There’s a stain on the fabric of historical discussion in the US. A square, red stain with a blue cross and 13 white stars. As our society has more dialogues about the forms in which systemic racism manifests itself, the Confederate flag has come up again and again. Should it be displayed in public? Should it be seen as merely a non-racist symbol of Southern history and heritage – or should it be treated with contempt as a marker of white supremacy?
An alarming number of people in power argue for the former. Shelby Foote, a preeminent Civil War historian, is a staunch believer in the Confederate flag’s power as a historical symbol. “The flag is a symbol my great grandfather fought under and in defense of,” he says in its defence, because obviously if Great-Grandpa Foote fought under the flag there’s no way it could mean anything bad! Politicians from Donald Trump to Nikki Haley have parroted this view of “heritage, not hate” in regard to the flag. “For many people in our state, the flag stands for traditions that are noble – traditions of history, of heritage and of ancestry. The hate-filled murderer who massacred our brothers and sisters in Charleston [Dylann Roof] has a sick and twisted view of the flag. In no way does he reflect the people in our state who respect and, in many ways, revere it,” Haley said in 2015. She did add a trite little sentence about the flag being a reminder of a “brutally oppressive past” to “many others” in South Carolina – but she skirted past any explanation of why said past was so brutal, and completely refrained from mentioning race in conjunction with the flag. Listening to people like this, one might easily get the impression that it’s a deracialised symbol, something harmless which only the Madly Politically Correct really care about.
This is, of course, wrong. It is an absolutely ahistorical view, exactly what organisations such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) and United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) intended 100 years ago when they launched a campaign to stud the Southern landscape with Confederate monuments like a breakout of bronze statue-shaped acne.
Being a Civil War history buff, I know a lot of fun facts about the Confederate flag. Actually, scratch that. I know a lot of facts about the Confederate flag. None of them are fun, because it is a symbol of war, genocide, and racism. And frankly, it is also incredibly tacky. It looks like someone was trying to design an actual flag but then spilt a lot of ketchup on it, shrugged, and said “OK I guess this works too.”
The flag we think of today as “the Confederate flag” is actually a modified version of the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, led by Robert E. Lee. The Confederacy had three “national” flags (though it was not a nation so much as a prolonged tantrum thrown by a lot of white guys who really liked owning people), all of which manage to somehow be even tackier than the flag of the Army of NoVA. And to be clear, all of those banners, including the Army of NoVA’s flag, are racist. They were created as symbols for a group of people who treated a desire for freedom as pathological in Black people, but laudable in white men. There is no way to revere the Confederate flag as a symbol of heritage, because the very heritage it represents is one of protracted torture. It’s like flying a banner with a guillotine emblazoned on it because your fifth great-grandfather was Robespierre’s head executioner during the Reign of Terror. Actually, it’s worse than that. At least that revolution started out with some semblance of a desire for economic equality. The secession of the South and the ensuing war had exactly one cause: white supremacy.
And just like white supremacy didn’t die out with the South’s defeat, so too did the Confederate flag live on. Organisations like the aforementioned SCV and UDC sprung up in the 1890s, less than twenty years after the strides in racial equality made during Reconstruction had fizzled into oblivion. Their primary goal was ensuring that the white supremacy they enjoyed during the antebellum era stayed firmly rooted into Southern society – and boy, they succeeded. Members of these organisations glorified Confederate memorabilia as a way to remind Black Southerners, many of whom had been born into slavery, of their perceived “place” at the lowest rung of society. They created the Dunning School of historical thought, which framed the Civil War as a “War of Northern Aggression” started by greedy Yankees and painted slavery as a benign comfortable institution which should never have been ended. The SCV and UDC turned Lee and his army into a sort of homegrown Southern deity, creating an entire pseudoreligion around him and other famous Confederate generals like Nathan Bedford Forrest and Stonewall Jackson. They held dances and dressed in sweeping moonlight-and-magnolias fashions, affecting the courtly airs of a fantasy antebellum South in order to paint a genteel picture of themselves while simultaneously propagating white supremacy. Many of them were affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan and other violent racist organisations, but in public they opted to use the excuses of history and heritage to intimidate Black Southerners without tarnishing their lily-white hands.
And they still do. The UDC and SCV are still around. When my family visited Charleston in 2018, we turned down a street and saw a door marked with the name “United Daughters of the Confederacy”. We shied back in horror, collectively, at the sudden reminder of the intensity of anti-Blackness in the US.
True, the UDC and SCV are no longer quite as powerful as they were a hundred years ago. They are no longer in full control of the narrative, as an increasing number of historians dispute common myths about the flag. But they still exist, and that in itself is a tragedy. The debate over displaying the Confederate flag rages on, when really it should be seen as no different from the Nazi flag in the depth of hatred it symbolises.
Shortly after the war, a former Confederate soldier wrote a rather maudlin poem about how the banner must be put to rest in order for peace to be achieved. I agree, with one modification: don’t let it rest. Actively eradicate the Confederate flag from the public eye, preferably by shooting a lit firecracker into every one which is still on display. And then find a better symbol for Southern heritage, one everyone can enjoy. Peaches, maybe. They’re delicious, and they’ve also never been used as a pro-slavery symbol as far as I’m aware.