Roadside Rebels: Heritage Theatre and the Confederate Flag
Last weekend a Confederate battle flag rose alongside Interstate-95 in Chester, Virginia. Chester is just south of Richmond, which is surrounded by Civil War landmarks including more than 30 preserved battlefields (e.g., New Market Heights and Chimborazo Hospital), the White House of the Confederacy, and the phalanx of Confederate heroes memorialized on Monument Avenue. Planted by the Virginia Flaggers, the flag of the Army of Northern Virginia provides travelers a passing glimpse of America’s reduction of the Civil War to theater.
It was optimistic if not disingenuous for Free North Carolina to suggest that “The flag will serve to welcome visitors and commuters to Richmond, and remind them of our honorable Confederate history and heritage.” The Virginia Flaggers repeated similar stale platitudes when it reduced the Chester flag to an homage to Confederate heritage, arguing that “Our battles are all defensive…in defense of the honor and good name of our ancestors, and against actions taken to dishonor them and desecrate their monuments and memorials.”
On the one hand, the problem is not with the flag itself: the Confederate flag could be an enormously productive symbol to discuss one of the nation’s most complicated historical moments. On the other hand, it is naïve to suggest that reducing Confederate heritage to this symbol—and a clumsy theatrical event along I-95—can illuminate the war’s historical and moral contradictions. Rather than honor the many people who fought and died for the lost cause, flag-waving performances hazard reducing historiography to mere emotional provocation.
Ultimately the Chester flag is barely even visible from the interstate, but the public theater may have become more consequential (and self-defeating) than the flag display itself. After first decrying the placement of a flag in plain view of countless travelers in his wonderful Dead Confederates blog, Andy Hall conceded that the semi-secluded location made it a much less divisive symbol (see images of the flag in the Richmond Times-Dispatch). By then, though, the flag’s installation had been reduced to media theatre that reduced heritage to shallow talking points about honor and enslavement.
The Virginia Flaggers’ antagonism was spurred by inflated affronts like the Appomattox Museum of the Confederacy’s decision not to fly the Confederate flag publicly (and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ removal of the flag from the museum’s Confederate Memorial Chapel, detailed in RVA News). Those episodes may be irrelevant, because the flaggers’ manufactured indignation seems able to find continual perceived slights to Confederate history, and marching their mock umbrage into public only makes for fascinating but futile performances (compare the 2011 “Black woman attacked for carrying Confederate flag”). Flaggers are surprisingly indignant that their public performances risk undercutting their own mission and do not seem to receive an equitable public hearing in the press. For example, the Virginia Flaggers’ Susan Hathaway complained about apparently magnified coverage of a United RVA counter-protest to the Chester flag. United RVA flew a US flag in Richmond, and Hathaway concluded that “I guess that since every local poll showed OVERWHELMING support for the I-95 Battle Flag the media had to find something to highlight to try and stir up trouble.”
Few of the slights to self-styled Confederate defenders have anything to do with the Confederacy at all; instead, they betray a variety of social anxieties projected onto history in poorly supported if not xenophobic forms. The stickiest dimension of the flag is contention over its racist implications; flaggers and new Confederates argue that the flag is a symbol of heritage, and for others the flag is stained by the perception that the Confederate cause fundamentally defended captivity. There is some truth to these contemporary views of the flag and Confederate heritage, but they have been reduced to polarized caricatures, and simplistic definitions of the flag provide little critical clarity.
It is unreasonable to cast the flag as an uncomplicated symbol of heritage that can be separated from its post-World War II distortions; likewise, the flag has not perpetually been a one-dimensional testament to privilege and racism. Confederate flags appeared at soldiers’ graves and in some soldiers’ reunions from the 1880s onward, when groups like the United Confederate Veterans (1889) and the United Daughters of the Confederacy (1895) began to form to memorialize the Lost Cause. When Grover Cleveland proposed returning Confederate flags to the former secession states in 1887, he was met with stiff resistance by groups like the Union veterans’ Grand Army of the Republic and he abandoned the proposal. In 1892 the New York Times reported that the GAR Commander in Chief decreed that no GAR members were permitted to march in parades at which the Confederate flag was displayed. When 500 Clemson College students lowered the US flag and raised the Confederate flag in its place in 1904, the commandant ordered it removed even though he indicated he did not “`blame you for honoring the flag your ancestors fought for.’”
