Flying high at the South Carolina state capitol in Columbia is the Confederate Battle Flag. It is not just in South Carolina. Found throughout the United States is this iconic symbol. It has even found its way to other nations, such as being the flag of the Russian separatists fighting in Ukraine. What is this battle flag? What does it represent? One thing the battle flag is not: the official flag of the Confederate States of America.
The formal and the informal
If the Confederate States of America were to exist today, victor in their aims of independence from the United States during their Civil War, the flag flying at their national capitol in Richmond, and flying at the federal buildings, schools, libraries, et cetera, throughout the Confederacy, would not be the iconic battle flag. Rather, it would be the flag of the nation. This is the formal, official flag of that nation, and during the brief time the Confederacy existed, this flag went through a few changes. For most of its existence, the official national flag was the Stars and Bars. Toward the end of the war, they changed it to the Stainless Banner. During the first battle of the war, at the First Bull Run or First Manassas (note: Civil War battles often have two names; for the Confederacy, they named battles after the closest town, for the Union it was the closest river), the Confederate Army met the Union Army for the first time. Owing to the rookie nature of the new nation, many Confederate Soldiers continued to wear their blue uniforms from their prior service in the United States Army. They also carried their new national flag into battle.
A problem ensued for those looking far afield trying to determine whose troops were whose, and looking at the flags at a distance did not help matters. The Stars and Bars simply looked too similar to the US flag from afar. Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard agreed there was a need for a new flag on the field of battle – a battle flag – clearly distinct from the Stars and Bars, and thus distinct from the Union flag. This new flag would formally represent nothing of the Confederacy, beyond more easily distinguishing Confederate formations on the battlefield.
The Stars and Bars
The flag of the Confederate nation was a simple design, inspired by the preceding flag of the United States. It has a similar blue field in the upper left, with stars for each Confederate state. Where the flag of the United States has thirteen red bars separated by white bars, the Confederate flag reduced this to two red bars, separated by a white bar, filling out the remainder of the flag. This similarity is what caused problems on the battlefield.
The Battle Flag
Today many say the Confederate Battle flag is the St. Andrews Cross, the Christian symbol found on the flag of Scotland, and, combined with the flag of Northern Ireland and the flag of England, forms the flag of the United Kingdom. This is a revisionist view coming after the design was implemented. Rather, the saltire on the Confederate flag means nothing beyond it not being mistook for a symbol of religion. The irony is heavy here, given the Southern propensity for religious zeal and its earned moniker of the Bible Belt. The first proposed battle flag included a cross design. Seen as being something that could be mistaken as a religious symbol, and with the Confederacy, like the United States, being a nation of religious freedom, Beauregard and the Confederate government overtly rejected the cross design on these grounds. They instead chose the saltire, which is the iconic "X" seen on the battle flag, in place of the cross. Additionally, they affixed stars representing each state with a Confederate government, and as a result, the number of stars increased over the first months and years of the war as secessionist governments grew, eventually topping out at thirteen.
The Stainless Banner
In the final years of the war, the Confederate government changed their national flag to the Stainless Banner. This was a "stainless" white flag, with the more iconic battle flag in the upper left, in place of the former blue field with stars. Perceived as the white flag of surrender, they quickly stained it with a large red field covering the right-hand side of the flag.
The former Confederate States
After the war, and especially during a reactionary moment during the American Civil Rights movement in the nineteen-fifties, former Confederate states adopted state flags inspired by one of more of the Confederate flag variants. Some were overt, like the flags of Mississippi and Georgia, which included the entirety of the Confederate Battle Flag. Other were more subtle, such as including only the saltire from the battle flag, or St. Andrews Cross depending on revisionist perspective, and the white of the Stainless Banner, such as Alabama and Florida.
