The End of Confederate Heritage

The reason why the members of the first generation of Sons of Confederate Veterans and United Daughters of the Confederacy emphasized such a strict code governing the display of the Confederate flag was that they understood the risks of it being appropriated in a way that threatened to disconnect it from its Civil War roots.  By the 1950s and 60s that battle had clearly been lost through its use as a symbol of Massive Resistance and later through its appearance on everything from cigarette lighters to bikini bottoms.  This story of a black University of South Carolina Beaufort student who chose to display a Confederate flag in his dorm window is but the latest example of this gradual decline.

So here we have a flag that was carried by the military arm of a government pledged to defend slavery and white supremacy and that remained a symbol of racism and hatred for this student’s parents has now become little more than a colorful rag in the hands of a young black man.  What does the flag mean to him?

“When I look at this flag, I don’t see racism. I see respect, Southern pride,” he said. “This flag was seen as a communication symbol” during the Civil War.

“I’ve been getting a lot of support from people. My generation is interested in freedom of speech,” Thomas said.

“I think he’s got a really good point. It’s just a flag, and in and of itself, it doesn’t have any racial meaning. It only has as much meaning as you put into it,” said Reed.

That’s about it.  The flag was a “communication symbol”… you know, guys waved them back and forth to send signals.  The student in question doesn’t seem to have any interest in the Confederate war nor does his display of the flag seem to have much to do with the Civil War era at all.  So much for Confederate/Southern heritage.  That hasn’t prevented the Confederate heritage community from embracing him as their latest hero.  In the past few weeks the most popular defenders of Confederate heritage include a middle school student from New Jersey and now this guy.  Hilarious!

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!

29 comments… add one
  • John Fox Dec 7, 2011 @ 19:12

    Chris, I think that by the middle of the war there was worry in the north because many slaves had escaped and headed north

  • John Fox Dec 7, 2011 @ 18:56

    Michael, You make some valid points. You mention that the slavery issue being complex, that is an understatement. Certainly the reasons why a man enlists to fight maybe different than why a political leader is willing to take his nation to war. We are still experiencing this problem today.

  • Lyle Smith Dec 5, 2011 @ 9:13

    What’s also great about this story is that shows how much the South has changed over the years This young man apparently hasn’t experienced any of the hate aspects associated with the flag and so is ignorant of its past use. His life experience buttresses his naivete of the flag’s symbolism.

    So in some ways it’s kind of a great thing that he’s blissfully ignorant. The New South just ain’t the Old South. Amen to that.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 5, 2011 @ 9:15

      Good point, Lyle.

  • John Fox Dec 4, 2011 @ 15:19

    Kevin, Do you have any relatives who fought for the South? If so, I would be curious what your reasoning is on why they fought. Notice that I mentioned your reasoning because there is no shortage of modern-day people who want to state why Confederate soldiers served or why the war occurred and of course most of academic society, of which you are a member, all fling the SLAVERY moniker against Confederate soldiers. The state of Virginia was moving against secession until Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to invade the South via Virginia. Most Virginia soldiers enlisted in the Confederate army to halt the invasion. A careful reading of their letters reveals their desire to protect family and property with scant mention of slavery. As a CWT subscriber I’ll be interested to read your article

    • Kevin Levin Dec 4, 2011 @ 15:23

      Thanks for the question. No, I don’t have any Confederate ancestors, but if I did I would be careful to distinguish between why he fought and the broader questions surrounding the motivations of white Southerners who either volunteered or were drafted into the army. You reference a very rich scholarly literature on Civil War soldiers. Many of the authors of these studies do have Confederate ancestors so perhaps you should pose that same question to them. I hope you enjoy the CWT article.

      • John Fox Dec 5, 2011 @ 18:35

        I do have Confederate ancestors and they all fought in Virginia regiments. Based on my research they did not own slaves. My problem w/ this discussion like many similar modern day discussions on the causes of the War and why men from each side fought seems to point fingers at those from only one side. If you want to blame slavery as the cause of the dust up then many fingers can be pointed at northern interests who were interested in seeing it continue as well. I believe there were many more reasons in addition to slavery that brought on the the shooting. Additionally, if you look at Union soldiers’ letters in 1861, you will find very few men who claim to be fighting to free the black man – it was about preserving the Union.

