It’s time for a history post, because there is far too much heat coming into this debate from people whose only exposure to the American Civil War, and its causes and effects is what they got in school or from what they heard on the news or strange websites on the Internet. So, a brief history of the Confederate Battle Flag is in order.
Let’s begin by stating what should be patently obvious: the proximate cause of the American Civil War was slavery. Full stop. Everything else, from tariffs to states’ rights to farm vs. factory, is secondary, and oftentimes caused by the slavery issue.
How do we know this? Well, of the original seven ordinances of secession, two of them, Texas and Alabama, specifically mention issues involving slavery, while Virginia’s alone of the last four states to actually secede did. That is only three of the eleven, but look you further. There were also several Declarations of Causes made as well–those of Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas all list slavery as the primary issue involved. So, of the original seven seceding states, five all mention slavery as the primary cause of secession. Florida also had one, but never published it, and while there is economic talk, there’s a lot of slavery talk there. Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina might be able to receive the benefit of the doubt, although support for secession tended to correlate to slaveholding. Louisiana–they didn’t publish anything, but it was one of the epicenters of American chattel slavery. What do you think?
As a side note, by the way, it would be excellent if anyone who is from or whose ancestors were from New England would kindly be silent on the topic of secession. Two words: Hartford Convention.
Anyway, the Confederate Constitution is essentially a copy/paste of the original American one, except with one Presidential term of six years and the direct inclusion of slavery instead of euphemizing it in the hopes that the thing would go away, and explicitly protecting slavery, “negro slavery” in particular. Awkward, that. In fairness to the last four seceding states, they didn’t draft it. They did, however, agree to join it.
Now, here’s the part where things get messy. A lot of Southerners fought for reasons other than slavery, and there’s actually some evidence for this. See Robert E. Lee’s refusal to join until Virginia joined the Confederacy after Lincoln’s post-Fort Sumter call for 75,000 volunteers, after having previously rejected the notion, much as Tennessee did. Which kind of pokes a few holes in the “All for slavery” thing. (Although, again, Upper South vs. Lower South. It’s…complicated. (And some of those holes get patched if you look at the correlation between slavery and secession sentiment.))
Further emphasizing the messiness of this whole thing is the saga of Patrick Cleburne, an Irish immigrant and veteran of the British army, who settled in Arkansas, joined the Confederate army in 1861, and became a major general and division commander by the time of his death in the Battle of Franklin in 1864. He had a good reputation, was an excellent battlefield leader–being the only Confederate general to not have his men go into rout at Chattanooga–and could have become a corps commander…had it not been for a proposal he made in January of 1864 to enlist slaves in the Confederate army with the promise of freedom afterward, seeing as the Confederacy was scraping the bottom of the manpower barrel. This was scotched by Confederate President Jefferson Davis the moment he heard of it on the grounds that it would cause dissension–that Davis was one of the largest slaveowners in Mississippi was a coincidence. That Cleburne did not become a corps commander in the Army of Tennessee, a force close to bereft of gifted leadership at that level, was also purely coincidence.
There’s also the issue that most of the men actually toting rifles and muskets weren’t fighting for any particular reason other than that they believed strange men from far-off places were coming down to their homes to coerce them into compliance with unfair laws–or because they believed that the well-being–by which I mean, the “not starving or trapped under mountains of debt”–of their families was at risk. If that first seems unfair to Northerners, please note that to an Alabama or Mississippi backcountry farmer, Tennessee was a ways off–Massachusetts was barely dreamt of. If the second seems like I’m ignoring the fact that the system they were relying on was an oppressive system of human bondage, you might want to look up a lot of the arguments used in the north against the expansion of slavery–one of the biggest ones was that it messed up opportunities for white people. The vast mass of the people, as per usual, were primarily self-interested, even if it was at others’ expense.
Anyway, in 1865, the Confederacy, after a whole lot of angsting and some very telling remarks by several leading politicians about what they thought the war was about–that is, slavery–finally got around to recruiting some black troops, less than a regiment’s worth, in Richmond months after Cleburne’s death, and months too late to do any good to them. The soldiers never saw action, and were disbanded as the Confederacy crumbled that April. Way to not be racist, guys. Only bring in the black people when it’s literally too late to actually get them onto a battlefield.
Anyway, all of that being provided here basically for context, the flag itself was never the official flag of the Confederacy, although two of the three official flags incorporated it. Instead, it is referred to as the Confederate battle flag because it was the basic design carried by the Army of Northern Virginia, which was the most successful of the Southern armies and the one led by Robert E. Lee (see above) for most of the war. By which I mean it didn’t start losing battles until mid-1863, instead of early 1862. It was developed in order to deal with battlefield confusion caused by the similarity of the first official flag of the Confederacy, the Stars and Bars, to the Stars and Stripes. Given that, on a battlefield, this could have potentially deadly consequences, it was decided that a flag for the battleground would be in order. So one was created, and the blue St. Andrews Cross with white stars on a red field that we all know and love/despise was born. As a side note, the St. Andrews’ cross, interestingly enough, was supposedly chosen in order to mollify Southern Jews and certain Protestants concerned about the religious iconography of a St. George’s cross. Yeah, just because you’re a jerk in one area of your life doesn’t mean you’re a jerk in all of them.
Well, this is running longer than I anticipated, so there will be a part two tomorrow, wherein I discuss the post-Civil War history of the Confederate Battle Flag
‘Til next time,
Lowell Van Ness