Flags

December 29, 2003


We have had this house since August. Yesterday I finally got around to installing the flagpoles on the front.

The impetus for this little moment of home improvement was that I got a couple of flags for Christmas: a Navy Jack and a Culpepper militia flag. I want to get myself a Serapis flag at some point. I like Revolutionary War flags; I like old flags; heck I like flags.

The previous owner of this house had bolted two flagpole brackets to the cast iron railing. He took his brackets with him. I have been unable to find a bracket that fits the holes drilled through the iron. So, I kludged it. I cut a small piece of wood, bolted that to the railing, screwed a flagpole bracket onto the wood, and we are good to go. It feels solid - there is some wiggly of the flagpole in the bracket but none of the bracket or the piece of wood. J wants the wood painted black, so now that I have proved the concept I will cut two more pieces of wood, paint them, and set up brackets on both sides of the house.

I plan to fly one US flag, often in historical variants, and one other flag - militia flag, state flag, perhaps a sports or college flag.

I like Revolutionary era flags. Since the 1950s change from the 48-star to the 50-star flag, official US flag etiquette is that any flag that was ever official, is a valid flag. So, I fly my reproductions. Or I will - they need a different flagpole. I will get another pole later this week since the home supply stores don't have what I want.

As I have been putting together brackets and shopping for new flags, I have been reminded of the subtle differences between the Navy Jack and the Confederate battle flag. The two flags express overlapping sentiments: both are declarations of independence, both celebrate a violent localism, both were flown in celebration of white, male liberties. But, one has a regional and a racial subtext and the other does not.

Lets start by reminding ourselves of the timetable for the Civil War. Without this chronology, the war makes no sense.

  • The deep South - the tier of states running from South Carolina to Texas - seceded after Lincoln was elected and before he was inaugurated. They seceded in order to defend slavery.
  • After Fort Sumpter, Lincoln called for volunteers. Most Union soldiers at the start of the war fought to preserve the union.
  • The upper South - North Carolina and Virginia and most states Westward - seceded only after Lincoln called for troops. They were stuck between the two sides, neutrality was not an option, and most of these states decided that they would not fight to put down a secession.
  • The upper South provided the most soldiers and suffered the most losses, whether in absolute terms (Virginia) or in proportion to their population (North Carolina). Many of these men fought because their home states were being invaded. Kentucky tried to stay neutral and joined the Union only after the Confederacy invaded it.
  • During the course of the war, first with ad hoc decisions, then with the Emancipation Proclamation, and finally with the 13th Amendment, slavery was abolished. What had started as a war to preserve the union became a war to destroy Slavery. So, if you will, slavery had started as a distinctly Southern issue - it was why the secessionists wanted to secede - and by 1865 it was a heavily Northern issue - if only to punish the South for having started the war.
  • After the war, Jubal Early and others created a myth of the lost cause, celebrating the soldiers, claiming that the war was a noble but futile effort made by a glorious aristocracy in defiance of the grinding masses of the North. Early argued that the war's crucial battles were fought in the East, that the North only won because of numbers, that Southern soldiers and Southern generals were godlike, and that race was irrelevant to the war. He got just close enough to the truth for his lies to be powerful.

Why does this matter for flags?

From the 1870s through the 1940s, the mainstream understanding of the war was the Lost Cause. Parts of that understanding still persist, if only subtly. Look, for example, for Civil War movies without any black characters - even in the background. Look for people who emphasize glory and honor, which were indeed important, and then claim that this was all. And, of course, look at the two meanings of the Confederate Battle Flag.

The confederate battle flag - square for the army, rectangular as the naval jack - is a strong symbol. Visually and heraldically it is much stronger than the stars and stripes - the US flag stands for some wonderful things, but the design is cluttered. This strong symbol, through the alchemy of the lost cause, has come to stand for the soldiers who fought and not the voters who seceded. It takes the decisions of that portion of Southern men who fought because their states were being invaded and makes them stand for the whole of their society. It is an attractive symbol if you are Southern; there is much to admire in a group of people taking up arms to defend their community from invasion.

In contrast, Confederate national flags - the Stars and Bars, the Bonnie Blue Flag, or the second and third national flags - are political flags. They are not nearly as strongly displayed and have a connotation more closely tied to secession and slavery while the battle flag symbolizes the men who fought and all the reasons - from defending slavery to defending their homes to being drafted - why they fought.

The battle flag is such an attractive symbol that following Brown v Board of Education it was hauled out of storage. Flags were printed, flags were waved, flags were hung over state capitals, and the battle flag was inserted into a number of Southern state flags. In every case, anti-integration political leaders - elected and unelected - were tying their state resistance to federal rights law to an earlier generation's defiance against invasion. And, like the Civil War, their actions were inspired by race, and often carried out under nobler language. Their basic argument was that it is more important for decisions to be made locally than it is for citizens to have equal rights, equal opportunities, and equal freedom from fear.