        • Kevin Levin Dec 6, 2011 @ 2:31


          I am not pointing fingers at anyone. Our job as historians is to do as good a job interpreting the available evidence as well as relevant secondary sources. Slavery and race were clearly crucial elements in the coming of the Civil War as well as their outcomes. Whether your ancestors owned slaves tells us very little (almost nothing) about how they understood the institution of slavery as well as their place in a slave holding society.

    • Chris L.. Robinson Dec 4, 2011 @ 16:22

      “A careful reading of their letters reveals their desire to protect family and property with scant mention of slavery.”

      I’m no Kevin, but I imagine that for some of them, mentioning their “property” was mentioning slavery…

      • John Fox Dec 5, 2011 @ 18:39

        Chris, Certainly a mention of “property” would include slaves for those Confederate soldiers who came from slave-holding families. However, only about 15% of Confederate soldiers owned slaves so the other 85% were talking about other property.

        • Michael Douglas Dec 6, 2011 @ 6:26

          But you ignore the fact that even non-slaveholders had a vested interest in maintaining the culture of slaveholding white supremacy. It was the foundation on which southern society rested. Slaveholding affected *every* aspect of life in the south at that time. I think the issue is more complex than most people, myself included, are aware. The fact remains though, that why an individual goes to war is often very different from the reasons his superiors have commanded that war or the official reasons for that war.

          • Margaret D. Blough Dec 6, 2011 @ 22:26

            Michael-Excellent point on the non-sllaveholder interest in slavery. If John is leary of modern sources on this, perhaps he might be interested in this speech, given on the floor of the US Senate by SC Senator James Hammond on March 4, 1858. It is often referred to as the “Mudsill” portion of the infamous “King Cotton” speech:

            >>But, sir, the greatest strength of the South arises from the harmony of her political and social institutions. This harmony gives her a frame of society, the best in the world, and an extent of political freedom, combined with entire security, such as no other people ever enjoyed upon the face of the earth. Society precedes government; creates it, and ought to control it; but as far as we can look back in historic times we find the case different; for government is no sooner created than it becomes too strong for society, and shapes and moulds, as well as controls it. In later centuries the progress of civilization and of intelligence has made the divergence so great as to produce civil wars and revolutions; and it is nothing now but the want of harmony between governments and societies which occasions all the uneasiness and trouble and terror that we see abroad. It was this that brought on the American Revolution. We threw off a Government not adapted to our social system, and made one for ourselves. The question is, how far have we succeeded? The South, so far as that is concerned, is satisfied, harmonious, and prosperous, but demands to be let alone.

            In all social systems there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life. That is, a class requiring but a low order of intellect and but little skill. Its requisites are vigor, docility, fidelity. Such a class you must have, or you would not have that other class which leads progress, civilization, and refinement. It constitutes the very mud-sill of society and of political government; and you might as well attempt to build a house in the air, as to build either the one or the other, except on this mud-sill. Fortunately for the South, she found a race adapted to that purpose to her hand. A race inferior to her own, but eminently qualified in temper, in vigor, in docility, in capacity to stand the climate, to answer all her purposes. We use them for our purpose, and call them slaves. We found them slaves by the common “consent of mankind,” which, according to Cicero, “lex naturae est.” The highest proof of what is Nature’s law. We are old-fashioned at the South yet; slave is a word discarded now by “ears polite;” I will not characterize that class at the North by that term; but you have it; it is there; it is everywhere; it is eternal.

