As most things are in life, the meaning of the Confederate flag (CF) is much more nuanced than modern society will have you believe. In short, it is not the racist, treasonous symbol mainstream America makes it out to be. Rather, it is a symbol that celebrates Southern heritage and, specifically, the uniquely Southern sacrifice for this country, the United States.What we call today the CF is really the Second Confederate Navy Jack (1863-1865). In square form, the flag was the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia. The design, the blue St. Andrew’s Cross on a red field, became the most recognizable symbol associated with the Confederacy. This piece will not address the legitimacy of the Confederate States of America (CSA), nor will it assess the merits of several states’ secession from the US. This debate exceeds the confines of this piece, not only due to its lengthiness but also due to its minimal bearing on the meaning of the CF today, as I will elaborate.
The CF’s usage outside of war begins after General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. For a good 75 years after the Civil War, the CF was a symbol used to both memorialize and valorize not just the soldiers of the Confederacy, but the Southern soldier in general. History had closed its books on slavery and any possibility of a Confederate nation.The Confederate veterans’ parades that ensued in the Postbellum South were rather held to honor the hundreds of thousands of Americans who had died. These celebrations and parades were not racial or even political; the parades honored black Confederates as well, who were and would be buried with the same honors as their white brothers.
The flag was not just about the soldiers of the Confederacy. The CF’s popularity found its way into Europe and elsewhere abroad. Many Southern soldiers flew the CF upon their deployment to Europe and the Pacific theatre during WWI and WWII, as well as in Korea and Vietnam. To this day, Southern soldiers have brought the CF to Iraq and Afghanistan. I find it hard to believe that the CF in these contexts was a symbol of hate and racism. To the contrary: they were clearly flown to celebrate the American-ness of the Southern soldier. The flag’s purpose had nothing to do with rebellion, treason, or racism. In fact, interestingly enough, if one looks back at pictures from rallies and demonstrations held by the second Ku Klux Klan (the biggest ever, which peaked around 1919), one will not find a single CF present; he will only find American flags. I am sure most may be surprised to hear that. But given the true narrative, that the flag’s meaning had nothing to do with hate, segregation, or Jim Crow but rather with Southern pride and patriotism, there was no reason for the Klan to adopt it as a symbol.
Two major events occurred during the late 1950s that spilled into the 1960s, the first of which I am sure many are familiar with, and the second of which I am sure very few are. The first event was the push for integration, precipitated by the Brown decision and the ensuing Civil Rights movement. The other was the Civil War centennial and the formation of the Southern states’ Confederate War Centennial Commissions, which were assigned to do something significant in celebration of the 100th year anniversary of the Civil War. (South Carolina, for example, in honor of the centennial, placed the CF atop the State House in Columbia).
The flag’s popularity exploded during this period, and the question is why. Even if the centennial was the primary reason for the normalization of the flag in everyday life, the energetic frenzy with which it was received can surely be ascribed to the South digging in its heels in opposition to the Federal Government and Civil Rights. It was likely due to the flag’s newfound popularity that it was adopted as a symbol for the third Ku Klux Klan, which was actively engaging in terrorism against blacks. At that point, the CF was clearly a symbol associated with the Klan and much of the rest of the South’s nefarious beliefs and activities.
Several decades following the unrest, the CF continues to be a prominent symbol in Southern life, despite the fact that the fight over Civil Rights is basically over. The Supreme Court struck down public discrimination, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 struck down private discrimination, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 instituted protections of minority voters in the South, lynching and burnings are essentially over, and the Klan has been reduced to an utterly insignificant (and now non-violent) group of a couple of thousand. So why does the CF still fly?
Southerners are not prepared to surrender a flag that had a tightly controlled meaning for several decades to permanent defilement, just because of the 1960s. The many Southerners who take pride in that flag are fine, decent people. They do not advocate for violence or racism. They are simply proud of their ancestors who died fighting for this nation, and the unique patriotic and communal identity that was formed as a result of their wartime experience.
It is easy for Northeastern Jews to discount an identity that may seem foreign. But that unique identity has been integral to the greater American culture. In the most direct sense, and perhaps most importantly, Southerners represent, to this day, a disproportionate number of military recruits. Even during the Civil War, as he camped in Mississippi in September 1863, Union General William T. Sherman observed in a letter about the “young bloods of the South” that “[W]ar suits them, and the rascals are brave, fine riders, bold to rashness….” There is a unique military culture of the South, where soldiers are venerated. Many of the men who have died for this nation learned to love this country through their Southern identity.
But I think there is more to the veneration of the Southern soldier, and it demands a brief word about the Civil War itself. Many will disregard everything I have said thus far by simply doubling down and arguing that the South rebelled and fought for slavery, and that even though the flag may now be patriotic, its origin is marred in sin. As I wrote at the beginning of the piece, the CF today is not the flag of the government of the Confederate States. It never was. It is not the flag of secession. It did not fly on slave ships. It is a battle flag, the flag of the Southern soldier.
It is important to understand that at the height of slavery in America, only six percent of white Southerners owned slaves, and only a fraction of that group actually fought in the war. Southern soldiers were not fighting for slavery. They were not fighting for white supremacy; virtually everyone in the country, including President Lincoln, believed in white supremacy. (Lincoln said, in one of his 1858 debates with Stephen Douglas, that “while they [the white and black races] do remain together, there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I, as much as any other man, am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”) They were fighting as loyal citizens of their states. General Lee stated numerous times that he believed slavery was wrong and ought to be abolished, but that he owed a greater duty to his home, to Virginia. This was the common mentality. Everyday Southerners—small farmers, doctors, lawyers, business owners—went to war to fight for their states, which in their minds were their chief sovereigns and housed the highest governments to which they owed their loyalties. In a recording from 1944, one of the last surviving Confederate veterans, Julius Howell, spoke to Congress and stated that “[W]e didn’t fight for the preservation or extension of slavery… It was a great curse on this country that we had slavery…We fought for states’ rights, for states’ rights.” I will concede that the aristocrats and politicians who pushed for secession and war cared mightily about slavery. But the soldier on the battlefield, to whom the CF belongs, did not.
A symbol is only as good as the people who use it. It should not surprise anyone that many Southerners, including active service members overseas and many decent Americans who have no hate in their hearts, fly the CF. They do so out of a genuine expression of Southern identity, which in my opinion is an expression of patriotism on the battlefield. This identity is not rebellious—it is fundamentally American and reflects a culture of sacrifice and patriotism.
The time has come to think deeply about the real meaning of flying the CF today. I do not intend or expect this piece to change minds. I am merely trying to introduce some perspective that is completely absent from the public discourse. The simplicity with which this issue is discussed is a travesty, and it was a true shame to see such simplicity and close-mindedness displayed by YU’s administration. I pray that YU students can begin to understand the Southern admiration for the CF, and see that those who fly it today reflect the decades of benign and honorable associations the CF has carried.