Blogs > Cliopatria > Edwin M. Yoder Jr.: Review of John M. Coski's The Confederate Battle Flag (Harvard University Press / Belknap)

May 13, 2005 7:41 pm

Edwin M. Yoder Jr.: Review of John M. Coski's The Confederate Battle Flag (Harvard University Press / Belknap)

Edwin M. Yoder Jr., a former editor and columnist in Washington, taught journalism and the humanities at Washington and Lee University.

THIS BOOK IS DEDICATED TO a late friend of the author's "who could make us laugh at anything--even southern history." His was a remarkable gift, for southern history has for the most part been no laughing matter, and as its greatest historian, C. Vann Woodward, argued in his imperishable essays, far more tragic than amusing. The South has known all too familiarly the un-American travails of poverty, defeat, and, in the struggle over slavery and race, intractable evil.

But Woodward himself could find amusement in that tragic history on occasion. During the McCarthyist inquisition of the 1950s, he was once asked to certify that neither he nor his relatives had ever advocated the violent overthrow of the government of the United States. He was obliged to note that some of his ancestors had fought for the Confederacy and had contemplated exactly such mischief. Wit can defuse passionate differences. But the recent war over the Confederate battle flag (not, please, the Stars and Bars, a flag of a different origin and design) has been wholly without the leavening of humor.

John Coski, library director of the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, has given us the first documented consideration of the dispute over the appropriate use of what he calls "the second American flag," and he begins by dispelling a number of historical misconceptions about its origins and identity. It is not true, for instance, that we owe its negative symbolism to the Ku Klux Klan. In fact, Coski insists, the Kluxers made greater display of the Stars and Stripes, at least down into the KKK revival of the 1920s, when its ragtag and bobtail knights first seized on the Rebel banner as an emblem of racial and religious bigotry.

All along, such guardians as the United Daughters of the Confederacy and Sons of Confederate Veterans deplored this abuse. In 1948, when the hustings were loud with revivified Confederate rhetoric, and Dixiecrat rallies tended to be festooned with battle flags, the UDC pointedly condemned the flag's use in "any political movement."

Whence, then, the angry crosscurrents that swirl about the flag today? Coski finds the origins in the apolitical "flag fad" of the 1950s, when college youth heedlessly turned it into a cheerleading rag at football games. (It was then that Ralph McGill, the Atlanta editor, complained, memorably, that it had become "confetti in careless hands.") Still, the battle flag had not yet assumed the overtones of racist reaction that its current detractors find in it. Still less had it done so when Kappa Alpha, a fraternity founded under Marse Robert E. Lee's brief tenure as president of what is now Washington and Lee University, adopted Old South paraphernalia--including the battle flag and retro balls featuring hoop skirts and pseudo-Confederate officers' uniforms. But the KAs were (mostly) gentlemen, and intended no insult in their frolics. They soon became no less wary of the abuse of the flag than the UDC. But by then, as Coski puts it, "the genie was out of the bottle and no one has been able to put it back since."

What has lately intensified the battle over the battle flag has been the struggle in four traditionalist southern states that had incorporated the battle flag in their state banners (Mississippi and Georgia), or flown it over their capitols (South Carolina and Alabama).

Mississippi had superimposed the battle flag on its state banner as far back as 1894. That gesture may have been connected with the so-called "redemption" of the state from federal control and black suffrage. But it obviously could have had nothing to do with the prolonged fight over school integration that prompted Georgia, in 1956, to make the battle flag part of its state flag as an explicit gesture of defiance. (Incidentally, Coski, whose command of southern history is impressive, erroneously applies the label "massive resistance" to anti-desegregation movements Southwide, when in fact it was a specific Virginia movement inspired by Senator Harry F. Byrd.) As for Alabama, it was that cocky bantam Gov. George C. Wallace who ran the battle flag up over the capitol building in Montgomery in 1963, as an in-your-face greeting to the visiting United States attorney general, Robert F. Kennedy.

The long and hard-fought effort to undo these idle perversions of the battle flag was complicated and greatly intensified when the NAACP got into the act with threats of economic boycott and ultimata to lower the flag and purge it from state banners--or else. This campaign, shrill at times, encouraged black southerners to agree--ironically--with the last-ditch defenders of the flag's in-your-face display that it was indeed a symbol of race-conscious rebelliousness. In reaction, of course, much was said about the defense of the so-called "southern heritage," selectively defined. The author's account of these battles is necessarily long and informative, perhaps a bit too long.

These latter-day battles, in any event, underscore one of Coski's principal themes--namely, that flag flaps are actually surrogate conflicts over the meaning of the history allegedly symbolized, and in particular that of the Confederacy and the Civil War. This truism would seem to require no emphasis, except that the "history" invoked by the warriors for and against the battle flag is often of a quality so inferior as to make so-called "law office history" seem real.

