Confederate Flag Looms Large

Every so often I browse news items related to memory and the Civil War and although I have commented on issues related to the public display of the Confederate flag I have said little of late.  It’s like beating a dead horse given that the discussions are never interesting and tend toward an overly simplistic and dichotomous back and forth.  On one side we learn that the flag must be understood as a symbol of “heritage and not hate” and the other side would have us believe that it is a symbol of hate.  [Consider the recent debate at Fort Hill High School in Cumberland, Maryland.]  Like other Civil War memes such as North v. South, agrarian v. industry, backward v. progressive these discussions convey very little if anything that has historical value.  Here is another example of the whitewashing of history from an Arkansas chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans who recently celebrated Confederate Flag and Heritage Day:

Mark Kalkbrenner, 2nd Lt. Commander, said “The Confederate battle flag was a flag, an American flag the men were fighting for, what they believed in and it was the symbol they rallied around and we continue to use that.”

Such a claim completely ignores the ways in which that flag was displayed during the Civil Rights Movement and asks us not to remember history but to ignore it in favor of a narrow perspective that serves the interests of a small group.  I do not mean to pick on one side since those on the other also ignore legitimate interpretations that resonated with individuals that may not have had anything directly to do with race during the immediate postwar years and the war itself.  My point is that if you are one to take part in these debates understand that your stance one way or the other is more about you and not about the overall history of that flag.  Each side chooses to ignore some salient aspect of the past and in doing so you leave the realm of history.

This is a perfect opportunity to plug what I consider to be one of the most important Civil War publications of the last 5 years,  John Coski’s The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem (Harvard University Press, 2006).  I have little doubt that the people who make these overly emotional appeals for their preferred interpretation have never read John’s book, but their failure to do so probably means that they do not really understand their subject.  The book is now in paperback so do yourself a favor and read it.

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

Purchase your copy today!

16 comments… add one
  • Matt Mar 26, 2008 @ 22:56

    Bob, I agree with most of what you said. I considered adding a bit about Confederates’ reading of the Revolution into my earlier comment, but I felt I was already getting a bit long-winded. That said, while the Confederate flag is very much an “American icon” today, much of its cultural meaning has been imparted in the years since Appomattox, which I think is Kevin’s main point here.

    And while it is perhaps true that Lincoln and other Union leaders never stopped thinking of southerners as “Americans,” at least not publicly, it would be difficult to make the same argument about the majority of Unionists during and immediately after the war. The work of David Blight and Edward Blum (among others) demonstrates pretty clearly that the reunion of northerners and southerners as “Americans” was a process that took considerable time and effort.

    If we examine the battle flag as a symbol of the Confederacy itself, it becomes much more difficult to classify it as “American.”

  • Robert Moore Mar 26, 2008 @ 21:17

    Yes, I agree. The Confederate flag is an important part of Americana. I think it has a place in our culture and should not be removed from museums or even the fields of reenactments (that’s just silly). Responsible, respectable displays are one thing – on graves in cemeteries, for example (although, I have somewhat of an issue when it comes to this as well). Yet that photo with this post… well, in my best Forrest Gump, “that’s all I got to say about that.”

    Speaking of blissful ignorance… this week alone, I’ve seen five vehicles on the interstate with the seven-star First Nationals – two stickers on Virginia tagged vehicles (one with a SCV tag, by the way – eyes rolling in my head – though Virginia was the eighth state to secede), two on N.C. semi-trucks (let’s see, that was the tenth state to secede, right?) and one on a vehicle from Alabama (the only one that got it right on the use of the flag in conjunction with the state that the vehicle represented). You know, I can actually appreciate the effort made by some in displaying the First National in lieu of a battleflag (as evidence of emerging sensitivities… or just a really good “snowjob”), but they need to get their act together as far as having the right number of stars on a First National sticker with the right state vehicle tags.

  • Bob Pollock Mar 26, 2008 @ 21:04

    Kevin, – You are correct, of course.

  • Kevin Levin Mar 26, 2008 @ 20:34

    Bob, — Of course it is an American icon, but that is quite different from how white Southerners in the Confederacy interpreted it. White southerners within the Confederate states did indeed believe that they were defending the values of the Founders, but they chose to do so outside of the United States.

  • Bob Pollock Mar 26, 2008 @ 19:57

    I don’t think you should ban Border. While I disagree with most of what he says, it is interesting to see how you and others respond.

