Spotlight on History: The Confederate Battle Flag

Special to the Daily Light

For the average non-Southerner, the continued affection residents of the South display toward the controversial Battle Flag can be baffling. If other Americans are so incensed by the banner, why not just fold it up and put it away? Why indeed? The war has been over for 150 years.

Can a symbol so emotionally charged ever be mutually understood?  The very same symbol means completely different things to different people. Many hate groups have gravitated toward the historical flag. However, these very same groups also use other symbols that are loved and cherished by millions of people.

The pinnacle of the Ku Klux Klan was in the 1920s. They boasted over a million members with national leadership in Ohio and Illinois.

The most careful photographic scrutiny of the era will fail to reveal a single Confederate flag. One will however find the American flag and the Christian cross in profusion.

Patriotic Americans and Christians already have a context for these symbols. The icons cannot be co-opted because they already mean something else.

This is also precisely why Southerners continue to love the Battle flag in the face of so much bad publicity. The flag already has meaning and context.

The Battle flag did not make its appearance in its recognizable form until 1862, yet some of the design elements date to antiquity. The “X” is the cross of St. Andrew. It was the fisherman Andrew who introduced his brother Simon Peter to Jesus in Galilee 2000 years ago.

When the disciple Andrew was himself martyred years later he asked not to be crucified on the same type of cross Christ died upon. His last request was honored and he was put to death on a cross on the shape of the “X.”

Andrew later became the patron saint of Scotland and the Scottish flag today is the white St. Andrews cross on a blue field. When Scottish immigrants settled in Northern Ireland in the 1600s, the cross was retained on their new flag, albeit a red St. Andrews cross on a white field.

When the New World opened up, landless Scots and Ulster-Scots left their homes and most of them settled in the South, preserving their old culture in the isolated rural and frontier environment. 

Fully 75 percent of the early South was populated by these Celts.  Most sold themselves into indentured servitude because they could not afford the cost of passage, thus becoming the first American slaves.

The lowland English of Saxon descent by contrast settled the Northeastern colonies. This imbued those colonies with such an English character they are still known as New England. 

These Northern descendants could not have been more different from their Southern countrymen. Many historians believe the longstanding historical animosities between Saxon and Celt did not bode well for the new country. With this historical perspective the St. Andrews cross seems almost destined to be raised again as ancient rivals clashed on new battlefields.

From this Celtic stock, the ingredients that made the unique Southern stew were gradually introduced.

The American Revolution unleashed Celtic hatred of the redcoat. Southerners penned the Declaration of Independence, chased the British through the Carolinas and defeated them at Yorktown.

However, they were dismayed when New England immediately sought renewed trade with England and failed to support the French in their own revolution.

Another Virginian later crafted the Constitution, a document as sacred to Southerners as their Bibles. Law, they believed finally checkmated tyranny. The 13-starred banner was their new cherished flag. These same features would later become a permanent part of the Battle Flag.

But all was not well with the new republic. Mistrust between the regions manifested even before the revolution was over. The unwieldy Articles of Confederation preceded the constitution.

Two of the former colonies (North Carolina and Rhode Island) to be coerced into approving the latter document after wrangling that included northern insistence they be allowed to continue the slave trade another 20 years.

Virginia and Kentucky passed resolutions in 1796 asserting their belief that political divorce was an explicit right. Massachusetts threatened on three separate occasions to secede, a right affirmed by all the New England states at the 1818 Hartford convention.

The abolitionists were champions of secession and would burn copies of the constitution at their rallies. Their vicious attacks upon all things Southern occurring as it did in the midst of Northern political and economic ascendancy animated Southern secessionists years before the average Southerner could consider such a possibility.

By 1860, the United States was in reality two countries living miserably under one flag. When war broke out, Dixie’s’ original banner so resembled the old American forebear that a new flag was needed to prevent confusion on the field of battle.

The blue St. Andrews cross, trimmed in white on a red field appeared above the defending Confederate army. Thirteen stars appeared on those bars representing the 11 seceding states and revolutionary precedent.

These fighting units were all recruited from the same communities, with lifelong friends and close relatives among the casualties of every battle. As they buried their dead friends and relatives, the names of those battles were painted or stitched on their flags.

At Appomattox a Union observer wrote, they were stoic as they stacked their arms but wept bitterly when they had to furl their flags.

Then, as now, the flag symbolizes for Southerners not hate but love; love of heritage, love of faith, love of constitutional protections, love of family and community.

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