What this means is that the battle flag has two completely different sets of meanings.

For some, especially white Southerners, the flag refers to a stubborn localism - the notion that a community should set its own standards, mind its own business, and that if young men want to drink whiskey and go hunting, or engage in any other rituals of young adulthood, they should do so. It celebrates the male, the independent, and the rural. It is a vote against the nanny state.

As such, the battle flag is a powerful symbol. A few African Americans from the rural south have adopted that flag in those meanings.

For others, especially African Americans, the flag refers to a willful disregard of rights, and to the systematic use of violence and fear to deny fellow citizens the chance to exercise their liberties. It is a symbol of terror, and of hate. The flag's use as cover for acts of racial hatred overwhelms any other message that people might want to convey through it.

Indeed, if you add words like "heritage not hate" to that flag, the overarching meaning that many people are likely to take away from it is that you are now lightly disguising your racism rather than bragging on it, something that infuriates those who mean the flag as a sincere expression of regional accent, regional food, and rural free-thought.

Just as the Nazis demonized a perfectly reasonable Indian design when they adopted the swastika, so too have secessionists, lost cause advocates, and anti civil rights forces taken a flag that once symbolized a stubborn localism and turned it into a symbol for hatred. The difference is in degree, and it is such a big difference that I almost did not make the comparison, but the process is similar. If you had a family relic dating from before 1920 and displaying a swastika, would you show it?

Today, people argue about what moment in time the battle flag celebrates. Does it refer to the guys from VA and NC who went to war because their state was being invaded? Does it refer to the guys all across the south who did not want to see their black neighbors granted full citizenship? The answer, of course, is both at once and many other meanings as well. Flags are complicated and powerful.

Next time you get into a flag discussion, sketch out the navy jack and ask how that differs from the battle flag. If someone flies a battle flag in defense of localism and good-ol-boy rural independence, ask why they do not fly a Culpepper militia flag (also a Southern symbol).

The answer, I think, is that the South has largely forgotten the American Revolution except in Eastern VA and parts of the Carolinas. They have not forgotten the American Civil War. And, even though the men who fought in 1861 were descended from and used many of the same words and ideas as those who fought in 1775, the people of 2003 seem to be frozen in more recent time. Or, it may be that they see the American Revolution as the North's war. We do, after all, celebrate Bunker Hill and the Boston Massacre, the turning points are Saratoga and Valley Forge, and Nathaniel Green and the Southern campaign are largely forgotten outside of Camden SC and Greensboro NC. Other than some confused stories about Francis Marion and the Carolina feuding war, the Revolution that we remember is a war that was fought elsewhere and celebrated elsewhere, just as non-Texans don't really think about San Jacincto or most other battles from the Texas insurrection. A person in Alabama, or Mississippi, or Tennessee can visit a Civil War battlefield, hears of re-enactors, and sees a monument to the war outside of every county courthouse. There is a much thinner physical memory of the Revolution, even in the original thirteen colonies.

Let us assume, for the moment, that it is a good thing for people who celebrate rural values and value their independence to have a good colorful symbol they can fly. Let us also assume that it is bad manners if not threatening to display a symbol that has in the past served as code for hate, oppression, and violence. How do we square this circle?

The first time I thought about this, in the mid 1980s, I suggested to some of my students who had the flag on their cars for the first meaning and were appalled to discover that they were also conveying the second meaning, that they should consider displaying the battle flag in conjunction with the flag of the African National Congress. That suggestion produced a stunned silence, followed by what I think was the realization that perhaps there had been some racial content to their earlier display but might have been a reaction to the socialism of the ANC.

For now, my best suggestion is to push the Culpepper flag or some of the other Revolutionary era flags as alternatives.

I was looking through historical flag catalogues last night, looking for a Serapis flag with the red white and blue stripes. I turned to the Civil War era flags and discovered something about myself; I will never fly a Confederate flag: not the battle flag, not the Stars and Bars, not even the Bonnie Blue Flag that had previously been used by the independent Republic of West Florida. I get a gut revulsion at the thought of displaying them.

So, I won't. I will continue to show other nineteenth century flags - I do want the one Fremont carried on his explorations in the 1840s.

Perhaps I am being hypocritical, asking people not to fly something that I refuse to fly. But, I think that there is always value in encouraging people to articulate their motives and make considered choices.

EDIT, Howard Dean a few weeks ago made some clumsy words saying the very smart thing that Democrats need to figure out how to appeal to guys "with Confederate flags in the back of their pickups." His point was that the Democrats need some way to counteract the Republican use of symbols and culture. Perhaps the thing to do will be to look back again to the Revolutionary moment - the principled defense of local customs, the celebration of the rule of law against the rule of men, and an appeal to virtue and the common good of the people against those whose luxury, dissipation, and self-interest would disrupt the republic.

Posted by Red Ted at December 29, 2003 10:00 AM | TrackBack