Carl Rowan {op-ed, Feb. 9} claims that the Confederate flag is a "bitter and gratuitous insult" to blacks. He says that the flag is a symbol of racism and a memorial to slavery. He criticizes Gov. Guy Hunt of Alabama for flying the southern flag over the state capitol and even goes so far as to scold Gov. Hunt for enforcing the law against vandals who tried to tear down the flag.

It is apparent that Mr. Rowan believes the Civil War was a war over slavery. I would remind him that to Abraham Lincoln and his administration, slavery was, at best, only a secondary concern during the war. President Lincoln stated that he would free no slaves if that was the only way to preserve the Union. His Emancipation Proclamation was purely a military measure designed to coerce the South into submission. Indeed, the Civil War would not have destroyed slavery if the Confederacy had given up before Jan. 1, 1863, when the proclamation went into effect.

The Confederate nation had all but abandoned the thought of saving slavery by 1865. The South fought on in an effort to save the principles it held dear -- specifically, the principle of states' rights. Thus the war the South fought was not an "immoral" one, but a war of principle.

I would also remind Mr. Rowan that four slave states -- Maryland, Delaware, Missouri and Kentucky -- never seceded, but remained loyal to the Union. The U.S. government continued to protect slavery in these border states during the war. Does this mean the U.S. flag is also tainted? Like all nations, the Confederacy made unjust laws and unwise decisions, but it certainly was not an evil empire, as Mr. Rowan implies. To people today, the Confederacy represents great men such as Robert E. Lee and cherished principles such as state rights. The Confederate flag is a symbol of all that was great and honorable about the Old South, and all Americans should take pride in it. STEVE KLUGEWICZ Williamsburg

I understand why Carl Rowan feels the way he does when he sees the Confederate battle flag, considering the way Hollywood has portrayed the Civil War and the way the Ku Klux Klan parades it around as its symbol. But I wish he would try to understand why I, and millions of other southerners, feel that calling it a ''banner of the slave masters'' and a symbol ''of an ugly, racist past'' is a historically inaccurate and unfair condemnation of the more than 1 million Americans who fought under that flag.

Any half-serious student of the Civil War can tell you that the great majority of Confederate soldiers fought not for the preservation of slavery, but for independence from what they saw as a tyrannical government. They enlisted to defend their states from the armies of invasion that President Lincoln was calling for. Conversely, most northern soldiers fought not to end slavery, but to preserve the Union.

The southern soldiers, including some blacks, left their homes, families and businesses and for four years fought under the worst possible conditions, against impossible odds. And through unbelievable suffering (many marched barefoot and starving through the snow) and with the most brilliant generalship this country has yet to produce, they not only managed to hold on in the face of defeat but achieved many stunning victories against armies twice their size. Whatever your politics, you have to respect these men, as their adversaries did, and the sacrifice and devastation suffered by their families.

I am no white supremacist, I do not wish a return to slavery or discrimination and I am not a Neanderthal. I am a liberal Democrat like Mr. Rowan, and I usually agree with his positions. But I resent the name-calling and hysteria in his column. Should we haul down the Stars and Stripes because for four score and seven years it was the banner of a slave nation? Should we remove George Washington's image from the dollar bill because he was a slave master? Should we ignore the rich heritage of black African history because for centuries many of the tribal chieftains were slave masters who sold their own people to whites? There are things to be proud of and things to be ashamed of in all cultures, and we must remember the good with the bad.

I would say to Mr. Rowan: the Civil War is over, and the battle flag of the Confederate Army is just that, no more, no less. If the people of Alabama want to fly that flag, or any flag, it is up to them, not to someone climbing a fence in an effort to tear the flag down. JOSEPH L. WHITNEY Vienna