I have always loved the antebellum, Civil War, and reconstruction era of United States history. When I was a kid and we would drive from our home to visit my dad’s family in south Mississippi (most of which still live there), we would make various stops along the way with my sister and I getting to pick a spot to stop at. Often, we stopped at caverns, museums, aquariums, and those sorts of places, but I almost always picked something related to the Civil War, whether it was a battlefield, a Civil War museum, or a plantation home tour. This led to my desire to teach history to others as well as obtaining my MA in historical studies.
Part of my love of history has always been the ability to connect my own family’s story to that of the broader American story (and beyond to various other countries). In order to do that, I have used the genealogy research that my paternal grandmother started and have continued her research into those lines of the family, but I have also done a lot of research into my mother’s side of the family and have learned quite a lot about that side of the family as well. By researching both sides of my family, I have found numerous ancestors that fought in various wars in US history. There have been soldiers from our family in every single war in US history, even until the present.
And now, I am the mother of a black son. So, it is with all of this that I must figure out where I stand on the issue of the Confederate battle flag.
First, we can not take the Confederate battle flag out of the history of the United States. As part of the Civil War period, it represents the Confederate soldiers that fought under it against the United States soldiers. It also represents the cause of the Confederate army and government, even though it was not the official flag of the Confederate States of America. However you frame this cause, whether economics, states’ rights, defending their home from invasion, the cause ultimately was to continue the practice of slavery. The economic system that the South depended upon was slave labor to produce the raw cash crops (especially cotton in the Deep South) that were then sent to the manufacturers in the North (or Britain) to be turned into goods to then be sold either in the US or in other countries. The issue of states’ rights was that the Southern states did not want the federal government telling them that they could or could not do something. That “something” was continuing the practice of slavery. Upon the election of Abraham Lincoln, the southern states, led by South Carolina, began to secede under the perception that Lincoln would lead the federal government to abolish slavery throughout the nation. Lincoln had made it quite clear that his stand during the election was to not allow slavery to spread to any new territories or states, but to allow it to exist where it already was. Clearly this was not ok with the southern states and thus they began to secede in an effort to create a new nation where they would be able to keep slavery and possibly extend it. So, states’ rights boils down to slavery. Defending one’s home from invasion is often a reason that is cited to say that not all of the soldiers in the Confederate military were fighting to continue slavery, especially since most of those fighting were not rich enough to own slaves. This is true of most of my own ancestors that fought in the Confederate military. (As a side note, I got a small scholarship from the local chapter of United Daughters of the Confederacy because I proved I was a descendant of a “worthy” Confederate soldier…he was “worthy” because he paid someone else to take his place, he didn’t just go AWOL). Yet, they can’t be separated from the overarching cause of the Confederate government.
As I sit here typing this, I am watching “History Detectives” on PBS and Wes Cowan is investigating a tintype that shows two Confederate soldiers, one white and one black. The black soldier was a slave in the home of the white soldier. The investigation is to find out if the black soldier was still a slave when he enlisted and fought for the CSA or if he had already been granted his freedom and voluntarily enlisted in the CSA. It is quite an interesting investigation. There are quite a number of small militias in which blacks enlisted, but they never fought and many of these units were disbanded. According to one of the historians interviewed, under Mississippi state law, slaves were slaves for the entirety of their lives, they could not be manumitted legally. However, the slaves that did go with their masters when the master went to war, the slaves did continue to serve their masters and the army or navy. These slaves could have shot their weapons during battle. I mean, who would have just sat there while a battle was going on, and not done anything, if only for self-preservation. For more information, you should look into the “Lost Cause” and how that came about after the war. This same historian also notes that there is a myth of blacks fighting for the Confederacy that is related to the ideology of the “Lost Cause.”
Anyway, back to the issue at hand of the Confederate battle flag.
As I said above, the Confederate battle flag can not be separated from that period of US history. However, the Confederate battle flag was appropriated by various groups after the end of the war. Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general, is often cited as the father of the Ku Klux Klan. Though there are doubts about his being the founder, he was clearly involved with the group and became its first “Grand Wizard.” This group stood for the opposition of the Reconstruction efforts being led by the federal government after the Civil War as well as for terrorizing blacks, beating and lynching them. The Confederate battle flag was, and is, used by this hate group.
100 years after the Civil War ended, there was still enormous racism throughout the nation directed towards blacks. Thus, the Civil Rights Movement worked to obtain rights for blacks through various means, including marches, voter registration drives, peaceful protests such as the sit-ins, but also more violent means. When we think of the Civil Rights Movement, we often think of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks, but there were others involved including Malcolm X, the Black Panther Party, etc. And there were not just blacks involved, but whites as well. As protest against the Civil Rights Movement and the federal legislation (which supersedes local and state law), many groups and state governments used the Confederate battle flag to signify that they were not going to follow the federal legislation, they would vote against it, etc. This is the case of South Carolina. In this usage it signifies that they stand for continuing to allow and condone segregation, abuses and lynchings of blacks, illegal imprisonment, and the list goes on.
Now, as a mother of a black son, the flying of the Confederate battle flag in any context outside of a Civil War battlefield or museum, is highly offensive both because of its history from the Civil War and the cause it stands for but also in its appropriation by hate groups and states as a protest against giving equal rights to all.