The Confederate Battle Flag

by John M. Coski, Bellknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006, 401 pages, $29.95.

John Coski, Museum of the Confederacy historian, spends much of his day surrounded by the banners of the Lost Cause. Viewing these flags and recalling the sacrifice among those who carried them is a powerful experience. In his latest work Coski, in an all-encompassing manner devoid of the emotionalism that is often evoked by these storied symbols, describes the history and controversy around the Confederacy’s most hallowed symbol. The controversy comes from its various uses by heritage preservationists, youthful rebels and racists. Coski’s meticulously researched book details the birth and evolution of this flag from the confusion on the plains of Manassas to the confusion on the steps of the South Carolina statehouse today.

The Confederacy’s search for a standard started with its First National Flag, the Stars and Bars, which resembled the United States flag. To Southerners, this banner reflected their belief that they were maintaining the Union defined by Washington and Jefferson, and that it was the North which had broken the sacred trust. But on the smoke-filled plains of Manassas, the flag failed at distinguishing friend from foe.

Thereafter, under the guidance of Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard, a red banner with a blue St. Andrews cross adorned with 11 stars for the 11 states of the Confederacy was adopted by the Confederate Army in Virginia. With modifications, the flag was adopted and carried by most Confederates. Many of the banners were captured in 1865, but as Coski explains, not all of them were taken. Some were shredded by Confederate veterans, with a piece taken by each man as a memento of the South’s failed independence and as insurance that the sacred banners would not be dragged through the dust as captured flags.

Most of Coski’s book analytically catalogs the uses of the Confederate battle flag after the war. What began as a symbol of Southern valor carried by veteran units at postwar reunions was adopted by popular culture in the 1930s, and ultimately by racist organizations in the 40s.

Once adopted, the flag became a symbol for each of these uses, giving it different meanings to different people. To re-enactors and Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy, it is a symbol of pride. In popular culture, it is a symbol of rebellion and independence, as exhibited on The Dukes of Hazzard’s car, General Lee. Fraternities and bikers both North and South adopted the flag as a symbol of their independence from controlling central authority, something Confederate veterans might have appreciated. To some people, though, the Confederate battle flag represents the symbol of a nation created with the idea of white superiority, and it is the symbol of racist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis. Given these overtones, some want it stricken from society.

Coski details the fight over the last two decades to eradicate the representation of the battle flag from the state flags of Mississippi and Georgia and the state houses of Alabama and South Carolina. Coski displays an even hand, denying heritage preservationists the right to declare the flag simply a historic banner devoid of racial overtones, while also arguing that efforts to expunge it from the landscape so as to ensure none are offended are simply part of an “untenable belief.” Minority support from blacks to maintain and whites to remove the Confederate battle flag from Mississippi’s state flag indicates a level of tolerance and understanding and suggests that the debate may be a problem drummed up more by politicians than anyone else.

While much Civil War history is static, the history of the battle flag is still unfolding today, and Coski’s book provides an invaluable context for thinking about this ongoing controversy. Some may be frustrated by a seeming lack of passion or point of view in Coski’s book, but they would be missing the point: Tolerance comes from trying to understand other points of view and controlling our passions.

 

Originally published in the October 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.