The flag never became utterly disconnected from some challenging dimensions of the rebel cause. When Robert E. Lee’s Monument Avenue statue was dedicated in Richmond, Virginia in 1890, the Richmond Planet reported that “Rebel flags were everywhere displayed and the long lines of Confederate veterans … told in no uncertain tones that they still clung to theories which were presumably to be buried for all eternity.”
Yet in 1905 and 1906, in the wake of the Spanish-America war effort that included many Southern soldiers, Theodore Roosevelt ordered the federal government to turn over its captured Confederate flags to appropriate Southern states or historical societies, including the Confederate museum. The flag was at least tolerated as a symbol of soldiers’ valor if not national reconciliation, even though its public displays did not pass without controversy: at both the 50th and 75th reunions at Gettysburg, for instance, some Union veterans objected to public displays of the flag as a symbol of unrepentant treason.
The flag’s various designs resurfaced in the wake of World War II and became intimately connected to a host of segregationist and boldly racist causes. John Coski’s detailed history of the flag’s public uses argues that the Ku Klux Klan’s first use of the Confederate flag came in 1943, when it was part of ceremonies among some of the hooded order’s Atlanta affiliates. In 1948 followers of the Dixiecrats registered their resistance to civil rights and support for segregation and state’s rights by embracing the Confederate battle flag, and it soon after began to appear at a range of Southern universities. In 1958 JB Stoner founded the White supremacist National States Rights Party, and the extremists closely allied to the Klan became one of a host of groups wielding the flag in the face of civil rights. Members of the anti-semitic and racist group were indicted (but acquitted) in the 1958 bombing of the Atlanta Reform Temple, and in 1980 Stoner (who later served as James Earl Ray’s attorney) was convicted of the 1958 bombing of the Bethel Baptist Church in Brimingham.
Integration fanned color line tensions by the late 1950s, and the flag routinely made appearances at protests against integration. Ten thousand Alabamans gathered in February 1956 in a Citizens Councils of America rally to denounce integration, “waving Confederate flags, and rising to cheer whenever the band broke into the strains of `Dixie.’” In September, 1957, the first African-American family moved into the 55,000 household community of Levittown, Pennsylvania only to be assaulted with racist violence and greeted by a hostile neighbor who “flies a Confederate flag on his station wagon.” In 1958 integration of Greensboro North Carolina schools, “five segregationist agitators kept a vigil at the entrance to the school grounds. Three of them took turns parading the Confederate flag and the Ku Klux Klan banner along the sidewalk.” Hodding Carter lamented the flag’s use in civil rights protests, arguing in 1965 that the flag “had been debased by many into a harsh summons to racial hate.”
It is naive for contemporary flaggers to suggest that extremists were caricaturing the flag’s “pure” historical meanings, because mainstream forces moved the flag into public space. In 1951 the “increasing vogue for display of the Confederate flag” moved Capitol police to bar cars bearing the flag from US Capitol parking. In 1956, the Georgia legislature approved a change in the state flag incorporating the Confederate battle emblem (it was modified in 2001). In 1961 South Carolina began to fly the flag on the State House dome (and resolved to keep it there in 1962) as part of the state’s Civil War centennial observance, which the state referred to as the “Confederate War Centennial.” The Mississippi state flag had integrated the Confederate flag design in 1894, and a 2001 state referendum to replace the design failed with 64% of the electorate backing the 1894 standard.
Along the Chester roadside the flag has come to represent nearly nothing; instead, it simply implies raw enmity and an unwillingness to have a civil and critical discourse about the Confederacy and the Civil War. The Virginia Flaggers are by no means alone in their cause, with groups planning similar flag displays along Southern roadways including Georgia, Florida, and Alabama. Rather than promote a reflective, scholarly, and honest discussion about war, economics, race, region, and nation, the flag is instead publicly wielded on roadsides and bumpers to circumvent challenging discussions.
