The Magazine

Run It Down the Flagpole

The battle flag that's still embattled.

May 2, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 31 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
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The Confederate Battle Flag

America's Most Embattled Emblem

by John M. Coski

Harvard University Press / Belknap, 448 pp., $29.95

THIS BOOK IS DEDICATED TO a late friend of the author's "who could make us laugh at anything--even southern history." His was a remarkable gift, for southern history has for the most part been no laughing matter, and as its greatest historian, C. Vann Woodward, argued in his imperishable essays, far more tragic than amusing. The South has known all too familiarly the un-American travails of poverty, defeat, and, in the struggle over slavery and race, intractable evil.

But Woodward himself could find amusement in that tragic history on occasion. During the McCarthyist inquisition of the 1950s, he was once asked to certify that neither he nor his relatives had ever advocated the violent overthrow of the government of the United States. He was obliged to note that some of his ancestors had fought for the Confederacy and had contemplated exactly such mischief. Wit can defuse passionate differences. But the recent war over the Confederate battle flag (not, please, the Stars and Bars, a flag of a different origin and design) has been wholly without the leavening of humor.

John Coski, library director of the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, has given us the first documented consideration of the dispute over the appropriate use of what he calls "the second American flag," and he begins by dispelling a number of historical misconceptions about its origins and identity. It is not true, for instance, that we owe its negative symbolism to the Ku Klux Klan. In fact, Coski insists, the Kluxers made greater display of the Stars and Stripes, at least down into the KKK revival of the 1920s, when its ragtag and bobtail knights first seized on the Rebel banner as an emblem of racial and religious bigotry.

All along, such guardians as the United Daughters of the Confederacy and Sons of Confederate Veterans deplored this abuse. In 1948, when the hustings were loud with revivified Confederate rhetoric, and Dixiecrat rallies tended to be festooned with battle flags, the UDC pointedly condemned the flag's use in "any political movement."

Whence, then, the angry crosscurrents that swirl about the flag today? Coski finds the origins in the apolitical "flag fad" of the 1950s, when college youth heedlessly turned it into a cheerleading rag at football games. (It was then that Ralph McGill, the Atlanta editor, complained, memorably, that it had become "confetti in careless hands.") Still, the battle flag had not yet assumed the overtones of racist reaction that its current detractors find in it. Still less had it done so when Kappa Alpha, a fraternity founded under Marse Robert E. Lee's brief tenure as president of what is now Washington and Lee University, adopted Old South paraphernalia--including the battle flag and retro balls featuring hoop skirts and pseudo-Confederate officers' uniforms. But the KAs were (mostly) gentlemen, and intended no insult in their frolics. They soon became no less wary of the abuse of the flag than the UDC. But by then, as Coski puts it, "the genie was out of the bottle and no one has been able to put it back since."

What has lately intensified the battle over the battle flag has been the struggle in four traditionalist southern states that had incorporated the battle flag in their state banners (Mississippi and Georgia), or flown it over their capitols (South Carolina and Alabama).

Mississippi had superimposed the battle flag on its state banner as far back as 1894. That gesture may have been connected with the so-called "redemption" of the state from federal control and black suffrage. But it obviously could have had nothing to do with the prolonged fight over school integration that prompted Georgia, in 1956, to make the battle flag part of its state flag as an explicit gesture of defiance. (Incidentally, Coski, whose command of southern history is impressive, erroneously applies the label "massive resistance" to anti-desegregation movements Southwide, when in fact it was a specific Virginia movement inspired by Senator Harry F. Byrd.) As for Alabama, it was that cocky bantam Gov. George C. Wallace who ran the battle flag up over the capitol building in Montgomery in 1963, as an in-your-face greeting to the visiting United States attorney general, Robert F. Kennedy.