The Confederate Battle Flag as a symbol

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By Ian Greenhalgh

The Origins of the Confederate Battle Flag

Period engraving depicting General Lee centre and the Confederate Battle Flag over his shoulder
Period engraving depicting General Lee centre and the Confederate Battle Flag over his shoulder

At the First Battle of Manassas, near Manassas, Virginia, the similarity between the “Stars and Bars” and the “Stars and Stripes” caused confusion and military problems. Regiments carried flags to help commanders observe and assess battles in the warfare of the era.

At a distance, the two national flags were hard to tell apart. In addition, Confederate regiments carried many other flags, which added to the possibility of confusion.

After the battle, General 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 new flag was designed by William Porcher Miles; originally the blue cross was horizontal like the St George’s flag of England, but this was changed to a diagonal pattern to avoid offending Southern Jews and some Protestants who felt that the Southern Flag should not contain any religious significance (the horizontal cross being a Christian symbol).

On November 28, 1861, Confederate soldiers in General Robert E. Lee’s newly reorganized Army of Northern Virginia received the new battle flags in ceremonies at Centreville and Manassas, Virginia, and carried them throughout the Civil War.





General Beauregard gave a speech encouraging the soldiers to treat this new flag with honour and that it must never be surrendered. Many soldiers wrote home about the ceremony and the impression the flag had upon them, the “fighting colours” boosting morale after the confusion at the Battle of First Manassas. From that point on, the battle flag only grew in its identification with the Confederacy and the South in general. Later, a 13th star was added for Kentucky.

The Army of Northern Virginia battle flag assumed a prominent place post-war when it was adopted as the copyrighted emblem of the United Confederate Veterans. Its continued use by the Southern Army’s post-war veterans groups, the United Confederate Veterans (U.C.V.) and the later Sons of Confederate Veterans, (S.C.V.), and elements of the design by related similar female descendants organizations of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, (U.D.C.), led to the assumption that it was, as it has been termed, “the soldier’s flag” or “the Confederate battle flag”.

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The Civil War Centennial and rebirth of the popularity of the Confederate Battle Flag

During WW2, a lot of Southern troops took the flag to war with them and it saw widespread use in both the European and Pacific theatres. The time of the Korean War saw further widespread use of the flag by Southern soldiers who saw it as a good thing; an expression of their American-ness rather than any secessionist spirit and certainly no implication of any racism.

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Marines in Vietnam goofing around recreating the famous flag raising from Iwo Jima

Use of the flag and it’s popularity grew greatly during the 1950s, as the centenary of the Civil War approached. It was this rise in popularity that lead to the KKK adopting it as a symbol in the late 1950s. John Coski, Archivist of the Museum of the Confederacy explained how the flag came to be associated with the KKK and White Supremacy:

The real association of the flag with the Klan began in the late 1950s and the Klan’s use of the flag has helped to define it and has helped to tarnish the flag probably more than anything else. But in many ways, what was more important and more meaningful, was the use of the flag by common citizens who were fighting against the integration of their schools and if you look at any of the photographs of the local controversies throughout the South, you will almost invariably find a Battle Flag present.

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The flag at a Klan rally

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The Civil Rights Movement and new meaning for the old flag

At the same time, the Civil Rights movement was gathering steam and demonstrations outside segregated high schools and other public institutions became widespread in the South; the battle flag was flown by the white, segregationist demonstrators and became a symbol of their movement. The flag was used by white students and their parents as a statement of both opposition to the government and against integration; John Coski explained how the flag underwent a change in perception:

This was a critical period in the transformation of the flag from a very tightly controlled usage, meaning and definition to a proliferation of meaning and to a chaos of meaning.”

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Sept. 3, 1957, Paul Davis Taylor displays a Confederate flag in front of Little Rock Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. Taylor was among some 500 people who gathered across the street from the school, which had been scheduled to integrate.

The current distaste for the flag among African-Americans stems from the time of the Civil Rights Movement and the fight for integration. Reverend Joe Darby of the NAACP remembers the flag’s role in the hatred and violence:

it was a cool thing when I was a little boy, it was a neat flag you played war with, then you saw these people marching with it and you saw them talking about ‘person of color this’ and ‘person of color that’ and you knew very well that person of color was a bad word used about people like you. The backdrop to that was always the Confederate flag, it was always Dixie playing, it was always rebel yells, those were the things that were associated with the violence, the mayhem and the oppression of my coming up years and formed my opinion of the flag.”

The usage of the flag by the KKK sickens many white Southerners such as SC State Senator Glenn McConnell:

It turns my stomach when I see it carried by a group like the Klan, but it renews my determination that this symbol does not belong to them and it is up to us to keep it flying for the right reasons.

