The South Carolina state government held a ceremony to take down the Confederate flag from statehouse grounds July 10. The crowd watching chanted "U-S-A" as the flag was folded. (AP)

One thing that Northerners (and many Southerners) will never understand about the Confederate flag is this: Why would some in the South continue to fly the flag of a losing effort? And is that normal?

Broadly speaking, it's not. And the South's unique situation has plenty to do with how the Civil War ended.

In short: As punishment for losing civil wars go, the South got pretty lucky. It got to honor its military leaders with bronze statues. It got to name its streets and schools after Confederate leaders. It even got to keep symbols of the war, like the suddenly at-issue Confederate flag.

[6 key moments from the South Carolina Senate's strikingly blunt Confederate flag debate]

"In the U.S., the southern losers were treated with extraordinary leniency," said Harry Watson, a history professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

Compassionate repatriation isn't always how these things conclude. According to civil war protocol (to the extent that such a thing exists), the losing side "is supposed to be reconciled to the loss of its cause and symbols," said Thomas Keaney, a military strategy expert and professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Often, that reconciliation isn't pretty.

"In most of the civil wars that I know anything about," Watson said, "the losers were subject to much more serious repression than the losers of our civil war. They were sent to camps or they were shot or put in jail or any number of horrible things like that."

Two high-profile gruesome examples: The French Revolution in the 1790s that popularized the guillotine, and executions during and after the end of the 1920s Russian civil war that reached genocide levels.

The losing sides' flags in these cases were most certainly destroyed. In the case of the Russian civil war, "if you flew the czarist flag after that war was over, or in Communist-controlled territory while the war was going on," Watson said, "you'd have been in very big trouble."

And among the civil war losers who got to keep their leaders and symbols, they mostly found their own geographic space to do so. The nationalists who lost China's civil war in 1949 fled to Taiwan and set up their own country, taking their flag with them.Watson says he still sees South Vietnam's flag flying in several parts of the United States where refugees from that war congregated. And certain parts of Spain still have a rebel streak after their 1930s civil war.

But none of them compare to the longevity and prevalence of the Confederate flag. Nor did Confederate leaders or supporters have to flee. No Confederate general even went to jail.

So why did the North go so easy on the South?

Keaney said the North just wanted to hold on to its tenuous peace agreement. The South was allowed to honor its leaders "as long it was recognized that the war was over and would not be renewed."

Watson thinks the North didn't have the political will to remake Southern society after the war. He sums up the North-South peace deal this way: "'As long as you [the North] give us the right to rule these states,' said the South, 'we will not demand national independence.' That was essentially what it amounted to. And the North said 'OK.'"

Both professors also emphasized that the Confederate flag wasn't as divisive or prevalent then as it is today. The original flag was a battle flag that never officially represented the Confederate States of America.

"It wouldn't surprise me to know [the flag] showed up in memorial services," post-Civil War, Watson said, "but it wasn't kept out in public. It didn't go up over state capitols 365 days a year."

That first began happening in the 1960s. It wasn't until Sen. Strom Thurmond incorporated the flag into his 1948 segregationist presidential campaign that the Confederate flag saw new life. The flag soon morphed into a symbol for opposition to the civil rights movement and desegregation -- a fact cited by South Carolina legislators when they voted to take the flag off their capitol grounds this week.

[The history of the Confederate flag, in 180 seconds]

That is the real meaning of the flag we're debating today. And in a real way, the longevity of the Confederate flag is kind of an accident of history.