One comes away from The Confederate Battle Flag with two signal reactions. One is that the warring parties need a cram course in semiology, the better to grasp the mundane truth that responses to signs and symbols vary with the beholder. I personally would enjoy dispatching to my remedial cram school some of the more volatile warriors--notably former senators Carol Moseley Braun and Jesse Helms, who conducted an emotional quarrel on the floor of the Senate in 1993 when Senator Moseley Braun persuaded her colleagues to deny the poor old UDC a continued courtesy patent on its flag logo.

They would gradually earn the right to remove their dunce caps, along with Prince Harry of England, the great-grandson of the British king whose palace was bombed by Hitler. The prince recently larked into a costume party in Nazi storm trooper kit and seemed dazed by the negative reaction. By the way, this reviewer, the descendant on both sides of Confederate officers, implies no parallel between the battle flag and the Hitler swastika--a favorite comparison of the more insulting anti-flag spokesmen.

We hardly need to be reminded that we Americans squander much time, words, and emotion on phantom battles over vaguely defined symbolic issues, while avoiding dispassionate study of the past. I do agree with my old friend, the witty Chapel Hill sociologist John Shelton Reed, who usefully suggests that white southerners ought to learn from St. John Calhoun that his famous theory of the "concurrent majority" requires due consideration of minority views; that is, some consideration of the sense of black southerners that this flag is a symbol of servitude and oppression.

The Confederate battle flag, whatever its destiny otherwise, is an ineradicable icon of our past, and the impassioned combatants who seek either vindication or suppression may as well lower their voices and raise their historical consciousnesses. The cross of St. Andrew is here to stay.


This article first appeared in the Weekly Standard and is reprinted with permission of Bill Kristol.

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Roger Johnson - 5/26/2005

The Lost Cause is a very potent myth - to generalise, i think that the memory southerners "exalt and cherish" is less the rebellion itself, but rather the idea of what the south was before the war. This is not a defence of that 'memory'.
I'd aslo like to extrapolate on a point I made earlier - that the Stars and Bars, being the political emblem of the Confederacy, should in theory be more offensive since it more represents the politics and politicians who engineered the war and condoned slavery. The battleflag was more of a soldier's emblem, representing the poor grunts who died. This point, of course, ignores the despicable poltical causes which have used the flag over the past 140 years, eg. the alteration of the GA state flag in 1953.
Ps. I stand corrected on the French thing!

Michael Beatty - 5/26/2005

I agree with Mr Johnson's observation that the flag in question is the blue St Andrew's Cross on a red field, with 11 (13?) stars. That is what I refer to as a battle standard, as opposed to the National Flag of the Confederacy, which was three horizontal stripes, alternating red (2) and white, with a blue canton with 11 (13?) stars in a circle. I have no objection to the flying of the National Flag of the Confederacy - it's the display and veneration of the battle standard, to which I object.
Parenthetically, I would note that some of the workmen who are doing some sort of construction or maintenance at one of the other shops on the same office complex where I work, has a decal on the back window of his pickup truck, which is the Stars & Stripes marshalled with the Confederate Battle Flag. This, to me, is just bizarre. But as I say, I would have no particular objection to seeing the Stars & Stripes marshalled with the Stars & Bars (which I believe we've come to consensus as an alternate name for the National Flag of the Confederacy) - except to wonder why one would exalt and cherish the memory of a poorly-planned, poorly-executed, ultimately-doomed-to-failure exercise in revolution.
As far as the French and Americans coming to blows, I would point to the XYZ Affair of 1798-99, and the French depredations of American maritime commerce. Although the United States and the French Republic never came formally to war, I believe I'm correct to state that French warships (or at least, armed merchantmen) fired on merchant ships flying the Stars & Stripes, and that American mariners were impressed into French service.

John Henry Haas - 5/26/2005

Fair enough. I agree with that, and I think it is possible--though not simple or easy--to sympathize with those who want to honor the fallen and the heroic, even as we lament the cause for which they sacrificed. Again, I don't have difficulty saying--as my personal opinion, not as prospective legislation--that I would find it easier to approve their sentiments, and perhaps even honor those sacrifices with them, if they chose, both out of sensitivity to the opinions of others and out of conviction that the cause was deeply misguided (to put it lightly), to leave the solemn contemplation of those flags to private homes and historical societies and such. "Flying the flag" is not the same as displaying it, it is an act of allegiance, in a way.

Roger Johnson - 5/25/2005

You're right, of course. Looking back at my post, I do seem fairly blase (not sure how to do accents on this!) about the objectionable nature of what the flag represents - and the justified dissaproval of it.
Having said that though, the battleflag, more than the national flag of the CSA (which maybe more completely represents the secessionist and slavocrat politics of the south) perhaps also represents the hundreds of thousands of americans who died while fighting under it(also killed by Americans). This is clearly not the only reason why it is displayed, but it clearly features in why some are so protective of it - there is sincerity in such remembrance, even if it is sometimes hijacked and politicised.

