- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 23, 2005


By John M. Coski

Harvard, $29.95, 401 pages

In his richly detailed book “The Confederate Battle Flag,” John M. Coski calls that very familiar symbol of the Old South “America’s most embattled emblem” and he is no doubt right. Is there any icon of the American past more beloved and at the same time reviled than the star-studded diagonal blue cross against a red background, the flag under which so many Confederate soldiers proudly fought?

Many American blacks — understandably — connect the battle flag with the days of segregation and second class citizenship. For them, it represents raw racial hatred and violence, the times when white teenagers speeding by in a car sporting the battle flag could shout at a group of black Americans the n-word in terrifying derision and with impunity. For those who fear it, the battle flag is an image from a time best fogotten.

Yet for many whites, and particularly those whose roots are in the South, the same flag — rightly so — is understood as a very real sign of a time, the Civil War, when Confederate soldiers shed their blood for their homeland and their principles with a courage that was often exemplary and sometimes extraordinary. This courage in the face of great odds should be honored and never forgotten, its defenders say, and the best way to maintain that memory is to assure that the flag will always be somewhere on view.

That these two profoundly opposing views clashed dramatically in recent years is not news. TV and the daily press carried stories of the NAACP’s usually successful efforts to have the battle flag removed from public buildings and from the flags of states such as Georgia, where its image had been incorporated into the official state flag. Almost equally in evidence have been the attempts of battle flag defenders to keep the flag in public view, and focus attention on what those who love it regard as its glorious past.

Mr. Coski, historian and director of the library at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Va., takes on this abiding — and profoundly rancorous — controversy head?on, recognizing that both sides have their points, but that neither has a monoply on what is true and right. Any resolution to the conflict, he concludes, will involve sacrifice on the part of the flag’s defenders, as well as by its detractors, but he realizes, too, that any resolution will not be easy.

Much is a stake in how the controversy is addressed, Mr. Coski contends. Early in his book, he rejects the arguments of those who see the bitter debate over the Confederate battle flag as detracting from discussion of far more important public policy issues. For them, the question is of minor significance.

But they are wrong, Mr. Coski contends, and dangerously so. “The debate over the proper place of the … flag in American life is an important means by which citizens engage with the meaning of the Civil War and its legacies,” he argues. Ultimately, the controversy is important, and concerns every American, because it is “about the meaning and relevance of history.”

Mr. Coski’s book is not just about recent debates over the flag. It is about its whole history. He points out how the battle flag was never the national flag of the Confederate States of America. It never graced government buildings, for example. But by the middle of the Civil War it had emerged as the “most important symbol of the fledgling nation,” and has remained so ever since.

Why? Largely because the battle flag, more than any other image (with the possible exceptions, say, of portraits of Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson), represented the Confederate army, and the South was very proud of its men in arms. “The soldiers’ battle flag,” Mr. Coski sums up, “thus symbolized defense of home and resistance to invasion.”

Was it also a symbol of slavery? Yes and no. Mr. Coski notes that only five percent of Southerners owned slaves, which means that for the vast majority of Confederate soldiers other issues, such as states’ rights and regional loyalties, played a part in their reasons for fighting. But it is “equally undeniable,” as the author points out, “that the South’s theoretical distrust of a powerful central government was related directly to its real fear of what that would mean to the institution of slavery.” And just how racist the attitudes of Southerners of the time could be can be seen in the words of Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens: “the cornerstone [of the confederacy] rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.”

What may come as a surprise to most 21st century readers is that the Confederate battle flag did not begin to emerge as a major American icon familiar to everyone and present nearly everywhere in our everyday lives until the 1940s. It was in that decade and on into the 1950s that a “flag fad” hit the country and the battle flag became a favorite symbol of college students (especially in the South) and of American soldiers fighting in Korea. For students and soldiers, the flag seemed above all to imply youthful rebellion and the value of courage and individuality.

One of the many striking facts Mr. Coski offers is that the largest maker of Confederate flags at the time, Annin & Co., was based not in the South but in New Jersey. In 1951 alone, Annin sold a total of 1.6 million small Confederate flags, an impressive 2000 percent increase over the number the company sold in 1949, two years earlier.

But the 1940s and 1950s were also the period in which the battle flag came to be intimately associated with Strom Thurmond’s 1948 run for the presidency on the Dixiecrat Party ticket and with resistance to the 1954 Supreme Court decision that led to the integration of American public schools. In the public mind, too, it was seen as the chief symbol of the Ku Klux Klan.

Mr. Coski argues that this wasn’t fair. The original KKK of the 19th century did not use the battle flag as an icon. And members of the reconstituted Klan of the 20th century took an oath of allegiance to the Stars and Stripes, the American flag, not the Confederate flag. But thanks to countless photographs in newspapers and on TV, Mr. Coski claims, most Americans cannot think of the KKK without also envisioning the battle flag.

What to do? Mr. Coski describes how the NAACP turned to the flag issue in the 1980s in a period of declining membership and funds. Stirring up anger against the battle flag helped turn the organization around. But regardless of however venal the aim may have been, says Mr. Coski, the flag’s detractors did have a point: The banner does have a checkered past.

In the end, Mr. Coski is equally — and perhaps even more — dismissive of the efforts to have the flag removed from American life. He agrees with flag supporters who say “you can’t erase history.” “Any realistic and practical solution to the flag wars must accept the inevitability of the flag as part of America’s cultural landscape,” he writes. This is a more than reasonable hope.

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