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.