Learning tolerance under the Battle Flag

J. Earle Bowden

Please, Politically Correct police, I confess: The second-most popular flag in the United States is the long-retired, politically incorrect Battle Flag of the Confederate States of America.

"What?" the police ask, threatening jail. "Pensacola rightly chose the Confederacy’s first national banner long ago; the Stars and Bars are historically correct. Starting another war?"

No, but flag wars — intensifying in the civil rights crusade of the last half of the 20th century — never end. Today, of course, 142 years after the Appomattox surrender, many civil-rights leaders heap George W. Bush-level hate on the flag Southern soldiers of the 1860s loved and furled as destined defeat shadowed their long retreat.

No symbol in American history floods more emotion and angst on American values, character and racial divisiveness than the St. Andrews Cross banner that Robert E. Lee’s thin gray line of Southerners furled at Appomattox.

The old soldiers gently consigned their adopted, but unofficial, flag to history and museums. Tired of war, they went home to plow and harvest; they would revere the Battle Flag and official National Confederate flags and pledge allegiance to the Stars and Stripes.

Regardless of how we may today perceive the national calamity, the American Civil War stitched together two nations into the United States. They would leave the tattered old flag for later generations to transform a war emblem from the dust bin of history into a much-maligned symbol that destroyed Southerners’ original war cry that they were fighting for their homeland in the second American Revolution.

A dispassionate history by Richmond historian John M. Coski, "The Confederate Battle Flag, America’s Most Embattled Emblem," catalogs many controversies, changing attitudes and myths with love/hate intensity over the contested symbol.

Given the unofficial flag’s place in American history, the Battle Flag is still everywhere: on clothing, waving from windows, adorning T-shirts, pickup trucks, college campuses, with combat troops in every foreign war, and decorating merchandise worldwide. Some dissents across the globe resurrect the banner in pursuit of freedom.

The Dixie emblem even hangs in a garage in a private New York state hunting club where Vice President Dick Cheney was hunting. Cheney probably never saw the small flag; but the incident was enough to enrage Al Sharpton: "It’s appalling, for the VP to be at a private club displaying the flag of lynching, hate and murder."

No doubt anger boils from those seeing a KKK symbol of racial injustice; others resent the fact that Southerners of the 1860s are branded traitors and that the Battle Flag is as evil as Nazi symbolism. Many see a flag of rich Southern heritage.

Rather than censorship and a constant bombardment of hatred, the flag should remain an essential link to a cherished past. And Coski reveals the flag’s many conflicting meanings. Presidential candidates in recent elections condemn public display; many frustrated Southerners quietly endure unnecessary insults on their ancestry.

I assisted Coski with the Pensacola controversy; the author rightly concludes the City of Pensacola replaced the Battle Flag in the Five Flags galaxy with the Stars and Bars only for historic purposes.

Coski sees the ever-popular artifact of pride, fear, anger, nostalgia and disgust ultimately providing Americans with common ground for a shared and complex history. By knowing flag history and the misused political propaganda symbolism, I hope Coski’s revelations will teach basic American tolerance.

Copyright © 2007 The Pensacola News Journal.

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