THE BATTLE FLAG – A RORSCHACH TEST
By Doug Coleman
Anyone who has not been in a coma for the last month is at least vaguely aware of the controversy over the “Confederate flag” – either the rectangular battle flag of the Army of Tennessee or the square battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, a blue St. Andrew’s cross with either twelve or thirteen white stars on a field of red.
But this is not the Confederate flag. The first unofficial banner (1861) was “the Bonnie Blue Flag”, which as the song says was a solid field of blue bearing a single star. The first “official” national flag is the “Stars and Bars,” which resembled Old Glory in having a number of stars (7 to 13) set in a circle within a blue square in the upper inner corner, with a white bar sandwiched between two red bars. The trouble with this flag’s resemblance to Old Glory became apparent at First Manassas – hanging limp, at a distance, and on a smoky battlefield it was indistinguishable from the Union flag. Thus attackers could come within spitting distance before they could be positively identified as hostile. General Beauregard approved a distinct battle flag at Fairfax Courthouse in September of 1861, the exemplars being sewn and presented by Hetty Cary and her cousin, Alexandria’s own Constance Cary Harrison. This was a square containing the classic St. Andrew’s cross. Later the Army of Tennessee would adopt the same banner in rectangular form, as would the Confederate navy. But the context was always a battle flag whose practical purpose was to avoid friendly fire incidents.
The second national flag, “the Stainless Banner” incorporated the square battle flag in the upper inner corner on a white field, flying between 1863 and 1865. For those looking to wave a Confederate flag which is actually intentionally racist, this is the ticket. The flag’s designer, one William Thompson, was very specific that the white field symbolized white supremacy. However, this flag was so stainless white that it could be mistaken for a flag of truce when hanging limp, so a third and final national flag added a red bar on the outside in March of 1865. Nonetheless, the “classic” Confederate national flag will always be the Stars and Bars.
Between the end of the war and the 1930s, the flag most often displayed was the battle flag. Why? The battle flag made sense in the context of veteran’s reunions and parades. There was no overtly racist subtext here – it was just the flag the veterans had actually carried into battle. Some Southern units carried on this tradition in World War Two – a battle flag flown proudly to distinguish soldiers from the South – again without any racist connotation.
Then things got weird in the 1950s and ‘60s. Democrats opposed to desegregation displayed the flag to remind the Federal Government a hundred years before they had defended state’s rights under that banner. One of those rights was the right to own slaves. Following the war, Jim Crow and the Klan ensured that the freedmen never reaped the full benefit of the Fourteenth Amendment, on up to the Eisenhower administration, where it was finally going to happen, or else. And so out came the flag as a symbol of Southern defiance – speech – and the message was: “Our grandfathers shot people like you for trying to boss us around and we are perfectly willing to do it again.” All in all, the context was as much Gadsden flag as racist, but the battle flag and white supremacy were now in many minds inextricably conflated forever. As someone once said, if one mixes a little dab of manure into a gallon of ice cream, the one flavor is going to dominate the other, proportions notwithstanding. And so the battle flag was now seen as something ugly because ugly people had stood under it. The photograph by Matt Herron, taken in Louisiana in 1965, hammers this point home in a way words never could. One may find more of his work here: http://www.takestockphotos.com/imagepages/portfoliostable.php?CollectionID=c
But desegregation did happen, mostly anyway. The flag drifted back again into its old role of being a symbol of Southern identity and pride. One expected to see the flag at Skynard and Molly Hatchet shows. Remember the Dukes of Hazzard and the General Lee, a car with the battle flag painted on the roof? We all know them Duke boys weren’t racists, right?
