Misinterpreted history: the Confederate flag’s real story

Dafne Sanchez/ The Carolinian

Dafne Sanchez/ The Carolinian

Adam Griffin
 Staff Writter

“My God,” cried Gen. Robert E. Lee, looking down from his high hill on a crumbling line of troops just about to give way as the final break in his flank was about to cripple his ability to continue the war.

“Has the army been dissolved,”he asked.

With another general at his side assuring him that there were still men among the piles of dead, Lee replied, “There are some true men left,” and rode down to the line himself. Sensing this was do or die for the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee stooped low from his battle-hardened stallion, Traveller, and scooped up the tattered battle flag of his Army. Seeing their commander fearlessly riding to their aid amidst the fray of battle, the troops began to rally with shouts of, “It’s Gen. Lee!” and “Where’s the man who won’t follow Uncle Robert?”

It was the morning of April 6, 1865, just three days before the surrender of the Confederacy at Appomattox Court House, and the last rally for Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia before it gave its final gasps.

Scenes of honor in defeat, such as these, that exemplified dying valor in the final days of the Civil War brought people to venerate the Lost Cause of the American South, even after their defeat to the Union forces.

However, despite the honorific homage paid to men like Lee, the tattered holes in that flag that he hoisted high for their last rally symbolized the Confederacy’s ideology that was tarnished by the holes of slavery and racial injustice— frays and tears in the fabric of American society that we still struggle to stitch back together to this day.

With the recent controversies surrounding the Confederate flag in America and in the media, it is pertinent to delve into the historical origins of the particular flag that flew over the South Carolina State Capitol and that adorns many cars and houses as bumper stickers, flags, t-shirts and all kinds of memorabilia throughout the southern states of America.

The Confederate flag that is most prominently known as a symbol of the Southern Confederacy was not the first flag of the Confederacy, and is not the flag known as the “Stars and Bars,” which looked very similar to the formerly beloved “Stars and Stripes.”

It is because of this similarity that after the First Battle of Manassas, Gen. P. G. T. Beauregard wrote that he was “resolved then to have [our flag] changed if possible, or to adopt for my command a ‘Battle flag’, which would be Entirely different from any State or Federal flag.”

The similarities of the flags of either side, at a distance especially, made it imperative for the Confederates to change their battle flag so that they could cut out the confusion and potential for friendly fire. The flag that we traditionally recognize as the Confederate flag was that one which became the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia in December of 1861, and was used until the Confederacy’s fall in 1865.

It was red, white and blue with stars equaling the number of confederate states, and a darker navy blue than the Union Naval Jack. The Army of Northern Virginia was the military force under the command of Gen. Robert E. Lee and became the most recognizable symbol of the Confederacy, taking on a deeper sense of identity for the Southern Lost Cause after the war when it was adopted as the official, copyrighted emblem of the United Confederate Veterans.

In recent times, the Confederate flag has been a subject of great controversy for its association with racism, segregation and opposition to the Civil Rights Movement. Much of the media controversy has revolved around the Confederate flag that flew over the South Carolina State Capitol building for the past 54 years.

Supporters of the flag like to tout its credentials as a symbol of southern pride and honor, untethered from the Confederacy’s racism and slavery, but attached to the southern way of life that the Lost Cause historical interpretation of the Civil War espouses and enshrines.

The Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War came about just after the conflict’s resolution, during the tumultuous years of Reconstruction. This view of the South’s honorable defeat was generally adopted by America as a means of reconciliation between North and South, with its central figure being Robert E. Lee.

With the popularly used Confederate flag truly being the battle flag of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, it has long been associated with this Lost Cause understanding of the war between the states, rather than the darker, more racially charged elements of the Confederacy’s ideology that has since been put heavily on the defensive, if not all but eradicated, in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement in modern America.

Despite these beliefs, the Confederate flag over the South Carolina State Capitol has not been flying since Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Instead, the flag began to fly in 1961, in remembrance of the 100th year anniversary of the Civil War, but also during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Many see it as a battle flag for the side of racism and those opposed to Civil Rights for African Americans.

On Friday, July 10, 2015—a day after a vote by the South Carolina Legislature—the Confederate flag was lowered from over the capitol with cheers, applause and voices ringing “Hey, hey, hey, goodbye.”

In the wake of the flag’s removal, Pres. Obama tweeted, “South Carolina taking down the confederate flag— a signal of good will and healing, and a meaningful step towards a better future.”

It is likely that race relations will continue to be a point of divisive controversy in American society and political life because of the darker sides of the country’s colored history of slavery and racism.

Despite the echoing creed proclaimed in 1776 during the United States separation from Great Britain that “all men are created equal,” the realization of those higher American ideals has not been an overnight accomplishment, and many believe that there is work still to be done in achieving equality for all people of all races in the “land of the free.”

The divide in America over the Confederate flag comes down to the perception and historical interpretation of its image. If a person sees it as a symbol of the honor and valor of those who fought for the lost Southern way of life, based on an agrarian economy, strongly tiered federalism and large plantation-style families then let these flags stand undisturbed as monuments to the support of some of the greatest American losers or second placers, supported for the better angels of their nature.

However, if the Confederate flag is hoisted high as an emblem of racism, racial injustice and opposition to civil rights for African Americans, or people of any race, then let it descend to that place reserved for all those, through the pages of mankind, who have stood on the wrong side of the progress of the human mind—in the dustbin of history.

Categories: Columns, Opinions

Tags: , ,

2 replies

  1. Nice and informative, definitely a lot of confusion as to where the popularly known flag came from.


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