Segment from Contested Landscape

Flags of Our Forefathers

American Civil War Museum historian John Coski walks Ed Ayers through the evolution of the Confederate flag’s design—from the original “Stars and Bars” to the “rebel flag” we know today, and its long, twisty path to becoming a pop culture icon.

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Ed Ayers: We’re back, talking about the role of Confederate symbols in American society. We’re gonna turn now to the history of the Confederate flag, but it’s probably not the one that you’re picturing.

John Coski: There was an amazing variety of Confederate flags, plural.

Ed Ayers: This is John Coski, author of The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem, and historian at the American Civil War Museum in Richmond, Virginia. For full disclosure, I should mention here that I’m Chair of the Board at that museum. Anyway, I met John at the museum, where it is true, there is an incredible array of Confederate flags.

John Coski: One thing about Confederate flags for people who study 1860’s Confederate flags, there were lots and lots of them.

Ed Ayers: The story of the flag or flags began in 1861. That’s when The Confederate Congress formed a committee to solicit designs for a national flag, one that could rally the South to its cause. Some fought for a design that was entirely new and distinctively Southern, such as a Palmetto tree. But most Confederates preferred something that looked familiar.

John Coski: White Southerners of the Confederacy in 1861 still thought of themselves as Americans, very much as citizens of The United States, who helped form The United States. And they did not want to yield to The Yankees the symbols of the once United Nation. So, they needed to be weaned, if you will, from the symbols of the old United States.

Ed Ayers: The committee ended up picking a design that looked a lot like The United States flag. Coski showed me the design. 13 white stars on a blue canton, in the upper left hand corner. Instead of 13 red and white stripes, however, there are just three.

John Coski: Three big bars; red, white, and red, from top to bottom.

Ed Ayers: One of the flags that was rejected was designed by South Carolina Congressman, William Porcher Miles. His design eventually became the Confederate flag that we think of today. A red field, a cross of blue stripes, filled with white stars. Miles was furious with the committee’s choice.

John Coski: Miles could not believe that his own nation and his own committee would choose that flag because it resembled the stars and stripes, and in so many words told them that, “You’ll regret it,” and they did.

Ed Ayers: It turns out that choosing a flag in wartime was a complicated business. Now typically, national flags are also battle flags.

John Coski: And of course, a battle flag by definition was supposed to be something distinctive that allowed leaders on the field to maneuver their troops, identify and distinguish friend from enemy.

Ed Ayers: Imagine you’re a soldier, facing enemy fire. You can barely hear your orders over the gunfire. You can’t see through the smoke. But you do see flashes of color waving over the melee. Is that the flag of the enemy, heading straight for you?

John Coski: It was a dramatic moment to see these flags. And of course on the receiving end, it was scary as hell to see these units coming at you.

Ed Ayers: In an effort to strike at the morale of the enemy, you fire into the crowd, hoping to hit the flag bearer. But then you realize that you fired on your own troops, because your flag and your enemy’s flag are so hard to tell apart.

John Coski: And when you have two flags that look so much like each other, especially in this mode of battle, it defeated the purpose.

Ed Ayers: Fortunately, individual divisions of armies designed and carried their own flags. There was the first Florida Volunteer Division, Third Kentucky Mounted, Tenth Tennessee Irish Infantry, and on and on. Out of this profusion, William Porcher Miles’s flag was chosen as the battle flag for the Army of Northern Virginia, Robert E. Lee’s army.

John Coski: The one that gave the South its most stunning victories and in the long run kept the South alive.

Ed Ayers: Lee’s success made Mile’s flag hugely popular throughout The Confederacy.

John Coski: The Confederate Nation, the populous saw in that flag not only the sacrifices of the men who fought under it, but the hopes for actually winning this war and achieving Confederate independence.

Ed Ayers: In 1863, the Confederate Congress incorporated the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia into the official flag of The Confederacy. At Mile’s request, the tilted blue cross and red background were placed in the upper left hand corner. The rest of the flag was white. Did no one point out that it looked like a flag of surrender at the time?