But, even in the late ‘70s, the flag had not quite shaken that stigma from the Civil Rights era. In my first year at UVA, my roommate from Richmond and I had decorated our dorm room with a circa 1930s Confederate battle, which could be seen from the quad. Suffice it to say our main interests were beer and coeds, with white supremacy rating roughly 0 on a scale of 0 to 100 in our daily priorities. Nonetheless, one night there was a polite rap on our door. We were confronted with a delegation of young black women in our hallway, dressed for church on a week-night. Their group had convened to raise our consciousness as to the meaning of our flag. We listened politely, informed them they were dead-wrong, and sent them on their way. The flag stayed up, not because we were trying to antagonize anyone, but because they actually did get it wrong – the flag just did not mean that to us. And I think they believed us, or we would not have been left alone, even back in the ‘70s. As they say, the past is another county – now my roommate and I would be crucified, ISIS-style.
What has been going on in the last month has that whiff of religious fanaticism about it. Where ISIS rules, they destroy the relics of the past as “sacrilegious” – thus they knock apart the tomb of Jonah with sledgehammers, deface Palmyra and make it clear that anyone who disagrees with them is going to have a very bad time. Same thing with the Taliban – they deem 1500 year old statues of Buddha sacrilegious, but nothing a few tank rounds won’t fix.
Thus it does not give one a great feeling to see Americans trotting down the same path these last few weeks. People are talking about tearing down century old Confederate memorials and statues – maybe even the one at Washington and Prince – and banning the battle flag from public places. The Memphis city council just voted to remove Nathan Bedford Forrest’s monument and dig up his grave. Others want to change street names honoring Confederate generals. There is a proposal to rename army bases like Fort Bragg and Fort A.P. Hill. TV Land cancelled reruns of Dukes of Hazzard. A cop was fired for posting his battle flag underwear on Facebook. Gone with the Wind banned as an Orwellian thought crime?
So, what is the justification for this cleansing of Southern sacrilege? It seems mass killer and Manson wannabe Dylann Roof was photographed with the battle flag, so now the flag can only mean that one thing – even if you don’t mean it. It also appears some people are “triggered” by the “micro-aggression” of the battle flag. There was a story in July of some stalwart in Connecticut who called 911 to report a display of Confederate memorabilia at a flea market – seems the very sight of a Confederate flag left him “shaking and almost vomiting” (not a problem men from Connecticut had in the 1860s). The Spartans might have been on to something when they exposed their weakest on a hillside.
As the last story suggests, we don’t have a problem with the flag, we have a problem with sissies and bullies, often the same person. It seems a lot of us are actively seeking “triggers” to offend them. On this issue, they fly the Black Flag – no quarter, zero tolerance. Your right to “thoughtcrime” ends where their outrage begins, so take down that racist flag, even if you are not a racist. And that is where the rubber hits the road – the flag is speech. The test of whether it is protected speech cannot be whether or not someone is offended. I’m not crazy about that rainbow flag, though it does not leave me “shaking and vomiting.” The Mexican flag at a La Raza rally kind of triggers me these days (still no shaking or vomiting). I like the American flag a lot, though the same people who want to burn the Confederate flag are cool with torching Old Glory, usually for the same goofy reasons. American Indians have little reason to love Custer’s flag, but Wind Talkers bled for it. It is well African-Americans forgive that the American flag flew over slaves longer than the Stars and Bars (about four score and seven years versus four), and flew over the last states where slavery was still legal in the Civil War (Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, and District of Columbia). The Union Jack doesn’t bother me at all, even though only 200 years have passed since Admiral Cochrane threatened to burn our home town. Why is the battle flag different?
So, here is a proposal. Let’s reserve the battle flag as an expression of rebellion and agree that it means the same thing as the Gadsden flag – a reminder of our birthright to rise up when a corrupt government forgets the difference between citizens and serfs. For the racists, fly the Stainless Banner (or a swastika) and everyone will understand you are the real deal in the hate department. To honor the fallen and remember our history, fly the Stars and Bars, the actual national flag. This will rarely offend the easily-triggered, who by definition will not know enough about America to recognize the old flag.
Doug Coleman is an attorney and amateur historian in Alexandria; comments and corrections are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.