Public neo-Confederate theatrics may fortify support from some ideologues, and it certainly avoids critique of their most distorted histories; in fact, that evasion of critical discourse—and fortification of cherished mischaracterizations of the Confederate cause and legacy (e.g., the recent focus on “Black Confederates”—almost certainly is a fundamental goal of the flag movement. Brooks Simpson divines alarming goals in the new Confederate histories, arguing that “This is an active attempt to reshape historical memory, an effort by white Southerners to find historical justifications for present-day actions. The neo-Confederate movement’s ideologues have grasped that if they control how people remember the past, they’ll control how people approach the present and the future.”
Several generations of scholars have been Civil War historians—and many more people are fascinated by the period—because it is in fact tortuous, compelling, complicated, and without any false explanatory resolution. There is no persuasive evidence that Confederate heritage has been ignored or radically distorted by a generation of liberal scholars and leftist ideologues. If anything, few corners of American scholarship are richer than Civil War history; nearly no period of our national history is better preserved; the Civil War figures prominently in high school and university curricula throughout the US; the material symbols of that heritage dot the American south and north alike; and a vast breadth of Americans across every social division are fascinated by the Civil War.
Hodding Carter may have captured the tenor of contemporary flag theater in 1965 when he somewhat tragically suggested that the flag had been reduced to a marker of “defiance. To hell with the North. To hell with the verdict at Appomattox. To hell with the Emancipation Proclamation and the 14th Amendment and Lyndon Johnson and the Supreme Court Reds. Wave that ol’ flag, boys, right in those Yankee faces. Show it to ‘em every chance you get, on military tunics and license plates and above the Konclaves of the white-robed Klansmen who, more than all others, desecrate a hundred-year memory.”
1965 Furl That Banner? New York Times 25 July: SM8-SM9, SM13.
John M. Coski
2000 The Confederate Battle Flag in Historical Perspective. In Confederate Symbols in the Contemporary South, eds. J. Michael Martinez, William D. Richardson, and Ron McNinch-Su, 89-129. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.
E. Merton Coulter
1958 5 Negroes Enter Carolina School. New York Times 4 Sep 1958: 14.
Euan Hague, Heidi Beirich, and Edward H. Sebesta (editors)
2008 Neo-Confederacy: A Critical Introduction. University of Texas, Austin.
J. Michael Martinez
2008 The Georgia Confederate Flag Dispute. The Georgia Historical Quarterly 92(2):200-228. (subscription access)
J. Michael Martinez, William D. Richardson, and Ron McNinch-Su (editors)
2000 Confederate Symbols in the Contemporary South. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.
New York Times
1892 The Confederate Flag: Commander Palmer Maintains his Position Regarding It. New York Times 9 Feb: 8.
1904 Cheered Confederate Flag. New York Times 18 Mar 1904: 1.
1951 Autos Flying Confederate Flags Barred From Parking at Capitol. New York Times 9 Nov: 1.
1956 10,000 in Alabama Hail Segregation. New York Times 11 Feb: 1.
The Richmond Planet
1890 The Lee Monument Unveiling. The Richmond Planet 31 May:1
W. Stuart Towns
2012 Enduring Legacy: Rhetoric and Ritual of the Lost Cause. University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa.
Rebecca Bridges Watts
2007 Contemporary Southern Identity: Community through Controversy. University Press of Mississippi, Jackson.
Confederate Reunion Parade, Richmond, Virginia 1907 image from Library of Congress
Confederate reunion of North Carolina veterans, 1917 image from Library of Congress
The Conquered Banner 1913 image from Library of Congress
Flags of the Confederacy at Winchester, Virginia theater on Lincoln’s Birthday February 1940 image from Library of Congress
Little Rock Nine Rally at state capitol, August 20 1959, from Library of Congress, U.S. News & World Report Magazine Photograph Collection
Troops in Statuary Hall image from Executive Office of the President of the United States
Virginia Flaggers 2012 image from Gamma Man