The flag I know you're familiar with and likely ID as the
|Confederate battle flag, or the flag of the|
Army of Northern Virginia
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"|
"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 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.