Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Confederate Flag

In recent days we've seen a renewed interest in the presence of the "Confederate Flag" that flies on the grounds of the South Carolina State House and efforts to remove it. A few years ago, an earlier effort removed that flag from the top of the statehouse rotunda, where it had flown underneath the US and South Carolina flags for generations. Vexillology, or the study of flags, is something I've always been interested in. This post is mostly about the flag itself and some of the symbols that were actually used by the Confederate States of America during its brief existence. I've seen a lot of inaccurate terms and assumptions about them made in various forms of media, both in regular news and personal media like social media and blogs.

The flag I know you're familiar with and likely ID as the
"Confederate flag"
When people say the "Confederate flag" they are most likely referring to the red rectangular flag featuring a blue heraldic saltire (a cross in an "X") with white stars on the cross. It is similar to the flag of Scotland (Cross of St. Andrew), the flag of St. Patrick (associated with Ireland), and the Cross of Burgundy (historical flag of Spain). Both Florida and Alabama have flag designs that echo those flags with both featuring a white rectangular flag with a red "X" (Florida's flag has the state seal in the middle). But here's the kicker about the "Confederate flag": it was never used in any official capacity as a symbol of the Confederate States of America. Yep, you read that right, what most people consider the Confederate flag was never an official symbol of the CSA.

Confederate battle flag, or the flag of the
Army of Northern Virginia
What most think of as the Confederate flag comes from a battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, which was headed by Robert E. Lee. It was also the battle flag for the Confederate army, so is frequently just called the Confederate battle flag. The battle flag, however, was square, and is what is currently featured in the flag of Mississippi and was previously featured in the flag of Georgia. The flag flying on the grounds of the South Carolina State House is also a square battle flag, on display at a Confederate memorial. Previously, from 1961-2000, the rectangular "Confederate flag" flew over the dome of the South Carolina State House.

The square battle flag was incorporated into two later designs used by the Confederate States of America, but as part of the flag, not the entire flag. One featured the square battle flag in the upper canton of a white flag. Later, that flag was amended with a slightly elongated version of the battle flag in the canton and a red bar on the far right edge, known as the "blood-stained banner", to prevent the flag from appearing to be a white flag of surrender when not flying. A naval jack used the rectangular version of the flag with a lighter shade of blue, but its shape was never standardized, so it also appeared as a square at times. The battle flag's official use was as the symbol of the Confederate army. The Confederate Naval Jack was a rectangular version of the battle flag and looks almost identical to what many refer to as the "Confederate flag", the only difference being that the naval jack had a lighter shade of blue instead of the Navy blue used on the battle flag.

Confederate Naval Jack using lighter shade of blue

Second CSA flag, known as the "Stainless Banner"
What's interesting is that while at least one of the flags of the CSA had very clear racist meanings, it wasn't the part that we typically consider "Confederate". Instead, it was the white field. The 2nd flag of the CSA, the "stainless banner", was designed by William T. Thompson, who was quoted as saying:
"As a national emblem, it is significant of our higher cause, the cause of a superior race, and a higher civilization contending against ignorance, infidelity, and barbarism. Another merit in the new flag is, that it bears no resemblance to the now infamous banner of the Yankee vandals." (May 4, 1863; Savannah Daily Morning News)

Third CSA flag, known as the "Bloodstained Banner"; it was adopted near the end of the Civil War and had no widespread usage. Different versions were also created, with a traditional square battle flag in the canton

Stars and Bars

First official CSA flag, from 1861-1863. The number of stars
changed as states were added or claimed by the CSA, going
from 7 to an eventual 13 stars. 

One term often associated with the "Confederate flag" is the "Stars and Bars", contrasting with the "Stars and Stripes" for the US flag. While many refer to the "Confederate flag" as such, "Stars and Bars" actually refers to the first official flag of the Confederacy, in use from 1861 to 1863. The first flag of the Confederacy was based on the US flag. It had a blue canton in the upper left with white stars in a circular pattern. Instead of 13 red and white stripes, there were three. The flag was eventually retired simply because it was too easy to confuse with the US flag. One of the more famous pictures of the first Confederate flag is from the aftermath of the Battle of Fort Sumter in 1861. The first official Confederate flag can be clearly be seen flying over the fort. Nicknames more appropriate for what most think of as the "Confederate flag" are the "rebel flag", the "Cross of Dixie", "Dixie flag", the "Southern Cross", (not to be confused with the actual constellation visible in the southern hemisphere and featured on several national flags, most notably Australia and New Zealand), or the "battle flag".

