A Medieval Historian (from the South) Weighs in on the Recent Confederate Flag Controversy

A reporter for the Florida State College at Jacksonville student newspaper, The Campus Voice, recently requested an interview for a story she was writing on the recent controversies over the display of the Confederate battle flag above various government grounds or buildings in southern states. After some hesitation, I granted the request, and as is common with these types of stories, only a small amount of the information I provided could be used in the story (which was no fault of the reporter, who did a fine job with the limited space she was provided), and so I figured I would provide some additional commentary here.

First, I should mention that I am not a historian of pre-Civil War southern U.S. history. Instead, I am a historian of medieval Europe, so this is not the primary focus of my research or publications. Nevertheless, having grown up in the south, moving there from Pittsburgh when I was a kid, I have been exposed to various narratives of southern history most of my life. I also took considerable coursework on the topic as an undergraduate and graduate student and I later taught several lower level courses on American history as a graduate student and professor. In light of the interview, there are a couple of points that I want to be very clear about.

First, I do not think the Confederate battle flag should be flown above any U.S. government buildings or properties. Because this view will undoubtedly be controversial with a number of my friends or acquaintances, many of whom I care very deeply about, let me offer my reasons here.

Regardless of arguments to the contrary, the now well known design that was common to the battle flags of the various Confederate armies during the U.S. Civil War (e.g. the Army of Northern Virginia, Tennessee, etc…), and was later incorporated into the “Stainless Banner” in 1863, the second official national flag of the Confederacy no less, is quite obviously a symbol that represented the Confederacy. Indeed, it was raised over their most important armies, with extraordinary numbers of Confederate soldiers fighting and dying under that flag. To argue that it represents only the soldiers who fought under the flag, as if they can be detached from the Confederacy they fought and died for, is unconvincing.

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(Above) Battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia

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(Above) The “Stainless Banner”- The Second National Flag of the Confederacy in use from 1863 to 1865.

The Confederacy fought a war against the United States that resulted in the deaths of 620,000 Americans and left a bitter lasting hostility that has not fully healed in some parts of the country. Make no doubt about it, contrary to some popular modern southern narratives, the preservation of slavery, affecting nearly four million Americans at the time, was central to the Confederate cause for doing so. But don’t take my word for it, or anyone else’s. Read the sources for yourself. This view is reflected in the declarations of secession of the various Confederate states, their Confederate state constitutions, and in the explicit statements of their most senior leaders.

To provide one prominent example, Alexander Stephens, the Vice-President of the Confederacy, in his well known “Corner Stone” speech given in 1861, laid out the reasons the Confederacy had been founded. He cited the preservation of the institution of slavery as the cause of the “present revolution” (e.g. the Civil War) and described the “assumption of the equality of the races” as an “error.” In contrast, he claimed:

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

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(Above)- Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy

Again, Stephens was the Vice President of the Confederacy and gave his speech at the outset of the Civil War as an explanation for the founding of the Confederacy. Pause for a moment and reread his words very carefully.

Stephen’s views on blacks and slavery were obviously not unique in the South, as his speech is only one among many prominent sources historians can highlight in emphasizing the centrality of slavery to the cause of secession. The declarations of secession by South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia, Texas, etc…. all cite slavery related issues as central to their reasons for leaving the Union. Anyone interested in pursuing this further can easily find these resources available online, so I will not bother to detail them here.

Yet I do want to highlight one additional source with direct relevance to this debate- William T. Thompson, the designer of the “Stainless Banner,”which became the second national Confederate flag (pictured above). He noted that the design of the flag, in keeping with the ideals of the Confederacy, was meant to convey the south’s belief in white racial superiority. It was the reason, he claimed, that he imposed the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia over a white background when he created the “Stainless Banner” for the Confederacy in 1863.

He wrote: (Click on the image to enlarge)

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Because slavery is so repugnant to modern sensibilities, particularly the kind of race-based slavery that existed in the South prior to the U.S. Civil War, which emphasized the inferiority of blacks as a justification for enslaving them, it seems odd to hoist the battle flag of the Confederacy, which was born in dedication to preserving those same morally repugnant principles, above the buildings of a government that now represents also the millions of ancestors of those very slaves described in the quotations cited above by Stephens, Thompson, and many other leading Confederates.

The flag may well mean something quite different now to the 21st century Americans who support its continued display,and I believe it does for many of them, but that does not change the circumstances under which the Confederacy was born, which the flag ultimately represents. Certainly southerners can find a better symbol than this to demonstrate their pride in southern culture, society, and heritage (about which there is otherwise much to be proud of).

The second point I would like to make very clear is that, regardless of my views above, I don’t always like how I see southerners who support the continued display of the flag treated in this debate- particularly assumptions that they embrace the same ideals or goals of the leaders of the Confederacy. While I certainly agree that the Confederate battle flag needs to be retired as public or official symbol, due to the circumstances under which the Confederacy emerged (as I describe above), it’s important to understand that most white southerners genuinely interpret the causes of the U.S. Civil War and the reasons the South fought very differently.

Historically, their argument that the Civil War “had nothing to do with slavery” (which I have heard on many occasions growing up) may be unjustifiable based on a broad reading of the events leading up to the war and the sources produced during the war, but I have met many white southerners that nevertheless seem to genuinely believe this more benevolent interpretation. So one should not automatically assume, for example, that a white southerner who supports the continued display of the flag on government properties also supports the things the Confederacy actually stood for (e.g. the preservation of slavery, white superiority, racial discrimination).

For many, it means no such thing.

The South lost a lot in the Civil War. About one-quarter of its fighting age men died during the conflict and many more received catastrophic wounds. Parts of the South were totally destroyed and an enormous amount of the South’s material wealth, although primarily slaves, disappeared. There was extraordinary suffering as a result.

Thus, it is not surprising that after the war many white southerners, as the moral acceptability of slavery increasingly dimmed, began to embrace a new narrative of why the war was fought in the first place. It was no longer a war that was fought to preserve slavery as the early confederate leaders once so boldly proclaimed. Instead, in the wake of the war and its awful sacrifice, a new narrative was born in an attempt to justify that sacrifice. Such a war could not be connected with such an ignoble cause as the Confederacy’s efforts to preserve slavery and the explicit racism that justified it, but instead the narrative changed to make it about, oddly enough, “freedom.” That is, “freedom” from an intrusive and domineering federal government. If this narrative were accurate, and I believed it as many white southerners genuinely do, then I would support their position on the continued display of the Confederate flag, but I don’t think the narrative is accurate or justifiable based on the historical sources. The primary “freedom” or “state right” that Confederate states sought to preserve was the right to enslave other Americans of African ancestry. That is certainly no defense of “freedom.”

In my opinion, the only flag that should fly above U.S. government buildings in this country is “Old Glory.”

It deserves and is worthy of its primacy.

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