The Confederate Battle Flag: America's Most Embattled Emblem

Article excerpt

The Confederate Battle Flag: America's Most Embattled Emblem. By John M. Coski. (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005. Pp. xi, 401; $29.95, cloth.)

John M. Coski, historian and library director at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia, describes The Confederate Battle Flag as the culmination of work he began in 1992 for a museum exhibition that asked, "What does the viewer need to know in order to understand the modern debate over the battle flag?" (p. ix). His book-length answer takes that question as a principle of emphasis rather than a principle of organization. Coski does not move from a survey of "the modern debate" (which he shows to be several debates) into a discussion of the aspects calling for contextualization and analysis. Instead, he provides a biography of the battle flag from 1861 to the present. He carefully examines the claims about its history that have been sharply contested over the last fifteen years, but his narrative is most valuable for the wider perspective it offers in tracing the path by which the Confederate battle flag became a symbol prominent enough to sustain such vigorous controversies.

Coski's first few chapters cover ground that recent historians have tilled extensively. He shows in broad and simple terms that the impetus behind secession was a determination to protect the institution of slavery, and he observes that different Confederates at different moments of the war acted on a wide variety of motives and displayed a range of values, many of which were unrelated to slavery. He joins Alice Fahs, Cecelia O'Leary, and especially Robert Bonner in describing the ways in which the Civil War deepened the meanings of battle flags in the United States. He adds detail to the picture provided by Gaines Foster, Nina Silber, David Blight, and John Neff of the ways in which a culture of Civil War remembrance incorporated recognition of the Confederacy into regional and American identity in the half-century after Appomattox. Most important is his conclusion that the St. Andrew's cross circulated fairly little during this period beyond monument dedications, Memorial Day ceremonies, and similar commemorative settings. For example, many Confederate veterans held political office, but few featured the battle flag on campaign buttons or posters.

The next several chapters offer a highly original, fascinating account of the emergence of the flag in popular culture. Coski's wide-ranging research documents social, political, and commercial uses of the battle flag from isolated early instances to the consolidation of an entirely new pattern. Several sources contributed to this development. On southern college campuses, the relationship of the Kappa Alpha Order to its Confederate origins had "assumed the characteristics of modern 'retro' fads" by the 1920s (p. 90), a trend intensified by the popularity of Gone With the Wind as a novel in 1936 and movie in 1939, and the battle flag began to appear at Old South Balls and sporting events. …