John Henry Haas - 5/25/2005

The US and France didn't fight, but Americans did. 1754-63 would be the last occasion, I believe, though there may have been some encounters along the mouth of the Mississippi also. Your point on the battle flag is the best argument that can be made for it. It IS, as you say, very American, but it is also a flag representing Americans who left the United States and attempted to become a foreign nation. Unlike many "entirely foreign nations" (say, Luxembourg) these Americans killed hundreds of thousands of Americans. It is a symbol of that fact, even as it's symbolic of other things. Some are inoffensive, I suppose--mountains, rivers, cities, songs, memories--but that's not what led to secession and war. You are right that it "belongs to all Americans" because it's part of their history, but that's precisely what gives one a right to object. Timothy McVeigh "belongs" to me insofar as he's a part of our history, but that doesn't mean I have to approve of celebrating his act. Full disclosure: half of my ancestors were still in Germany during the war; they fled in 1870 or so to escape conscription.

Roger Johnson - 5/25/2005

Firstly, as I understand it, as the reviewer points out, the Stars & Bars was the national flag of the CSA. The flag under discussion is the St. Andrews Cross battleflag. (Sorry to be pedantic!)
I'd also like to respond to Mr Beatty's point about soldiers firing on the Stars & Stripes. Those soldiers were more likely to be firing at their fellow americans across the field, and vice versa - and I would imagine that patriotism was a prime motivator for all involved, to do such a thing. The battleflag is a fundamentally american flag and should not be categorised with the emblems of entirely foreign nations, cultures and ideals. I'm pretty much repeating the point that, like it or not, it belongs to you and it's there to stay, and that its hardly surprising that a symbol born in times of civil war should remain so controversial generations later.
ps. Mr Beatty seems to imply that the US and France once fought. When was this?
Full disclosure: UK citizen with Missourri ancestry

John Henry Haas - 5/24/2005

Michael, I trust you recognize I'm with you in terms of attitude. I certainly see flying th battle flag as problemnatic in the same way that the swastika or rising sun is. But just because we disapprove of something doesn't mean we need to support outlawing it. For one thing, there are obvious questions of free speech involved. I tend to side with Jefferson on such questions, when he said if there are any enemies of this republic let them stand unmolested as a testimony to the Republic's confidence in itself and in reason. Second, it let's us see just who's who.

Michael Beatty - 5/24/2005

Mr Haas' statement that "I would not want to see displaying that flag made illegal . . ." is interesting. Furthermore, it plays off an observation in Professor Yoder's essay, to the effect that the Stars & Bars is not the same as the national flag of the Confederate States of America.
My question for Mr Haas, and for the folks who fly the Stars & Bars so proudly, is this - how would you feel if someone were to wave a Nazi flag, or a Japanese battle flag? Remember, the national flag of the Empire of Japan, even during WWII, was a plain red disk centered on a white field. The flag that was a red disk off-center, with radiating red stripes, was a battle standard - just as the Stars & Bars are.
My question is, why are we according such respect to a flag that flew over soldiers firing on the Stars & Stripes? What, fundamentally, is different about the Stars & Bars as a battle standard, versus a swastika banner or a Rising-Sun-with-rays banner? Frankly, I have to wonder about the patriotism of someone who would embrace a banner that flew over someone (even one's ancestors) who fired on the Stars & Stripes. Paeans to "heritage" do not, to my mind, avail in excusing this sort of irredentist, "secesh" longing.
Granted, the argument could be extended to look askance at someone flying the Union Jack, or the Mexican flag, or the French flag for that matter. However, that gets into issues of preexisting sovereignty, which are beyond the scope of my post.
Full disclosure: I lived in Alabama and North Carolina for 15 years, and I am an alumnus of The University of Alabama.

Christopher Alan Danielson - 5/24/2005

Well said, Mr. Haas, well said.

John Henry Haas - 5/23/2005

Let's be clear: this flag is the symbol of a movement, which eventually came to political and military expression, that among other things advocated the legitimacy of holding human beings as property, controlling their lives to the uttermost and reaping the rewards for their work, which at the same time insisted on white supremacy (as the vice president of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens proudly proclaimed). Those displaying the flag should hardly be surprised if observers make the connection between the flag and that movement. There is a very unnattractive aspect to this latest ironic twist on the culture of victimization wherein those displaying this flag insist that they are unfairly being persecuted for proclaiming their love for their heritage. The flag is associated not with 'the south,' but with a relatively brief period which saw southern politics and culture seized by individuals who sought to make the movement described above permanent, and to do so through a war that cost some 600,000 lives and condemned the south to a century of poverty and race tragedy. The flag should be viewed with a mixture of shame and regret. Those who display it are proclaiming their affection for the instigators of the most deadly attacks on the US in the nation's history. I would not want to see displaying that flag made illegal, but I do not consider them patriots, no matter what their protestations.

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