            The Senator from New York [William Seward] said yesterday that the whole world had abolished slavery. Aye, the name, but not the thing; all the powers of the earth cannot abolish that. God only can do it when he repeals the fiat, “the poor ye always have with you;” for the man who lives by daily labor, and scarcely lives at that, and who has to put out his labor in the market, and take the best he can get for it; in short, your whole hireling class of manual laborers and “operatives,” as you call them, are essentially slaves. The difference between us is, that our slaves are hired for life and well compensated; there is no starvation, no begging, no want of employment among our people, and not too much employment either. Yours are hired by the day, not cared for, and scantily compensated, which may be proved in the most painful manner, at any hour in any street of your large towns. Why, you meet more beggars in one day, in any single street of the city of New York, than you would meet in a lifetime in the whole South. We do not think that whites should be slaves either by law or necessity. Our slaves are black, of another and inferior race. The status in which we have placed them is an elevation. They are elevated from the condition in which God first created them, by being made our slaves. None of that race on the whole face of the globe can be compared with the slaves of the South. They are happy, content, unaspiring, and utterly incapable, from intellectual weakness, ever to give us any trouble by their aspirations. Yours are white, of your own race; you are brothers of one blood. They are your equals in natural endowment of intellect, and they feel galled by their degradation. Our slaves do not vote. We give them no political power. Yours do vote, and, being the majority, they are the depositaries [sic] of all your political power. If they knew the tremendous secret, that the ballot-box is stronger than “an army with banners,” and could combine, where would you be? Your society would be reconstructed, your government overthrown, your property divided, not as they have mistakenly attempted to initiate such proceedings by meeting in parks, with arms in their hands, but by the quiet process of the ballot-box. You have been making war upon us to our very hearthstones. How would you like for us to send lecturers and agitators North, to teach these people this, to aid in combining, and to lead them?<<

    • Michael Dec 4, 2011 @ 20:59

      John, in many cases the property that you mention included enslaved human beings. And sometimes they were “relatives” as well. I have a couple of documented ancestors who fought for the Confederacy. I cannot tell you their stated or actual reasons for fighting. I can tell you that they owned slaves who happened to have been my ancestresses. And I can also tell you that whether or not they consciously fought to preserve slavery, the fact of the matter is that they fought to preserve a culture which was built upon the practice of the enslavement of human beings and which went to war to preserve that culture and practice.

      • Lee White Dec 5, 2011 @ 6:29

        Also, the protection of the family ties into slavery. Protection from a slave revolt and protection from having to compete with freed slaves.

        • Chris L. Robinson Dec 5, 2011 @ 7:15

          This issue of having to compete with freed slaves is a real and often glossed over reason for non-slaveowning whites to go to war.

          You don’t have to be a genius to realize that even if you are willing to work for practically nothing that you won’t be able to compete with people of the same skill level that have worked for *actually* nothing.

          • John Fox Dec 5, 2011 @ 18:21

            Chris, I would venture to guess that many of those workers who were scared of losing their jobs to freed slaves were in the industrial north.

            • Michael Douglas Dec 6, 2011 @ 6:14

              However it wasn’t the “industrial north” that was fighting to preserve slavery. It was the Confederate south. Granted, the Union was not, at that point, concerned with emancipation. But that’s irrelevant to the topic at hand.

            • Chris L. Robinson Dec 6, 2011 @ 6:21


              I don’t think we disagree that freed black labor would have been a threat to free white labor, but most of the slaves were in the South so wouldn’t most of the fear be there, too? Or at least a large part of it?

  • Lyle Smith Dec 2, 2011 @ 17:58

    It kind of was a communication symbol. It communicated to the combatants that the unit around the flag was Confederate. That was the idea behind it in the beginning.

    I kind of like the way he describes it as such.

    • Margaret D. Blough Dec 3, 2011 @ 17:10

      Even if you are looking at Civil War symbols, and it eludes me why anyone think this would be attractive on a significant scale to the people who, if the secessionists had had their way, would be enslaved, there are ones that do not evoke memories of the Dixiecrats, Massive Resistance, Bombingham, and other murderous acts, such as the Palmetto flag of South Carolina and the First National (the real “Stars and Bars”)

      • Lyle Smith Dec 3, 2011 @ 18:29

        You’re totally right. I just like how he describes the initial use of the flag as a communication symbol. It shows he knows a little something about the flag.

        … and I’m sure he’ll learn more about the other uses of the flag in good time.

        • Ray O'Hara Dec 4, 2011 @ 9:53

          The Beauregard Flag, which we call the CBF was in a way meant to be a “communication” flag. The Stars & Bars and the American flag were similar enough thart at a distance thety could be confused, the CBF was designed to eliminate that. It wasn’t the CSA National nor meant to replace it. It was just to help identify side A from side B so that each side could tell friend from foe.