"Stars and Bars" flying over Fort Sumter, April 1861, when it had seven stars (photo from the National Park Service)

With this information in mind, it obviously leads to the question as to why what most refer to as the "Confederate flag" has become so associated with the Confederate States of America and the South in general. As I mentioned, the design was proposed as a flag for the CSA, but was rejected. One of my favorite arguments against it was that it looked like a "pair of suspenders". The flag has also been used as a symbol of "southern heritage" since the late 1950s, at the onset of the Civl Rights movement. Before then, it had limited usage by Southerners in the US military. But it seems as some of the prevailing attitudes of the "old South" in the early 20th century were being challenged and ultimately dismantled (particularly racial segregation), the "Confederate flag" became a rallying symbol for those who felt like their culture was being threatened. Now, whether or not it was purely because of racism or other prejudice is a matter of perspective and debate; nevertheless, it's important to realize that the use of the battle flag is largely a 20th century phenomenon, not a Civil War one.

Early secessionist flag from South Carolina that inspired 
the design of the Confederate battle flag
In vexillology, the design of the Confederate battle flag was first and foremost to give the Confederate army a flag that was clearly different than the US flag for clarity in battle. This is during an era where flags were carried into battle and could even be used to gauge how the battle was going for each side. I find it interesting that many Confederates began to detest that "damn Yankee flag" even though the Confederacy considered themselves a legitimate successor of the American ideal; they even use George Washington in their official seal. It was because of that dislike of the association with the US flag they hated the first Confederate flag so much. The use of a saltire was to avoid having an obvious religious symbol (the cross) as the feature. The flag that inspired the battle flag was a South Carolina secessionist flag with the same colors, but in an upright cross (+), similar to the flag of England. A design using the same colors but with that upright (or Latin) cross was submitted, but the saltire ("X") was chosen. The design for the battle flag, however, was rejected as the design for the national CSA flag.

In my opinion, the design itself is a good one in that it uses contrasting colors, has a distinct style, and clear symbolism. Unfortunately, though, the flag has become associated with far more negative things than simply being the symbol of a (failed) country, an ideal, or Southern culture. Outside and even inside the South it is often seen as a symbol of hate and prejudice, associated with white supremacy groups like neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan. Supporters claim it's not the case and is simply a matter of being a symbol of the unique culture of the South, distinct from the rest of the US. Obviously with any symbol, it's going to mean vastly different things to different people. In my experience, the use of the "Confederate flag" is most often from self-proclaimed "rednecks" as opposed to using it as an outward symbol of racism. The use of the flag in Dukes of Hazard in the 1970s, seems to be more of the former case. I'm always surprised when I see non-Americans sporting something with the battle flag since they clearly don't know the debate surrounding it. But because it is used by groups that profess racial superiority, that association seems to overshadow any other more innocent "redneck" or "Southern Pride" use. And seriously, pride in a defeated cause? Pride in a movement that was founded to continue the enslavement of other people? Pride in a movement that put "states' rights" so high above everything else that it was completely dysfunctional? I guess I just don't see what pride there is in using Confederate symbols.

From a historical standpoint, I definitely think that the rectangular "Confederate flag" should never occupy a space of honor anything remotely close to that of the US flag or even a state flag. The US and state flags are official symbols of those entities, while the "Confederate flag" was clearly never held in that capacity. In other words, historically it's completely inaccurate. The fact that many of these "Confederate flags" began showing up during the Civil Rights Movement makes their presence even more troubling and racially charged.

Philosophically, even on Confederate memorials, the US flag is most appropriate, followed by the state flag. I have a hard time believing German war memorials from World War II fly the Nazi flag (another flag with a symbol--the swastika--that was completely hijacked), even though that's the flag those soldiers "fought and died under". In the end, secession was deemed null and void and the Confederacy was never recognized by any other country (meaning it was never a legitimate country), so their soldiers are still American citizens. It would seem that part of the whole reconciliation idea following the Civil War would include recognizing both Confederate and Union war dead as Americans. We shouldn't completely forget the Confederacy, but remembering it and honoring it are completely different things.

Flag of Georgia. Compare to the first official CSA flag above
That said, like with the swastika, we do need better education on the various symbols of the Confederacy and understanding of how they were actually used, not only for general knowledge, but historical accuracy. So much of the debate is purely emotional and so much of the official use of the battle flag was the emotional reaction to the Civil Rights Movement. It's interesting to note that when Georgia removed the Confederate battle flag from their state flag in 2001, the flag that ultimately replaced it is completely based on the first flag of the CSA (the "Stars and Bars"), but how many people actually make that association or even knew? And no, Southern culture does not need a highly controversial symbol to be distinct. The Civil War is over. Time to move on. Seriously.

See also: Flags of the Confederate States of America on Wikipedia. Be sure to read many of the links at the bottom of the article used for references.