In order to understand and fully appreciate the meaning and heritage of the Confederate Battle Flag it is necessary to reach back far into history and then come forward to the battlefields of its fame. Finally we must visit the hallowed resting-places of the fallen and of the veterans of that historic struggle.
The salient design feature of the Battle Flag is its diagonal cross or saltier. This has for many centuries been a preeminent Christian symbol. The Southern Cross or Confederate Battle Flag with its white trimmed blue diagonal on a red field is a descendent of the Scottish St. Andrews Cross. As we shall see, it was meant to be a preeminently Christian self-identification of the Southern people.
Confederate/former U.S. Congressman William Miles, the principal designer and sponsor of the flag wrote to a friend in the summer of 1861 that:
“The flag should be a token of humble acknowledgement of God and be a public testimony to the world that our trust is in the Lord our God.”
It was initially used only as the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia but eventually spread to most Confederate Army units. The Christian symbolism of the flag was widely understood by Confederate soldiers and the Southern people. That is why they frequently referred to it as “our Southern Cross.”
As celebrated Southern historian, Shelby Foote, has said, it also came to stand for Law, in the sense of a government of Law rather than a government subject to the whim of tyrants or majorities. In that regard it stood for a strict rather than opportunistic interpretation of Law and Constitution. It also came to be a symbol of defiance against tyranny and the right of a free people to determine their own destiny. This may be one of its most enduring meanings. The Confederate Battle Flag has been seen all over the world in this regard, on the Berlin Wall, and in the capitals of the Baltic republics and Eastern Europe, wherever free people must resist tyranny and the modern scourge of political correctness. It stood for limited government and States Rights against the dangers of concentrated and centralized power. It stood for the principles of the constitutional federal republic of 1787 that the South felt were threatened by Northern political philosophies and economic ambitions. It stood for the Rights gained and blood-sacrifices their forefathers had made in the Revolutionary War. If there was one word used more often than any other in the secession conventions, it was “Honor.” The Confederate Battle Flag came to signify the honor of the Confederate soldier and the Southern people. It has come to symbolize the South itself with all its culture. These are not dead issues. More than anything it must forever symbolize the sacrifice of fallen Confederate soldiers on the battlefields of their War for Southern Independence and also to the veterans of those fields of honor.
The Confederate Battle Flag is frequently slandered and treated with contempt by those who have uncritically accepted the prevailing perversion of Civil War history. Those who have broken the chains of political correctness and unsnarled the many decades of propaganda justifying that war come to a different conclusion.
There are those who say that the display of the Confederate Battle Flag is insensitive. They say it is a symbol of slavery and offends many people. But their offense is based on ignorance of its true origin and history. Their offense is based on decades of unquestioned propaganda attempting to justify an unjust war and its deplorable tyranny and conduct. The men who carried the Southern Cross into battle never meant it to be a symbol of slavery. Their letters and diaries prove it was far from their minds. Not many of them owned slaves or favored its continued existence for very long in the future. Less than 25% of Southern households owned slaves. So far as slavery was concerned, they only wanted the right to deal with it in their own way in their own time state by state, just as the Northern states, all of which had slavery in 1776, had done. The Union Army did not invade the South to free slaves. They invaded the South to prevent its political and economic independence. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation for slaves came after more than 19 months of war and did not actually free any slave in Union held territory. It was done as a war measure in hopes of causing disorder in the South. Only later was the slavery issue used in an attempt to give tyranny a pious justification.
The right to define the meaning of the Confederate Battle Flag or any flag belongs to those who by their history and shed blood own its heritage. Radical and lawless groups often display the United States flag, but this does not change its true meaning to fair-minded people. Nor should fair-minded people rightly associate the Confederate Battle Flag with evil because the very same groups expropriate and display it. Groups such as the NAACP and SPLC have no right to define the meaning of Confederate flags any more than the French have the right to define the meaning of the Italian flag or any flag but their own. Redefining and slandering someone else’s heritage and symbols is incredibly arrogant and stirs up needless strife. Honorable people pursuing a just and civil society do not seek to dishonor and marginalize the heritage and symbols of others.
The iron chains of political correctness have so enslaved our academic, media, and political spheres of interest in America that a false narrative of American history, especially of the “Civil” War and Reconstruction, increasingly dominates our culture and closes off all knowledge, reason, and truth of that era with Stalinist rigor. In that false narrative, the sectional tensions over slavery have been exaggerated in order to eclipse constitutional, economic, cultural, and taxation issues that were far more important to both sides than slavery. In fact, the slavery question was much more focused on the possible extension of slave labor to new states and territories than on the moral question of slavery.
How did the role of slavery become so distorted and exaggerated as a cause of the “Civil War”? In the words of President Woodrow Wilson:
“It was necessary to put the South at a moral disadvantage by transforming the contest from a war waged against states fighting for their independence into a war waged against States fighting for the maintenance and extension of slavery…”
Writing in December of 1861 in a London weekly publication, the famous English author, Charles Dickens, who was a strong opponent of slavery, said this about the war going on in America:
“The Northern onslaught upon slavery is no more than a piece of specious humbug disguised to conceal its desire for economic control of the United States.”
Karl Marx, like most European socialists of the time, favored the North. In an 1861 article published in England, he articulated very well what the major British newspapers, the Times, the Economist, and Saturday Review, had been saying:
“The war between the North and South is a tariff war. The war, is further, not for any principle, does not touch the question of slavery, and in fact turns on the Northern lust for power.”
The historical facts demolish the propagandistic morality play that a virtuous North invaded the evil South to free the slaves. Five years after the end of the War, prominent Northern abolitionist attorney and legal scholar, Lysander Spooner, summed it up this way:
“All these cries of having ‘abolished slavery,’ of having ‘saved the country,’ of having ‘preserved the Union,’ of establishing a ‘government of consent,’ and of ‘maintaining the national honor’ are all gross, shameless, transparent cheats—so transparent that they ought to deceive no one.”
Yet apparently many today are still deceived and even prefer to be deceived. This includes prominent “conservative “celebrity commentators on Fox News, a Southern Governor, and many other political and media leaders who know only the politically correct official party line (of both parties). If they ever do their homework on the “War” and Reconstruction, they will be terribly embarrassed by their present ill-informed, self-righteous moral blustering. Which of the blustering critics of the Confederate cause has ever even heard of the Morrill Tariff or its unjust and shamelessly exploitive predecessors?
The murder of nine blacks (or people of any color) in a church (or elsewhere) is an inexcusable and demented crime, and the guilty should be punished. But it is not justification for vilifying a people or their history, especially with ignorant and hateful lies. If more Americans knew the real history of the “Civil War,” the Confederate Battle Flag would be honored everywhere rather than falsely vilified.
Leonard M. (Mike) Scruggs is the author of The UN-Civil War: Shattering the Historical Myths, Universal Media, Asheville, 2011.