  • Chris L. Robinson Dec 2, 2011 @ 8:27

    I love this. So, years ago, there was a fashion company called Cross Colours. They sold a line of colorful (naturally) clothes aimed primarily at young black men such as myself. At one point they sold a jacket with a Confederate Battle Flag on it, only in the black nationalist colors of red, black and green.

    I loved the idea of co-opting a symbol that I still associate with slavery and betrayal. I thought it would be a great way to drain the power from a negative symbol. I asked my group of friends what they thought about wearing a red, black and green CBF. They hated it. A lot. Never have so many people that thought so much of me thought so little of me.

    I never bought the jacket.

    My favorite part of today’s article is this:

    “The freshman from North Augusta said his generation can eliminate the flag’s negative power by adopting the banner as a symbol of Southern pride.

    ‘I’ve been getting a lot of support from people. My generation is interested in freedom of speech,’ Thomas said.

    But Thomas says his parents don’t like the flag and he’s concerned about their point of view, particularly since they pay his bills.”

    Laughing at my imagined conversation between the kid and his father: “But Dad, I just want to be different.” “Boy, what the hell?!” “I’m just trying to show respect for my southern heritage.” “Boy, what the hell?!” “And, by the way, I’m not African-American because I’m not from Africa.” “Gladys! Get the car keys!”

    I take this as a good sign. Here’s a kid with parents that see a very different flag than he does because they’ve probably had a very different experience than he has had. Damn kid thinks it’s a tattoo or a mohawk or something! And in South Carolina, no less! LOL!

    So the “Heritage, not hate.” message has gotten through to this young man.
    Anyone have a theory on how long after CBF’s become de rigeur among hip black teenagers that the old guard starts taking down those aircraft carrier-sized ones along the highways?

    • Ray O'Hara Dec 3, 2011 @ 9:35

      Someone should tell the kid that the CSA and the South are not the same thing..

    • Margaret D. Blough Dec 3, 2011 @ 17:06

      Surely someone can come up with a symbol of Southern heritage and pride that is far more inclusive and doesn’t come with so much baggage.

  • Rob Baker Dec 1, 2011 @ 19:25

    Interesting analysis.

    I have a question though that might not pertain to the issue above but I am sure you’ve come across this in your dealings with memory. I agree that the flag was “carried by the military arm of a government pledged to defend slavery and white supremacy and that remained a symbol of racism and hatred for this student’s parents,” as you so eloquently put. What I have issue with is the numerous Confederates that fought under the same symbol that did not own slaves and saw the flag as a rallying point of companionship. I never see a neo-Confederate or a Southern Heritage advocate explain their devotion to the flag in those terms. If slavery is brought up, it is usually met with deflection and acknowledgement of slavery in the United States since the Revolution. Though they never advocate it, does that mean that it is not there? Is there not a symbolic interpretation of, “my ancestor fought under that flag in VA because he wanted to go with his home that was in a state that seceded.” I know that sounds somewhat like a Southern cliche but can we really limit all the rest to maintaining a 19th century southern social order?

    • Ray O'Hara Dec 3, 2011 @ 9:33

      The motives of individual soldiers and the cause they served are different things.
      If you fly a Swastika do you think the claim you are just honoring the simple Landsers who were fighting to defend their homes would fly?

      • Rob Baker Dec 4, 2011 @ 13:09

        I’m not entirely sure I follow because the Landsknecht were around before the Swastika. It is an irrelevant point though. My intent was on categorization of the people that advocate the display of the flag and not whether they should actually do it. On the subject of the Swastika and Confederate Battle Flag you can read this for my thoughts.

        Just to clarify, I am also not talking about public reaction to this. I am talking about historical outlook. Whether or not it will “fly,” to me, does not matter as long as the research is sound.

        My point, or my question rather (because I do not know the answer) is; can we simply classify all those that fought under the flag as pro-slavery people upholding the social order of the time? I don’t think that we can, I think that is definitely an element but not the only element.
        Hopefully this clarification will help.

        your thoughts?

  • Ray O'Hara Dec 1, 2011 @ 19:17

    I posted a link to your post to a CW FB page that is a hot bed of SCV/lost cause types.
    those who haven’t blocked me should have some funny/interesting comments.

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