Friday, June 26, 2015

American History 101: The Confederate Flag

I hear and see not strips of cloth alone,
I hear the tramp of armies, I hear the challenging sentry.
I hear the jubilant shouts of millions of men, I hear Liberty!
I hear the drums beat and the trumpets blowing...
O you up there!  O pennant! where you undulate like a snake hissing so curious
Out of reach, an idea only, yet furiously fought for, risking bloody death, loved by me!
 -- portion of Song of the Banner at Day-Break by Walt Whitman

Confederate Battle Flag, The Flag of the Army of Tennessee
and the Second Confederate Navy Jack flag - Not the flag of the CSA.
What does the Confederate flag stand for?  What does any flag stand for?  Does it have an inherent meaning?  Or is it based on our perception?  Whitman's poem, written in 1860-1862 about the flag that represented the United States above a federal fort, speaks to us of how the flag of the day impacted him.  What is interesting is that at the time (1860) the flag was not the national symbol of pride and unity that it is today.  Flags did not bring people together, or symbolize a movement the way they do now.  In 1860, a flag was used as a military ensign or a way to mark territory, flown from forts and ships or flown as a special symbol on the 4th of July.  This idea extends to the flags of the Confederacy.

First Confederate National Flag
flown over Fort Sumter
April, 1861
So to begin to answer the question about what the Confederate flag stands for, we probably need to understand what we are talking about.  What those of us who study, and love history like to tell everyone: know your history.  To begin with we are only talking about a self-proclaimed nation that existed from 1861-1865.  The confusion surrounding this piece of cloth, and what flag represented what is amazing considering the short-period of time the Confederate States of America existed.  Love it or hate it, the Confederate States of America exists today in our history books as little more than a failed experiment at secession from a fledgling nation that was experiencing the growing pains of hypocrisy.  Hypocrisy that saw the United States Navy African Squadron freeing slaves on the high seas, but back home Americans fought for the right to keep black men, women and children as property.  The months that lead up to General Beauregard ordering his batteries to open fire on Fort Sumter in April of 1961 were ones of high tension in the United States.  And while the leaders in South Carolina who voted to secede from the union and become their own sovereign state had hoped Washington letting them go peacefully, the beginning of what would become known as the Civil War was a war that caught no one by surprise.  And when the first battle of the American Civil War was over, the Confederate States of America had driven the United States soldiers out of Fort Sumter.  Once that was done, they raised their national flag -- which is not the flag we refer to as the Confederate Flag today.  See the image to the right to see the flag as it was raised on that day.  Clearly not the rebel flag causing so much commotion in America today.  This flag, referred to as the "stars and bars" was the official flag of the Confederate States of America from 1861 through 1863, with the only changes being that they added more stars as more states seceded (the flag was finalized in November of 1861 with 13 stars).  The flag featured two red stripes, with one in between and a field of blue with seven (and eventually thirteen) stars.  Much like the union flag, the red stood for valor, the white for purity and the blue for vigilance and justice.

The original Stars and Bars, the 1st Official Flag of the
Confederate States of America (1861-1863)

But the Stars and Bars was under attack as early as 1862 for its resemblance to the Stars and Stripes of the United States.  The CSA did not want to be seen as the union's little brother, so they went back to the drawing board for a new national flag.  And by May of 1863 they unveiled the official second flag of the Confederacy.  Referred to as "The Stainless Banner", the flag featured a large white field and incorporated what we now call the rebel flag in the upper left corner.  Officially, the large white field still stood for purity however it was stated by William Thompson at the time (one of the chief designers of the flag) that the white stood for white supremacy.  The inclusion of the rebel battle flag in the national flag is no mistake.  Thompson said that it was included because it gave the flag a unique look, and that the Confederate Army was already using it on the battlefield.  And he was right.  As early as 1861, the Armies of Tennessee and Northern Virginia had adopted the large blue X on a field of red with the stars crossing as their battle flags. They had done so because early on in the war, it became evident that the stars and bars looked far too much like the stars and stripes, and in the mass confusion of battle -- it is difficult to see the difference.

The Second National Flag of the Confederate States of America

The flag that we all refer to as the Confederate flag today is a derivation from the battle flag and the second national flag.  In fact, this flag was one of the initially proposed national flags in 1861 and it was not chosen as the flag of the confederacy.  It was shortly after that vote that General Robert E. Lee adopted the southern cross as the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia. 

So how did this misnomer start?  There are a couple of historical events that have propagated the idea that ol' Dixie was actually the Confederate flag.  During World War II, it was not uncommon for some military units with southern nicknames or ones that were primarily made up of men from the south to use the flag as an emblem.  Also, the USS Columbia famously flow the Confederate Navy Ensign as a battle flag throughout its tour of duty in the Pacific War.  This was done in to honor Columbia, the capital of South Carolina since South Carolina was the first state to secede from the union.  After the Battle of Okinawa, the "Rebel Company" (Company A of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines) raised the Confederate Ensign above Shuri Castle for three days.  General Simon Buckner ordered it taken down as a "disgrace to Americans all over who are involved in this battle."  Additionally, the town of Town Line, New York used the Dixie to fly above its town building during a ceremonial vote to rejoin the union in 1946.  The flag was also prominently featured in the 70's television show "Dukes of Hazard" and has been flown over several state capitals up until recently.  Most famously the South Carolina state capital still flies the southern cross as of the writing of this post.