John Coski: Not at the time. It wasn’t until late 1864 that the voices rose more loudly to point out that it looks like a flag of surrender, which of course was a little too close to the truth about that time, as The Confederacy began to collapse. And it would be so nice for compromise today if we could say that flag was the flag of the solider and not the flag of a nation.

Ed Ayers: That’s exactly what today’s flag defenders say, that it’s for the soldier, not for The Confederacy. Here’s Jeff O’Cain, former head of The Sons of Confederate Veterans on NBC News two years ago. Now, this was when South Carolina took down the Confederate battle flag from its State House grounds. The flag had flown there for 54 years.

Jeff O’Cain: It’s a war memorial to honor 25,000 men. A quarter of the men in South Carolina died to protect this state.

Ed Ayers: But there’s a lot more to the story.

John Coski: It meant so much to those men who fought and marched under it, that emotional attachment that battle flags have. But because it was emblazoned on the national flag, it also did stand for The Confederate Nation. You cannot separate the two. There’s no way around it. There is no clean break between the flag of the soldier and the flag of the nation. And that’s not John Coski, historian, looking back. That is true because of the act of the Confederate leaders themselves.

Ed Ayers: But in the 150 years since The Civil War, the meaning of the Confederate battle flag has morphed. Coski says fights over the flag’s symbolism are rooted in a misunderstanding of its history.

John Coski: And for some people it is the history of the Confederate soldier on the battlefield. For others, it is the history of The Dukes of Hazzard. For others, it’s the history of a motorcyclist trying to make a statement about his independence. And for others, very clearly, it’s the experience of encountering that flag in the hands of people who meant to do them harm.

Ed Ayers: John Coski says that all these meanings depend on which part of the flag’s history you’re talking about.

John Coski: One thing about the evolution of the Confederate flag over time is that it’s not a substitution of meanings. It’s an accretion, an aggregation of meanings, one after another.

Ed Ayers: So, we’re going to chart those many meanings through, let’s call it, three acts in the flag’s evolution. Act one, a sacred artifact of war.

Maurie McInnis: The move towards that is already beginning in 1890.

Ed Ayers: This is historian Maurie McInnis. We heard from her earlier in the show. She says that after The Civil War, flags that had been flown in battle were locked up in The War Department in Washington. Some were controlled by heritage organizations, such as The United Daughters of the Confederacy. And these flags were only unfurled during solemn commemorative ceremonies, such as funerals, reenactments, and statue dedications.
Remember that towering bronze Robert E. Lee statue in Richmond? McInnis says that on the day it was unveiled in 1890 …

Maurie McInnis: The Confederate battle flag was on massive display. The city was overwhelmingly draped in the Confederate flag, Confederate music, Confederate uniforms.

Ed Ayers: Northern journalists in attendance were shocked to see so many flags being waved so passionately.

Maurie McInnis: Many of them were writing about the Flag of Treason, that they could not believe that the Flag of Treason was being almost worshiped as an idolatrous god.

Ed Ayers: The event, which lasted a week, didn’t escape the notice of African American journalists, either.

Maurie McInnis: And they too were so distressed at the reappearance of the Confederate flag. What was the meaning of this for them? Because at the time in 1890, they were still feeling fairly hopeful about their political futures and their inclusion in the citizenship.

Ed Ayers: Commemorations such as this troubled African Americans and Northerners, but the flag was rarely displayed outside of such formal events.
By the middle of the 20th Century, however, the flag started appearing in other places. And as that image spread, heritage organizations lost control of its meaning.

Brian Balogh: Which brings us to act two, college football.

John Coski: College teams seemed to be the best beginnings of proliferation.

Brian Balogh: Specifically, college students at Kappa Alpha, a fraternity formed at Washington and Lee University in 1970. This was just after Robert E. Lee died. The fraternity was founded as a heritage organization, and the flag was a symbol of Kappa Alpha pride.

John Coski: By the 1920’s Kappa Alpha was … Chapters around the South were using it in their college rituals.

