Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Confederate pseudohistory

The flag game

The most vigorous defenders of the flag always bring up “heritage” and “Southern pride.” They cite the bravery of fallen ancestors, whom they imagine fighting till their last breath and last drop of blood for states' rights beneath the waving Confederate flag. Ah, but which flag? Ironically, many of those revered rebels probably never even saw the flag that their descendants regard as sacred to their memory. Unless they were part of General Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, which used the infamous banner as its battle flag, Confederate soldiers went to war under other colors—including even Lee's troops.

The official flag of the Confederate States of America was the Stars and Bars, first adopted and flown in the CSA's provisional capital city of Montgomery, Alabama. Its resemblance to the USA's Old Glory made its use in battle problematic, insufficiently distinguishing the two sides. The Stars and Bars acquired additional stars as the CSA incorporated (or pretended to incorporate) more renegade states and remained the Confederacy's official banner till it was set aside in 1863 in favor of a new design.

The so-called “Stainless Banner” was characterized by a now-familiar image embedded in a field of white. The white was described by the flag's designer as representing “the cause of a superior race.” Now a different problem arose. The generous use of white made the Stainless Banner appear in some circumstances to be a white flag of surrender. It was back to the drawing boards one more time, resulting in the third and final iteration of the CSA's national banner in 1865.

The “Blood-Stained Banner” never had a chance. Although the addition of a broad red stripe mitigated the problem of confusion with a flag of surrender, surrender was, in fact, at hand. The final CSA flag was adopted in March 1865 and General Lee conceded to General Grant in April. Most Confederate soldiers never saw the new national flag, which was defunct with the defeat and dissolution of the CSA.

Both the Stainless and Blood-Stained CSA banners featured a canton displaying the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, which had adopted the starred saltire cross in late 1861 in preference to the confusing Stars and Bars. Despite the battle flag's role as the banner under which General Lee surrendered, it had a vigorous post-war life. Decades after the war was over, the battle flag (often in rectangular rather than square form) was favored as the official emblem of various associations of Civil War veterans in the South. It outlasted the official flags in its identification with the Confederacy and its Lost Cause.

Later the battle flag found favor with the Ku Klux Klan and other organizations that promoted “white power” and suppression of the civil rights of black citizens. It can hardly be mere coincidence that Georgia chose to revive the battle flag and incorporate it in its state banner in resistance to the desegregation mandate of 1954's Brown v. Board of Education.  (The illustration depicts the change enacted in Georgia's flag in 1956.)

The racist component of Southern heritage was there at the outset, as detailed in the constitution of the seceding states and the declarations of the Confederacy's officers, but it was compounded and exacerbated by the era of Jim Crow and the South's segregationist state governments. The Confederate battle flag can no more be purged of that association than the swastika of Germany's National Socialist Party can be restored to its pre-Nazi status.

It's time for the battle flag to fade away, the sooner the better.


Gene O'Pedia said...

Interesting, that the flag of Hitler was banished from Germany, literally outlawed, while the flag of Lee has lived on and on. It's hard to imagine a post-World War II Germany where citizens still displayed the swastika proudly, fondly, and with fervor, let alone if it was displayed by official government decree. What would the message be?

It's an exhausting mental exercise. Thanks, Zeno, for that concise look at a remnant of the Civil War that's been a stick in the eye ever since.

Kathie said...

Agree wholeheartedly that the Confederate battle flag is anathema. Wonder what the consensus is on the Bear Flag, although it admittedly predates admission to the Union.