So what is it about this flag -- this symbol of a failed war to secede and create a new nation with new ideals -- that upsets people so?  The root of all the contention is ignorance.  Ignorance of history... ignorance of perception and ignorance of a moment in time.  After all, isn't that what the Civil War is to America?  A moment in time?  Of course it is, but it is so much more that we -- as Americans today -- cannot understand.  I remember vividly on September 11th, 2001 watching the second plane hit the World Trade Center.  I remember sitting and watching the towers smolder, and then seeing the first one fall.  And before the government officially reacted, before the second tower fell and before I even knew if all my family and friends were I knew what all of us know now:  At the moment the world would never be the same.  That is what we do not understand about the Civil War.  It was a moment in time, much like 9/11, in which all Americans knew that the world was changing -- that it would never be the same for them.  The things we learn in our history classed:  the blood, the squalor, the terror, the inhumane conditions, the bloated bodies at Gettysburg or the rotting corpses of Antietam -- they only tell part of the story.  If we measure the heroism of war -- or any struggle -- based on human suffering then surely both the North and South were equally heroic.  For the first time in the history of America we had to deal with, identify, categorize and bury our own dead -- and figure out how to begin to inform families of such.  And it was no different on either side.  We sit back today and find it easy to deprecate the Union cause, at least as it relates to slavery and race.  We can easily point out the casual racism of everyone from the soldiers all the way up to Abraham Lincoln.  We pessimistically say that the Emancipation Proclamation was little more than a solid military strategy.  We firmly state the truism that the Civil War was not a war to abolish slavery any more than World War II was fought to stop the slaughter of the Jews.  Today we say, accurately, that the Civil War was a war to preserve the union, and nothing more.  We know that Lincoln would have preserved the institution of slavery if it meant saving the union.  But the people fighting the war did not understand it that way in 1861.  They did not think it was about the country as a whole.  They thought it was about one thing, and one thing only: ending slavery.  There are many documents from news paper articles to personal letters that support this.

One important distinction that must be made when we are discussing a war to end slavery.  The war to end slavery did not mean a war for abolition.  For many people, the war to end slavery was more about a war to end the compromise of principles, the end the betrayal of people and their ideals, ending the cruelty and the slow yet painful erosion of what was fought for and won in 1776.  This was evident in the role taken on by the blacks during the Civil War.  Many fighting alongside whites to achieve the same victory, and many taking on leadership roles in the fight when allowed.  They fought to attempt to realize the dream that was promised after the Revolutionary War -- freedom.

So what does the flag of Dixie mean?  Or even the Second National Flag of the Confederacy?  It means what you perceive it to mean.  In 1865, it held an entirely different meaning to people than it does today.  There is no way for us to recapture that feeling, that moment in time the way they did in 1861 when their world was turned upside down by people in suits fighting over the rights and humanity of the people who were very much unaware of what was happening.  The best we can do is try and remember what it felt like when the towers fell, and make the leap that 1861 must have felt something like 2001.  So when we look at Dixie and think it stands for racism, that it means treason, that it is a symbol of hatred and hope.  That the stars on the blue crosses stand for every ideal of freedom and liberty for white men, and oppression for blacks, or that the red field symbolizes the blood of 671,000 Americans who went to war in order to try and preserve their ideal of liberty... you are right.  Because at the end of the day, flags are symbols.  And much like a song, they represent to you what you put into it -- and what you take out of it.  But the one thing that all the flags of the Confederacy stood for, and that the ol' Stars and Stripes still stands for is the freedom for you to make that assessment on your own.  They stand for the freedom for you to be offended, or not to be offended.  They stand for your right to wear the rebel flag t-shirt, or for WalMart to not sell clothing with the flag on it.

This country was founded as a "great experiment in democracy" by our founding fathers.  Many of us will tell you, "it isn't a democracy and never was," and while that is true - it does not change the fact that every time our government tells someone "you can't do that" or "you can't say that" or "take down that flag because it is offensive" -- the experiment fails just a little bit more.

Bruce holds a degree in Computer Science from Temple University, a Graduate Certificate in Biblical History from Liberty University and is working a Master Degree in American History at American Public University.  He has worked in educational and technology for over 18 years, specializes in building infrastructures for schools that work to support the mission of technology in education in the classroom.  He also has served as a classroom teacher in Computer Science, History and English classes.  

Bruce is the author of five books: Sands of TimeTowering Pines Volume One:Room 509The Star of ChristmasPhiladelphia Story: A Lance Carter Detective Novel and The Insider's Story: A Lance Carter Detective Novel -- with a new book, Learn the Basics: Digital Forensics, due soon. 

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