Stars and Scars – The Real Meaning of the Confederate Battle Flag

It’s interesting how one issue triggers another. The tragic and disgusting murders of 9 people at a South Carolina church last week have jump-started the recurring debate over the Confederate flag. Specifically, where and when it’s flown, and the meaning behind it. The Confederate battle flag (it was not actually the primary flag of the CSA) currently flies in front of the South Carolina Capitol Building. It has flown in front of other government institutions over the years, though many have gradually taken it down, including Alabama’s Capitol, just today.

My initial knee-jerk reaction to the Confederate flag issue is essentially; why are we taking up so much time with this? Surely there are better things for us to worry about these days. But, further, more measured reflection brings me to believe that while it is not the most important of issues, we certainly have the time to address it. And it does have a long and sad history behind it, one that is impactful to people, especially minorities.

Symbols are important to people. They can be powerful tools. And the rebel flag is certainly a symbol of a deep and ingrained cultural schism within our country. People fear being marginalized. That goes for both people of color, and whites who defend the flag. Many whites, especially in the South, feel like their very whiteness is being challenged. They are afraid of equality, because that eliminates the position of social dominance they have enjoyed for centuries. And of course, many are just simple racists. But the difference is that blacks and other people of color actually have been marginalized. While lower class whites don’t always have things easy, they still have certain inherent structural and social advantages that people of color can only dream of, rich or poor.

First and foremost, the flag in question was actually the flag of the Army of Northern Virginia. It comprised only the upper left-hand section of the second official CSA flag, the iconic blue X with white stars on a red background. The simplified battle flag is what most people now think of when they think of the Confederate Flag. In any event, the Confederate Flag that we think of is specifically a symbol of the Civil War.

It is historical revisionism to claim the Civil War was primarily about anything other than slavery, or at the very least, the spread of slavery beyond the then-current confines of the United States. Sure, it was about state’s rights. It was about the right of states to operate on a slave economy. Everything else was just window dressing.

The slogan “heritage not hate” pops up a lot in these discussions. What heritage is that, exactly? What great examples of Southern culture are best represented by the Confederate battle flag? Even the most ardent defenders of the flag acknowledge that it is a reference to the southern side of the Civil War. Well, what was the Civil War really about? Was it about “tyrannical government?” Taxation? Sovereignty?

None of the above. It was slavery, plain and simple. The words of the founders of the Confederacy confirm this. South Carolina convened a Secession Convention in December 1860, in which they adopted an official declaration. The declaration stated, among other things, “an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery.” They also noted during the convention that Northern states like New York no longer allowed Southern slave owners to travel through their states with slaves. They also refused to return escaped slaves (at least officially), which cause great consternation among the wealthy landowners in South Carolina.

Mississippi’s secession declaration was similar: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world… Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of the commerce of the earth. . . . A blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.”

From Louisiana: “As a separate republic, Louisiana remembers too well the whisperings of European diplomacy for the abolition of slavery in the times of an­nexation not to be apprehensive of bolder demonstrations from the same quarter and the North in this country. The people of the slave holding States are bound together by the same necessity and determination to preserve African slavery.”

Florida secessionists: “At the South, and with our People of course, slavery is the element of all value, and a destruction of that destroys all that is property. This party, now soon to take possession of the powers of the Government, is sectional, irresponsible to us, and driven on by an infuriated fanatical madness that defies all opposition, must inevitably destroy every vestige or right growing out of property in slaves. Gentlemen, the State of Florida is now a member of the Union under the power of the Government, so to go into the hands of this party. As we stand our doom is decreed.”

Texas was clear as well: “…in this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding states….”

These were the official state positions of the time. All the other rebellious states made similar statements. Beyond the states, individual leaders within the Confederate ranks such as Jefferson Davis, James Henry Hammond, Joseph E. Brown, Albert Gallatin Brown, and John S. Mosby all made statements regarding the importance of slavery to the Confederate cause.  Every major Southern and Southern-sympathizing newspaper of the day also made similar proclamations.

Issues like tariffs and federal oversight rarely entered the conversation. When they did, they were side-notes only. Indeed, the nullification controversies of 30 years prior were about tariffs, and subsequently, tax rates had ebbed to the point that they were at historic lows leading up to the Civil War. Taxes were not an issue. Federal overreach wasn’t either. Lincoln made clear that he would not abolish slavery within the Southern states as long as the Union could be preserved. While personally anti-slavery, Lincoln was also pragmatic by nature. Preventing secession was more important than abolishing slavery in his eyes. And yet, his Presidency meant a direct threat to slavery in the eyes of the Southern states.

It wasn’t purely about slavery within the confines of the individual states. The spread of slavery westward was important. The aforementioned Mississippi Senator, Albert Gallatin Brown, admitted that the ultimate goal was to spread slavery south as well as west. Cuba, Mexico, and Central America were all new potential frontiers for slavery. Manifest Destiny to the Confederacy meant not just expansion for free citizens, but for their slaves.

At the risk of triggering Godwin’s law, I must say the best comparison is to the Nazis. What would most Americans say to a significant percentage of the German electorate openly embracing and endorsing the Nazi flag? Even people who support the display of the Confederate flag would blanch at the notion. As well they should. The Nazi swastika is a symbol of the worst that humanity has to offer. The Confederate battle flag is simply an older version of those same dark impulses and hateful thoughts.  Despite the lofty rhetoric of its defenders, the Confederate battle flag has not, since the Civil War, been used in any way other than as a symbol of racial intolerance, oppression, and domestic terrorism. What “culture” is being celebrated by a symbol of slavery? What heritage?

There are, of course, non-racists who support the continued flying of the Confederate flag. And to those I say they are fighting a losing fight, just like the South was a hundred and fifty years ago. Instead of wasting time digging in and attempting to preserve a symbol of hatred and division, we should address real issues, including the reasons why the symbolism of the Civil War is so potent a century and a half later. There are still deep racial divisions in this country, and that flag is a visible demonstration of all that is wrong with race relations. We should be better than this.

It would be arrogant of me to presume that my little diatribe here is in any way a conclusive stamp on this debate. But I would like to point out that while we argue about a flag flying over state capital, we’re still shooting each other at rates vastly exceeding than every other Western country. We still struggle to provide decent or affordable health care to a significant percentage of our citizens. We still have a mediocre education system, and enormous inequality of wealth and income. And of course let’s not forget, the deep racial divide that still exists in America between people of color, whites, and everyone in between. So, by all means let’s have this conversation, but I suggest we make it a quick one.

And then, the argument becomes very quick indeed, when we take into account the actual history behind the symbol. I have provided some links below that expound further on the history I hinted at above.

Why is it so important for some to defend this flag based on what we know of it? Neither hatred nor ignorance is a legitimate enough reason to keep this symbol flying above any state capital, or for that matter, any government institution within the United States of America. It is beneath the dignity of all citizens of this country, and it is a slap in the face to those who have suffered racial oppression and persecution. Of course it is a symbol of heritage. It’s the heritage of fear, oppression, cowardice, and treason. And I don’t believe that’s something to celebrate.

It makes sense to display the flag, along with other memorabilia of the war in museums, as an example of our often terrible history.  It doesn’t make sense as a symbol of our current government.

Now can we get back to discussing income inequality, please?

About hbreck

Writer, debater, contrarian, storyteller, occasional troublemaker. I'm mostly just making things up as I go.
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