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Senator Glenn and many other white people in the South venerate the flag because they feel a strong link to their ancestors who fought long and hard in a conflict that still starkly divides opinions to this day. Retired Army Officer, best-selling Civil War author and Northerner Ralph Peters, in describing the typical Confederate soldier gives us an insight into why their descendants feel so strongly about continuing to honour their memory and the flag they fought under:

The myth of Johnny Reb, the greatest of infantrymen, happens to be true. Not only the courage and combat skill, but the sheer endurance of the Confederate foot soldier may have been equalled in a few other armies over the millennia, but none could claim the least superiority. Especially (but not only) in the Army of Northern Virginia, the physical toughness, fighting ability and raw determination of those men remains astonishing. Billy Yank showed plenty of courage, too, and yes, the Southern armies had their share of shirkers and deserters, but the fact that most Johnnies fought on against crushing odds, hungry, louse-infested and flea-bitten, clothed in rags and exposed to the elements, often sick and usually emaciated…the more I study those men, the more I admire them.”

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Three threadbare Confederate soldiers of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, taken prisoner at Gettysburg

Barry Isenhour, a member of the group Confederate Flags says that flying the flag is really about honouring the Confederate soldiers who gave their lives. For him, the war was not primarily about slavery but standing up to being over-taxed, and he says many southerners abhorred slavery.

“They fought for the family and fought for the state. We are tired of people saying they did something wrong. They were freedom-loving Americans who stood up to the tyranny of the North. They seceded from the US government not from the American idea.”

The intricacies of the causes of the Civil War is beyond the scope of this article, but it is important to note that opinion remains greatly divided to this day, with white Southerners insisting the war was not about slavery, but state’s rights and freedom from federal oppression whereas Northerners and African-Americans remain steadfast in their belief that the war was fought over the issue of slavery.

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The flag still divides opinions today

Whatever the case, the legendary Southern Pride is deeply offended by any notion of dishonouring the Confederate Battle Flag while conversely, African Americans feel equally strongly that the flag is a symbol of racism, hatred and segregation. Clearly this is an issue that is guaranteed to stir emotions on both sides of the debate and give rise to no small measure of controversy, despite the passing of over 150 years since General Lee surrendered to General Grant and brought the Civil War to an end.

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South Carolina – centre of the controversy

The Confederate Battle Flag was raised on the South Carolina Statehouse in Columbia, SC in 1962 when each state was asked to do something significant to mark the centenary of the Civil War in and to honour the fallen dead of the war between the states. The flag was supposed to come down again after a year but once it was up, no-one had the courage to take it down and so it remains there to this day.

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Pro-Confederate flag protesters rally in South Carolina

This was also the time of the Civil Rights Movement when many white people were determined to continue the policy of segregation and to deny African-Americans the right to vote. Therefore the explosion in popularity of the Confederate Battle Flag due to the centennial of the Civil War coincided with the racial conflict of the 1960s.

Some see the flying of the Confederate Battle Flag as akin to waving a swastika in the face of a Jew while others think of it as a memorial to the 20,000 young South Carolinians who lost their lives in the Civil War. Clearly, the flag has functioned as a highly divisive issue for the last half a century and will continue to function as such into the future; debate about the flag and what it symbolises has become the most divisive issue in the South since the Civil Rights era.

John West, Governor of SC from 1971-75 in a 2001 interview stated that in hindsight, one of his greatest mistakes was not taking down the flag as it wouldn’t have caused a ‘flap’ at that time. West points to the two campaigns for the Democratic Party’s Presidential nomination of segregationist Governor of Alabama George Wallace in 1972 and 1976 as the key events which brought new publicity and new meaning to the old flag as a symbol of segregation. It was under the Confederate Battle Flag that Wallace proclaimed:

‘segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.’

FILE--Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace is shown in this Oct. 19, 1964 photo speaking in Glen Burnie, Md. at a rally supporting Republican presidential candidate Sen. Barry Goldwater. The LBJ Library at the University of Texas in Austin releases presidential tapes about every six months in increments of three months at a time, in chronological order. The latest release covered January to March 1965, the early months after his 1964 election. Johnson's skills as a conciliator are on full display in early 1965 as he works a deal between civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and then Alabama Gov. George Wallace in taped telephone conversations released Friday, May 26, 2000. (AP Photo, File)
Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace is shown in this Oct. 19, 1964 photo speaking in Glen Burnie, Md. at a rally supporting Republican presidential candidate Sen. Barry Goldwater.

The NAACP has held many protests and marches against the flying of the flag, seeing it as a symbol of the oppressive past that has no place in the future; an anachronism from the 1860s. Reverend Joe Darby of the NAACP:

With an understanding that there are those who treasure it as heritage; and I do not denigrate their heritage; however many African-Americans, if not most, do not see heritage when they see that flag, that flag conjures up images of rogue Ku Klux Klansmen and hate groups.”

