The flag which South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley says must come down from the State Capitol was never the national flag of the Confederate States of America. It was, instead, a standard of the Army of Northern Virginia, making it more accurately a “Confederate battle flag” rather than the “Confederate flag.” It’s also incorrect to call it the “Stars and Bars,” which was actually the completely different first national flag of the CSA.
This flag known as “the Confederate flag” is an even more recent nexus of controversy than the Civil War itself. It entered most people’s consciousnesses a century after the war, when it became a symbol of resistance to civil rights and desegregation. Georgia incorporated it into its new flag of 1954 (and dumped it it in 2001). South Carolina and Alabama raised it over their capitols in the early 1960s. Today there are seven states that use some kind of Confederate iconography or echo in their state flags, but only Mississippi’s flag incorporates the actual Confederate battle flag design.
The design of white stars on a blue cross over a red field was sold at Walmart until recently, having become in some minds a symbol of the (white) South, rural and/or “redneck” pride, and even a generic “rebel” ethos. But it has also remained a potent symbol of the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis. Few things may be more ironic than seeing the design in rural New England or the Midwest, areas saturated with memorials to the Civil War’s Union dead.
Symbols, of course, can have contested meanings. Guy Davenport, writing in a special edition of Callaloo dedicated to the “Confederate Flag Controversy,” called the flag “a persisting trace of slavery, segregation, Jim Crow, discrimination, insult, disrespect.” Davenport, a white Southerner, thought the flag should only be displayed like the Swastika in Paris, a captured flag of a defeated power.
In “Rebel With a Cause? Iconography and Public Memory in the Southern United States,” Leib, Webster, and Webster note that the “Confederate battle flag has been the preeminent target in the debates over how space is to be defined culturally in the American South.” Symbols matter, especially when it comes to nationalism. The article cited here is now 15 years old, but is just as relevant as today’s headlines: the long debate continues, a struggle over definitions of history.