristoffer Feb 24, 2016

        I reject this comparison. The United States flag represents a nation that from its beginning has worked to perfect its Union. There would be no Confederate battle flag apart from a nation that was established to protect and expand slavery.

        This is how I see and celebrate my nation.

  • Joshism Feb 23, 2016

    Weren’t most of the members of the Reconstruction-era KKK Confederate veterans?

  • Al Mackey Feb 23, 2016

    I didn’t mean to suggest you were claiming he was a lost causer in any way, Kevin. I know you wouldn’t do that. I was explaining why I was speculating on why he said what he said.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 24, 2016

      Thanks for the clarification, Al. I know you weren’t suggesting this, but I just wanted to make sure that my own thinking was clear to others.

  • Bryan Cheeseboro Feb 24, 2016

    I finally watched the Robertson video linked here in this blog. I can’t help but feel like Robertson talks out of both sides of his mouth. He says the war was about slavery but then he does what many Lost Causers do- try to completely divorce the Confederate soldier and the battle flag from the socio-political issues (slavery and White supremacy) that essentially created them.

    Eric, I believe I get your point about how the flag has been used frivolously by people today as decoration on ballcaps, t-shirts and shorts or bass fish or wolf’s heads emblazoned over the St. Andrew’s cross. Even on top of the roof of the Dukes of Hazard car. I’m thinking the men who fought and died under that flag would not approve of it as a cheap pop culture symbol.

    But then, I think they would be pleased that the flag as not been forgotten and lives on. I still think they wouldn’t be crazy about the way many use it today- “hijacked,” if you insist; but they would be glad the flag has not been defeated. Personally, I have to say I don’t think it’s been misused at all- at least not by the Klan. I see no real difference in Confederates murdering Black soldiers at Olustee and the Crater than I do the KKK shooting, bombing and killing people simply because they want their slice of the American dream.

  • Patrick Jennings Feb 24, 2016

    Dan, As for Gettysburg NMP not allowing your sons to fly a Confederate flag during a reenactment…this is simply not true. I only recently left the employ of the NPS and can tell you that the display of Confederate flags by reenactors who are authorized to be on the park is in NO WAY restricted as long as the flag is accurate to the period and the unit they portray.

    Someone, I fear, is pulling your leg.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 24, 2016

      GNP just approved a flagging event for this coming Saturday.

  • Andy Hall Feb 24, 2016

    Patrick Jennings wrote:
    __

    __

    A while back, maybe around the time of the Gettysburg sequi event, there was some sort of notice that went to medical/field hospital reenacting groups, that said (I think) something along the lines of, don’t mix Confederate and Union impressions in one location. I say “I think” because I haven’t seen the original communication. But I did see where it got reported second- or third-hand on a forum called the Southern War Room, where it was reported as Confederates-not-welcome, and everyone dutifully (and without questioning the accuracy of the original post) set their hair on fire about it. It was ridiculous, and the claim didn’t make any sense at all even on its face. But plausibility is immaterial to people who are looking for something to be outraged about.

    So that may be where the “Confederate flags banned from Gettysburg” notion got started.

  • Nadine Mironchuk Feb 26, 2016

    I, personally, am not surprised that Bud Robertson is seen as “talking out of both sides of his mouth” about the causes and effects of the Civil War. It’s an unfortunate tendency he has always demonstrated. When speaking to southern audiences, he runs up the rebel flag (so to speak), and when he is speaking to a northern audience, he is all ‘union forever.’ When he is speaking to a national audience, he barely contains the affinity he feels with the Lost Cause, but he is also aware that the preponderance of his nationally-reputed colleagues in academia are very clear about these matters, and the waffling becomes obvious.
    If you haven’t seen him exposed in the C-SPAN broadcasts that have featured him in various venues and locations, I can tell you that the person who spoke to the Massachusetts Civil War Round Tables when he was (even more unfortunately) given the Oliver Wendell Holmes Award is in no way related to the person who consulted for the movie “Gods and Generals.”
    He is a fairly good historian, factually speaking, but he has been elevated by some in warmer climes to be the “James McPherson of the South” – the go-to person on Civil War history that will put forth the Lost Cause in the general public’s consciousness.
    In short, he tries to be all things to all audiences, trusting that they won’t usually mingle.
    He could, indeed, join the ranks of the leading thinkers and writers of Civil War history, but he lacks the courage to either form a moral judgement about the war, or to take ownership of whichever point of view in which he truly believes.
    Sad, because –despite his obfuscations – I believe he has made his choice, and that he also knows better.

  • Brad Feb 28, 2016

    If by figurine, you mean toy soldier or military miniature companies like William Britain or First Legion make them. Just go to their websites.

  • John L. Hare May 25, 2016

    The rhetoric surrounding the demands for removal of flags, monuments, school names, and street signs offers many reasons, all of which boil down to “I don’t like it.” Some say it makes them fearful. Some say it “hurts [their] heart” (which I have yet to figure out. They are, in some way, offended. I’m particularly offended by the Kardashians because I think they encapsulate a good deal of the excess and self absorption in the U.S. today. I avoid watching their show or any other show that includes them. If you are offended by a flag, take another way home or to work or to school or wherever. To demand its removal is simply a power play, and these demands leave me wondering what will be next.

    • Kevin Levin May 25, 2016

      With all due respect, your comment suggests that you know next to nothing about how the battle flag has been used to reinforce racial violence and intimidation.

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