  • Bob Pollock Mar 26, 2008 @ 19:54

    I’m going to have to agree with Border (yikes!) on the idea that the Confederate battle flag is “American.” This was one of the points that Coski makes in his book that had not really occurred to me. The flag is very much an “American” cultural icon. It is viewed as such throughout the world. It originated in the United States and is an integral part of “American” history. Furthermore, I’m not so sure Confederates ceased to think of themselves as “Americans” during or after the war. They actually believed they were defending the true principles of the Founders and the Constitution. Certainly, Lincoln, Grant, and other Union leaders never ceased thinking of them as Americans. The question is not whether or not the battle flag is an “American” symbol, it is what “American” values does it actually represent?

  • Kevin Levin Mar 26, 2008 @ 19:47

    Robert, — I think it is. I deleted his last comment and may ban him completely given the content of most of his comments.

  • Robert Moore Mar 26, 2008 @ 19:40

    Gee, and I thought I’d be preaching to the choir if I made a comment about my opinions of this photo. That said, the photo is just another example of “self-pronounced heritage enthusiasts” showing ignorance about their own heritage. Just my red cent/aka Lincoln penny’s worth…

    So, Hmmm. I wonder if this is “border” is one in the same as “borderruffian” who commented on my blog that African-Americans were “forced” into the ranks of the USCT.

  • Billy Yank Mar 26, 2008 @ 17:46

    I also find it funny that most neo-confederates seem to “worship” the confederate naval jack, not the true square battle flag. Just my simple observation thought.


  • Kevin Levin Mar 26, 2008 @ 17:25

    Matt, — You hit the nail on the head. Well done, but let me emphasize your point re: the civil rights movement. White southerners clearly meant to use the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of “Massive Resistance” and as a modern states rights symbol against the legislative policies of Washington. In this context the flag is an American flag and a statement that citizenship ought to be understood along racial lines.

  • Matt Mar 26, 2008 @ 16:59

    Border: The haste with which you associate my comment with “the North” is fascinating. If you will re-read my comment, you’ll see that I made no reference to “the North,” only to the Union–of which “the South” was a part both before and after the Civil War.

    Your point about the Confederate States of America is well-taken. Generally speaking, however, most southerners didn’t self-identify as “Americans” during the war. Instead, they preferred to call themselves “Confederates” or “Rebels,” precisely to distinguish themselves from “Americans,” a label that–right or wrong–fell naturally to those who remained loyal to the Union.

    Thus, it seems to me that if you’re referring to the Confederate flag specifically in the context of the war (as Mr. Kalkbrenner does), you can’t very well call it an American flag. After all, how many of the boys in gray would have said in 1862 that they were fighting for the “American flag?”

    Of course, if you’re referring to its use in more recent American history (say during, I don’t know, the civil rights movement perhaps) I suppose it could legitimately be called an “American flag.”

    And so, I stand by my original point. By calling it an “American flag” and yet steadfastly connecting it to the rebellious, secessionist South, neo-Confederates illogically try to have their cake and eat it too.

  • Kevin Levin Mar 26, 2008 @ 16:06

    Border, — Your first comment suggests that you would do well to read Coski’s book. The comment is so vague that it is almost meaningless. To think that you can understand the flag’s history simply in terms of numbers is ridiculous.

  • border Mar 26, 2008 @ 15:28

    In addition to ignoring the ways in which the flag was displayed during the civil rights movement

    More a Hollywood concoction…

    Actual civil rights event: 0, 1 or 2 Confederate flags present.

    Movie reenactment of a same event: 100 Confederate flags.


    but if the South was justified in seceding from the Union (as many neo-Confederates believe), then the Confederate battle flag was under no circumstances “an American flag.”

    “Confederate States of America” is the official title.
    The North has no monopoly on the word.

  • Matt Mar 26, 2008 @ 13:48

    In addition to ignoring the ways in which the flag was displayed during the civil rights movement, Mr. Kalkbrenner’s statement is also grossly inaccurate if one accepts the legitimacy of secession. I don’t presume to speak for Mr. Kalkbrenner, but if the South was justified in seceding from the Union (as many neo-Confederates believe), then the Confederate battle flag was under no circumstances “an American flag.”

  • border Mar 26, 2008 @ 13:47

    25 star flag

  • Robert Moore Mar 26, 2008 @ 11:20

    Interesting story about what is going on in Cumberland, Md. I just find it funny that western Md. was quite the resource pool for the regiments of the Potomac Home Brigade (Union)… Cole’s Cavalry (regularly a hunter of Mosby, as well as hunted by Mosby) being among those regiments.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.