The politics of the flag
The battle flag, carried by the Confederate troops themselves, became the most popularly used symbol of the Confederacy. The Ku Klux Klan, a US domestic terrorist organization, has used the symbol since its founding. The Klan was originally a paramilitary organization seeking to continue the Civil War as a guerrilla war. In addition to attacking Union soldiers it viewed as occupiers, it also began focusing attention on the defenseless – murdering and terrorizing newly freed slaves. The organization went through numerous modifications over the years, but always used the Confederate Battle Flag as its chief symbol, both of the organization and of its Confederate lineage. For a time during the Lost Cause revival, launched principally by the sweeping silent film epic, Birth of a Nation, many adopted the Lost Cause rhetoric and fantastic ideals of the antebellum South, and applied those idealized views in government, including flag changes, the erection of memorials, and other things to laud the defeated Confederacy. In any event, for a large segment of the American public, owing to such heavy use of the battle flag rather than the official flag of the Confederacy by the Ku Klux Klan and oppressive local governments, it was and is seen as little more than the symbol of slavery, oppression, terror, rape, and murder.
In Georgia, a long political movement eventually developed seeking to change the flag, viewing the prominence of the battle flag as offensive, particularly to the African American community. Statewide referendums occurred from time to time, with much of Georgia voting to retain the battle flag, and much of Atlanta voting to change it. The change vote grew, but never gained enough votes for victory. A governor, Roy Barnes, changed the flag on his own, to an unpopular flag-by-committee. The critical thing was removal of the battle flag, and including it only as part of the old state flag design. His challenger in the next election, Sonny Perdue, ran essentially a single-issue campaign, promising to change the flag back. He won, becoming the first Republican governor of Georgia since the Reconstruction Era.
However, rather than changing the flag back, including a symbol all know well, he instead changed it to the official Confederate national flag. He seems to have correctly assumed few in Atlanta would notice, perhaps from ignorance after so many years of conflation of the two flags. The Confederate sympathizers in the rest of Georgia would know what happened, and are seemingly satisfied having the Confederacy so well and prominently represented on their flag. This political issue of the flag was resolved.
In South Carolina, home of the first secessionist movement leading to Civil War, the Confederate Battle Flag flew above its capitol, remaining until only a few years ago. A political fight grew, eventually leading to its removal off the capitol building itself, and relocation to a Confederate memorial, though still located on the capitol grounds. Many remain unsatisfied with a symbol widely perceived as that of insurrection and slavery remaining on capitol grounds, and thus remains a political fight over it.
The state of Mississippi is the only state remaining that still includes the battle flag on its state flag. The politics of this is less intense than it was in Georgia, a growing and cosmopolitan state. Mississippi remains less urbanized and less an attractive home for media, finance, technology, and similar, and the corresponding migration such would bring. This, and perhaps voter disenfranchisement, may be why it has yet to become a major political issue there.
Ignorance of Confederate iconography
Many of the remaining former Confederate States have less commonly known Confederate inspiration in their flags. As noted before is Alabama and Florida. The states of Arkansas and Tennessee use the Confederate color palette, and are essentially modified battle flags. Designed by a Confederate soldier, the North Carolina flag, like Georgia, is the Confederate Stars and Bars, if one were to lob off the bottom red bar. Of the eleven former Confederate states, only Texas, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Virginia lack Confederacy-inspired flags. Certainly, none of them, sans Mississippi, formally define their flags in such terms; rather they have other more politically palatable reasons for what the designs mean or reference. A review of when these flags were adopted, who designed them, and the record of what was said by legislators at the time of the adoption, are what one needs, beyond eyeballs, to find where the genuine inspiration comes from.
Will more flag changes come?
There is a lot of political attention on the overt and widely known symbol, like the battle flag flying in South Carolina. I suspect that the Mississippi flag, given it is so blatant, will someday receive greater political attention for change. For the remainder, it seems unlikely. Too few are aware of such things. There is just enough plausible deniability making it a hard case to both make while being persuasive enough to win. Many white Southerners take pride in and honor their ancestors, which is entirely understandable. Many of them consider the Confederate symbolism just, in spite of being representative of a terrible legacy in US history. They may decouple the two, and honor their ancestors while acknowledging the sin. However, it seems, at least to this cat, that if many humans are offended by the battle flag, which represented, at least at the time, only those fighting in the Confederate Army, most of whom being conscripted, they should be more offended by the flag of the government that conscripted those men to fight for the preservation slavery. That Georgia gets a political victory and praise of doing the right thing for changing their flag from the offending battle flag to the Confederate flag itself, is mystifying to me. The only reason, I can conclude, is just ignorance of Confederate symbolism. When people note a lone Confederate battle flag flies in Columbia, South Carolina, you might respond, yes, but the Confederate flag flies all over Georgia!