Brian Balogh: When latter day members of Kappa Alpha were drafted in World War II, they brought along the Confederate flag. And that’s when they lost control over its meaning. Other soldiers adopted the flag as a symbol for all things White and Southern.
When Southern soldiers returned from the war and went to college under The GI Bill, they brought the flag to one of peace time’s most contested grounds: The Gridiron.
In 1947, Harvard’s football team traveled south to play The University of Virginia. UVA fans waved the flag of Southern Pride with gusto, as was their tradition. But this time, things were different.

John Coski: Harvard had an African American football player named Chester Pierce, a star football player.

Brian Balogh: Taking to the field, Pierce and his teammates looked up and saw a sea of Confederate battle flags, and rowdy students.

John Coski: And very widely in the Northern Press, it was assumed that this was some kind of gesture, if not a racist gesture. It was taunting of Chester Pierce with Confederate battle flags.

Brian Balogh: The team worried about Pierce’s safety and braced for racist threats. But according to Pierce, the game was pretty much like any other.

John Coski: And UVA stalwarts were very defensive in saying, “No, this has been part of our football tradition in recent years.”

Brian Balogh: Coski says in the late 1940’s, the flag’s meaning was ambiguous.

John Coski: And so, it was at a pivotal point in the flag’s history where it was … It anticipated a time in which the flag had a more sinister meaning. Even if the UVA fans who used that flag did not mean it in a sinister way, others were beginning to do so.

Nathan Connolly: Which brings us to act three in the flag’s afterlife: desegregation. In 1948, the Confederate flag’s more sinister meaning resurfaced. That was the year that The Democratic Party formally included Civil Rights in its platform. Now, some White Southerners protested and formed the State’s Rights Democratic Party, commonly referred to as The Dixiecrats.
That first convention in Birmingham, Alabama was awash in Confederate battle flags. They were carried into the convention by college students.

John Coski: So, there was a direct pipeline, if you will, from colleges already accustomed to use of the battle flag as a football symbol, for example, and part of collegiate life, to make it a very highly charged political symbol in The Dixiecrat Party.

Nathan Connolly: It would surprise no one that The Ku Klux Klan had also embraced the flag at this time. Today, it’s a common argument that the flag is only a racist symbol when it’s in their hands. But Coski points out that if Klansmen were the only ones using the flag as a symbol of hatred, it would be easier to ignore.
the trouble is …

John Coski: It wasn’t just The Klan. Almost every major and minor incident of The Civil Rights Era, ordinary White Southerners were using that flag to speak to their opposition to Civil Rights.

Nathan Connolly: Around this time, the Confederate battle flag became an embedded symbol of pop culture.

Brenda S.: The Confederate flag was everywhere. It wasn’t in the Black community, but as soon as you left the Black community-

Nathan Connolly: This is historian Brenda Stevenson, who we heard from earlier. She grew up in Virginia in the 1960’s as the country was struggling to integrate.

Brenda S.: And even when we integrated the schools, when we first came into contact with White children on a daily basis, Confederate flags were everywhere; in their lockers, they would draw them on their notebooks, shirts, T-shirts that had them, et cetera. And it was a great symbol, of course, of the Confederacy, and also of apartheid, of the racial apartheid we had all been living in.

Ed Ayers: It’s worth remembering that leaders of The Confederacy struggled to apply one meaning: the identity of a Confederate Nation to many flags throughout the war. Today, Americans have a different challenge: what to do with this one flag that has so many meanings.
Brenda Stevenson says that struggle is especially difficult, because so many people are so invested in the flag’s many meanings.

Brenda S.: There is a place for people whose ancestors were in The Confederacy, fought for The Confederacy. There is a place for that history in US History. It’s part of US History. But it has to be in conversation with the other heritages, even those that are oppositional, and particularly those that are oppositional to that Confederate heritage.

Ed Ayers: Brenda Stevenson is a historian at UCLA. Also helping us tell that story were John Coski, historian at The American Civil War Museum in Richmond, and Maurie McInnis, provost at The University of Texas at Austin.

Nathan Connolly: It’s time to take a short break. When we get back, a long time Confederate re enactor takes a closer look at his Southern heritage. But first, this quick message.