The Confederacy, Its Flag and Legacy

Recently the state of Mississippi voted to keep their current state flag intact. Their flag, includes a square portion of the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, which has been at the center of renewed controversy since the tragic shootings in Charleston, SC over a year ago.

The flag attached to this post is not the Confederate flag; it is not even the “Stars and Bars.” The flag attached to this post is the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia. It was the flag that Robert E. Lee’s army went into battle under. The original design of the flag of the Confederate States of America is very similar to the “Stars and Stripes”, which during the chaotic nature of a battle is one significant reason why the flag was altered. In fact the Confederate flag was changed numerous times throughout the Civil War.

It is also important to note that really prior to the late 1940s early 1950s (emergence of the Dixiecrats) the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia was only flown by Confederate veterans at various commemoration events and memorials. That of course changed in the 1950s when this flag was flown as a protest against federal desegregation policies and corresponding Supreme Court decisions (Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka for example), therefore taking on its more modern political connotation. This all said, neither the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia nor any flag for that matter that at one time represented the Confederacy has any business flying over any state Capitol building.

One of the driving narratives that came out of the Civil War was the “Lost Cause.” This movement led by former Confederate veterans at the end of the 19th century romanticized the Antebellum South, downplayed the fact that slavery was the root cause of the war, and attempted to preserve white supremacy. It was a highly inaccurate way white southerners attempted to rectify the loss of the war. This inaccuracy has had a profound influence shaping America’s understanding of the causes, meaning, significance and relevance of the war which still can be seen today.

Another misconception is the belief held by some that southern states during the election of 1860 outlawed voting for Abraham Lincoln. This was not the case. Most southern states had a stipulation that required a citizen of that state to pledge support for a candidate in order for that candidate to get on the state ballot. This did not happen for Lincoln in something like nine or ten southern states. In Virginia, voters could and did vote for Lincoln (albeit in very few numbers). Remember too Virginia did not secede until after Fort Sumter. In South Carolina electors were determined by the state legislature not the popular vote. This was not unique to the election of 1860 either in South Carolina.

What often gets overlooked by our contemporary public in examining the political climate of 1860-1861 is the way southern states gave their collective “middle finger” to the underlying democratic principles we stand for as a nation. I am referring to the manner in which formal secession took place among southern states- the secession conventions. These conventions were called upon not as a result of ballot initiatives/referendums or the popular will of the people but rather organized by the state legislatures themselves. These legislatures selected the delegates for the conventions. In all total fewer than 900 men decided the fate of the eleven states that ended up forming the Confederacy- hardly a democratic process. Indeed it has often been rightly argued that secession was the worst thing the South could have done if it ever wanted to truly protect the institution of slavery because in 1860 the U.S. constitution actually protected slavery (Dred Scott v. Sandford). It was this logic that brought about John Bell’s Constitutional Union party. Bell managed to win Kentucky, his home state of Tennessee and Virginia in the election of 1860.

** A History of the American People by Paul Johnson copyright 1997 was used as a source for this post **

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