The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How people convince themselves that the Confederate flag represents freedom, not slavery

Historian John M. Coski examines the fights over the symbol's meaning in "The Confederate Battle Flag: America's Most Embattled Emblem."

The South Carolina and American flags fly at half-staff as the Confederate flag unfurls below at the Confederate Monument June 18, 2015 in Columbia, S.C. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

In the days since the horrific mass shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., the presence of the Confederate battle flag — on the shooting suspect’s license plate, and one still flying on the grounds of the state Capitol in Columbia, S.C. — has reignited a long-standing debate over the Confederate symbol. “Take down the flag,” Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in the Atlantic. “Take it down now. Put it in a museum. Inscribe beneath it the years 1861-2015.”

John M. Coski, the historian at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, authored a 2006 book titled “The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem,” as dispassionate a history as one might find on such a subject. (In its review, the New York Times said the book “brings some needed rationality to a debate driven by the raw emotion of soul injury.”) In his opening chapter, Coski examines the debates within the South — then and now — over the the flag, what it represents, and the origins of the argument that it embodies freedom rather than oppression. Excerpts:

Defenders of the flag have insisted vehemently that the Confederacy did not exist to defend or preserve slavery, and they impugn the motives and intelligence of those who argue that it did. . . . [Historian] James McPherson’s study of soldier motivations suggested that most Confederate soldiers did not fight consciously for the preservation of slave property. Confederate soldiers believed they were fighting, above all, to defend their states, their country, and their homes from invasion and to preserve the individual and constitutional liberty that Americans won in 1776. . . .
Historians and partisans in the flag debate can disagree legitimately with the logic of their argument, but they cannot deny the reality of the perception of those who suffered the consequences of invasion. If we wish to understand why many people perceive the Confederate flag as a symbol not of slavery but of liberty, we must understand that a war which “somehow” was caused by slavery (as Lincoln said in his second inaugural address) also necessarily entailed the destruction of an exercise in self-determination. . . .
Modern neo-Confederate orthodoxy not only denies that slavery was the cause of the war but posits that the Confederacy’s reason for being was the defense of constitutional liberty against Big Government. Furthermore, according to this reasoning, the growth of an intrusive federal government in modern times can be traced directly to the defeat of the Confederacy. Anti-government ideology has combined with historical analysis and ancestor veneration to give the Confederacy and its symbols exalted status as icons of freedom.
While generations since 1865 have embellished this orthodoxy, it originated in the rhetoric of Confederate leaders seeking to justify secession and win support for their new nation. . . . This “Confederately correct” orthodoxy that the South fought for independence, not slavery, rankled a few southern realists, including the editors of the Richmond-based Southern Punch in 1864:
” ‘The people of the South,’ says a contemporary, ‘are not fighting for slavery but for independence.’ Let us look into this matter. It is an easy task, we think, to show up this new-fangled heresy — a heresy calculated to do us no good, for it cannot deceive foreign statesmen nor peoples, nor mislead any one here nor in Yankeeland. . . Our doctrine is this: WE ARE FIGHTING FOR INDEPENDENCE THAT OUR GREAT AND NECESSARY DOMESTIC INSTITUTION OF SLAVERY SHALL BE PRESERVED, and for the preservation of other institutions of which slavery is the groundwork.”
After the war, a few ex-Confederates expressed similar disgust with the insistence that defense of slavery had not been the cause of the war. Confederate veteran Ed Baxter unashamedly told a reunion in 1889: “In a word, the South determined to fight for her property right in slaves; and in order to do so, it was necessary for her resist the change which the Abolitionists proposed to make under the Constitution of the United States as construed by them. . . Upon this issue the South went to war, I repeat that the people of the South had the right to fight for their property”. . . . Famed Confederate partisan leader Colonel John S. Mosby was equally forthright. “I’ve always understood that we went to war on account of the thing we quarreled with the North about,” he wrote a former comrade in 1894. “I’ve never heard of any other cause than slavery.”
Mosby, [South Carolina politician Robert Barnwell] Rhett, [Confederate President] Davis, [Vice President Alexander] Stephens, and other Confederates had no difficulty conceding what their descendants go to enormous lengths to deny: that the raison d’être of the Confederacy was the defense of slavery. It follows that, as the paramount symbol of the Confederate nation and as the flag of the armies that kept the nation alive, the St. Andrew’s cross is inherently associated with slavery. This conclusion is valid whether or not secession was constitutional. It is valid whether or not most southern soldiers consciously fought to preserve slavery. It is valid even though racism and segregation prevailed among nineteenth-century white northerners.
Modern Americans looking for this kind of definitive judgment go wrong, however, in concluding further that the St. Andrew’s cross was only a symbol of slavery. Historians emphasize that defense of African-American slavery was inextricably intertwined with white southerners’ defense of their own constitutional liberties and with nearly every other facet of southern life. Descendants of Confederates are not wrong to believe that the flag symbolized defense of constitutional liberties and resistance to invasion by military forces determined to crush an experiment in nationhood. But they are wrong to believe that this interpretation of the flag’s meaning can be separated from the defense of slavery. They need only read the words of their Confederate ancestors to find abundant and irrefutable evidence.
Why is there a Confederate flag on the grounds of the South Carolina state capitol? (Video: Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

Read more Washington Post articles on the Confederate battle flag, including:

When the Confederate flag flew at Harvard

Why do people believe myths about the Confederacy? Because our textbooks and monuments are wrong.

Read more from Book Party, including:

What it’s like to write speeches for a rude, rambling and disgraced politician

Millennials see the GOP as old-fashioned and prejudiced. Here’s how to change that.