The Confederate Battle Flag: America's Most Embattled Emblem

Article excerpt

The Confederate Battle Flag: America's Most Embattled Emblem John M. Coski. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006.

This book traces the evolution of the Confederate battle flag in American history and politics both in terms of it being a "widely and carelessly used symbol" (97) as well as an emblem "born of and nurtured by American impulses ..." that "is not therefore simply going to disappear" (293). John Coski, the Library Director of the Museum of the Confederacy, has written this book to be "explicitly relativist" (viii). Rather than a polemic against the flag or a defense of it, this well argued, clearly written, and impeccably researched book presents the evolving historical context of the battle flag in order to elucidate what the symbol has meant to different people at different times. Coski maintains an admirable emotional detachment from the flag and fairness in his presentation of historical and contemporary events. This strengthens his approach and lends credence to his argument about the appropriate place and limits of display in the modern United States, where he believes "Confederate national flags belong in publicly sponsored displays of historical flags, just as they do not belong on contemporary symbols of sovereignty" (303).

Part one of the book traces the use, emotional power, and "symbolic triumph" (19) of the battle flag during and after the Civil War, when it was regarded as the unifying symbol of the Confederacy and a vigorous symbol of postwar Southern pride, honor, defiance, and memory. The Stars and Bars initially approved by the Confederate Provisional Congress as the national flag was a design of three stripes with a circle of stars in the upper left corner, not the more familiar flag that is wrongly referred to today as the Confederate flag. That alternative flag featured a diagonal St. Andrews cross design introduced by William Porcher Milnes of South Carolina, who wanted a truly distinctive flag from that of the Union. Introduced on November 28, 1861, to the Army of Northern Virginia, the St. Andrews cross was used as a battle flag through the war. Coski credits its rapid adoption and diffusion through the Southern armies to Brigadier Generals P.G.T. Beauregard and Joseph E. Johnston. The many associations of the battle flag with the battlefield successes of Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia solidified its dominance. The Confederate navy used it exclusively, although there remained numerous flags in the western Confederate commands.

Coski examines the thorny connections between the battle flag and the question of the Southern defense of slavery, an ongoing historical and political controversy that lends the flag such continued potency in the American mind. He offers a balanced discussion of the combination of Southern sense of the legitimacy of secession and the defense of home against invasion with the unassailable truths that the South was fighting in defense of slavery and that the battle flag is therefore "inherently associated with slavery" (26).

However, the flag also had other meanings and great resonance in Southern culture. Coski details the powerful symbolic and practical roles of the flag in battle, during Reconstruction, and during the surge of Southern veneration, remembrance, and celebration of the war and its heroes at the turn of the twentieth century. …


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