Civil War Re-enactor William Hamilton is one of those who considers the flag a part of his heritage:

Symbols are never any better than the people that use them; to a Klansman it’s inevitably a sign of white supremacy and he believes that’s what Robert E Lee fought for and he’s wrong. To my family it’s one part of a very large historical experience and a story that’s not over and isn’t finished.”

Devereaux Cannon, author of Flags of the Confederacy explained the connection the flag has to Southern identity:

That identification with the symbol is very, very strong , it’s that wartime experience that caused the South to have that separate identity, that national identity that the rest of the country, the other regions of the Union don’t have because they never had that experience.”

Ralph Peters gave an impartial historian’s viewpoint in his article Civil War Insights:

The Confederate battle flag is a symbol of bravery, not slavery. I’m a Yankee, born and bred, and my personal sympathies lie with the Northern cause (although, in writing, I strive to be even-handed). To me, though, that red flag with the blue St. Andrews cross strewn with white stars does not symbolize slavery—that’s nonsense—but the stunning bravery of those who fought beneath it. I object to flying the flag of the Confederate States of America, but not to displaying that battle flag. Let me be clear: I don’t believe the battle flag should be prostituted to politics or misused for bigotry. But its legacy is one of heroism, not hatred, and deserving of respect.”

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The last surviving veterans of Gettysburg meet at the wall that Pickett charged towards

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The Charleston Shootings and Demonisation of White America

On June 17, 2015, during a prayer service at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Charleston, SC, a young white man called Dylann Roof allegedly killed nine African Americans, including senior pastor and state senator Clementa C. Pinckney, and injured one other person. Roof later confessed to committing the shooting in hopes of igniting a race war.

Rioters in Ferguson
Rioters in Ferguson

In the days following the shooting, a website and manifesto allegedly created by Roof were discovered and given widespread media coverage.

Pictures showing Roof posing with white supremacist and neo-Nazi symbology were everywhere in the media and front and centre was the Confederate Battle Flag. Roof’s manifesto made for disturbing reading with it’s diatribes against African-Americans and other non-white ethnic groups; in his writings Roof claimed that his white supremacist views were the result of research into the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin and “black-on-white crime”.

It was clear from the start that this awful crime was not what it was being purported to be by the authorities and mass media; rather, it was yet another false flag atrocity in the same vein as Sandy Hook and the Boston Bombing.

It is not difficult to decipher the agenda behind the Charleston shootings; it is the same agenda that lies behind the artificially fomented race riots in Ferguson and Baltimore – to stir up inter-racial hatred and provoke violence.

The bus loads of young African-Americans brought into Ferguson to carry out looting and street rioting were bought and paid for with the cynical goal of demonising young African-Americans in the eyes of white America; to make it seem like all young African-Americans are prone to outbursts of violence, to commit robberies and set communities ablaze.

Dylann Roof, or whoever really did carry out the Charleston Shootings is serving the same purpose as those busloads of young African-Americans; albeit with the race roles reversed – this time it is white people who are being demonised, particularly Southern white people who are proud of their heritage and continue to hold in high regard their forebears who fought for the Southern Cause in the Civil War.

Dylann Roof in one of several photographs where he is shown posing with the Confederate Battle Flag
Dylann Roof in one of several photographs where he is shown posing with the Confederate Battle Flag

This is why the Confederate Battle Flag was featured prominently in photographs of Roof and in his ‘manifesto’ – the aim is to associate the flag with racism, hatred and violence; the wider goal being an attack on white Southern Pride and heritage and an escalation of inter-racial tensions throughout the USA, but particularly in the South.

It is becoming ever clearer that a long-term agenda exists to manufacture inter-racial conflict in America, and the Charleston shootings are just the latest development in the unfolding dialogue of that agenda.

It is no coincidence that the shootings took place in Charleston, the place where the Civil War began when ‘Southern hotheads’ opened fire on the Federal garrison of Fort Sumter and ignited a conflict that would kill the boldest and bravest of that generation and leave a nation scarred by the horrors of the first industrialised war.

The deep divisions between North and South still exist to some degree to this day as do the issues of inter-racial relations, equality and integration.

If the current American generation wishes to avoid repeating the mistakes that lead their forebears of a century and a half ago into bloody conflict, then it must open its eyes and minds to the hidden agenda behind the string of apparently racially motivated killings.

The apparent goal of this agenda is to ignite a second civil war, with the battle lines drawn up along racial lines; the intent being to destroy American society and set back the causes of civil rights, equality and integration by decades. Let us not make the mistake of being tricked into a second Civil War by another false flag attack.

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Author Details
Ian Greenhalgh is a photographer and historian with a particular interest in military history and the real causes of conflicts.

His studies in history and background in the media industry have given him a keen insight into the use of mass media as a creator of conflict in the modern world.

His favored areas of study include state sponsored terrorism, media manufactured reality and the role of intelligence services in manipulation of populations and the perception of events.
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