Magazine article History Today

The Troubled Resurgence of the Confederate Flag

Magazine article History Today

The Troubled Resurgence of the Confederate Flag

Article excerpt

* Over 125 years after Appomattox, the last casualty of the American Civil War still awaits a final rest.

The emblem of Southern rebellion -- the Confederate battle flag -- soldiers on, pressed back into service for an unlikely cause. Today the 'rebel flag' is a ubiquitous fixture of popular culture, worn on jackets and T-shirts by hundreds of thousands from Honolulu to Moscow and beyond.

Yet the flag's modem impact goes beyond a mere fashion statement. The Confederate banner also contains explosive political connotations that, like long-buried ammunition, can go off without warning. In Southern schools and colleges, racial skirmishes still erupt when white students display the flag. The state of Georgia is even considering removing the Confederate emblem that appears on its state flag, to avoid inciting controversy when Atlanta hosts the 1996 Olympic Games.

How did the emblem of a failed regional insurrection in the nineteenth century become the international pop icon, and racial powderkeg, that it is in the 1990s? Why didn't this battle relic just fade away? In the years after 1865, the flag looked set to do just that. Immediately following the war, the banner was used to symbolise the South's |Lost Cause'. Southerners paid homage to their struggle, but they treated the goal of independence itself as defunct. Accordingly, they declared the Confederate flag to be furled, and symbolically interred it in the pages of history. Around the turn of the century, the sombre Lost Cause tradition became more of a celebration, and the flag's role in it increased. But the emblem was still restricted to Confederate commemorations and veterans' parades. The guardians of the Confederate tradition saw their flag as a sacred tribute to the Confederate dead, and thus they kept it out of popular culture and the political arena. with the advent of the 1940s, however, all that changed.

White Southern soldiers and sailors in the Second World War triggered the first shift in the flag's image. Around the globe, from France and italy to Okinawa and the Solomon Islands, they hoisted the Confederate banner over ships and military bases. The Baltimore Evening Sun reported that these Southerners were honouring the Confederate military tradition -- but there was more to it than that. Southern troops flew the flag, as one naval officer put it, 'to let the Yankees know the Americans south of the Mason-Dixon line are in this war'. Over-represented among the American rank-and-file, white Southern troops used the emblem to assert their presence and express regional pride. They gave the historical symbol a living meaning; in their hands the flag represented not so much the Confederacy or the Southern heritage, but rather the contemporary South.

To be sure, the flag raisings also invoked the Confederate legacy, but not exactly as Lost Cause defenders wished. For there was more than a hint of playfulness about these unreconstructed soldiers pretending to enlist the Confederate Army in the war effort. Even the Sun, while denying the rebel flag displays were |youthful high jinks', had to concede they were 'an amusing gesture'. Significantly, several generations after the solemn consecration of the Lost Cause, young Southern men overseas were toying with the Confederate heritage.

Soon afterwards, their counterparts back home were doing the same. In October 1947, a few fraternity brothers at the University of North Carolina walked into a souvenir shop in Chapel Hill and purchased six Confederate flags the owner was test-marketing. These students stirred up a stadium crowd at their school the next Saturday by waving the flags during a game of American football. A month later, fans from the University of Virginia brought rebel flags north to Philadelphia to cheer their team on against the University of Pennsylvania.

The South may have seen a few isolated incidents of this type before; but only in 1947 did they strike the chord that set off a regionwide reaction. …

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