The controversy over the flying of the Confederate flag at the South Carolina state capitol begins with secession. That history winds from the first raising of the Confederate flag to the Charleston massacre. While defenders of the Confederate flag exalt it as an emblem of regional “heritage,” it was designed as the ensign of a slaveholders’ republic, revived a century later as the symbol of massive resistance to civil rights, and became an iconic code for the Republicans’ Southern strategy.
“We stood on the balcony to see our Confederate flag go up. Roars of cannon, &c&c,” wrote Mary Chesnut in her diary on March 5, 1861. It was the day after Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration in Washington. Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president, chivalrously gave the honor of raising the flag for the first time to a figure of exalted Southern womanhood, Letitia Christian Tyler. She was the granddaughter of former President John Tyler of Virginia, himself a supporter of the Confederate cause. “My heart beat with wild joy and excitement,” Tyler later recalled in Confederate Veteran. The band played “Massa Is Buried in the Cold, Cold Ground.”
Mary was the wife of James Chesnut, a slaveholder from South Carolina just appointed the Confederate Secretary of the Navy. She recorded the intimate life of the Confederacy’s inner circle in her diary. She was in Montgomery for the swearing in of the new government. The day before, after socializing with members of the cabinet, she had walked outside: “So I have seen a negro woman sold—up on the block—at auction … She was a bright mulatto with a pleasant face. She was magnificently gotten up in silks and satins.”
On December 27, 1860, Major Robert Anderson evacuated the U.S. force from Fort Moultrie in Charleston Harbor to Fort Sumter, spiking the guns and cutting down the flagpole. “No other flag but the Stars and Stripes shall ever float from that staff,” he said. Early in the morning on April 14, 1861, James Chesnut gave the order for the first shot to be fired at Fort Sumter. When Anderson surrendered, South Carolina’s Governor Francis W. Pickens, who had introduced the Ordinance of Secession, proclaimed, “I can here say to you it is the first time in the history of this country that the stars and stripes have been humbled. That flag has never before been lowered before any nation on this earth. But today it has been humbled, and humbled before the glorious little State of South Carolina.” “Our flag,” recorded Mary Chesnut, “is flying there.”
Less than a week later, on April 20, Major Anderson appeared at a patriotic rally attended by about 100,000 people in New York City’s Union Square, waving the tattered American flag that had flown over Fort Sumter. “Broadway,” reported the New York Herald, “was almost hidden in a cloud of flaggery.” Anderson toured from city to city, symbolically auctioning the flag for the Union cause.
General William Tecumseh Sherman, marching through South Carolina after conquering* Savannah, captured Charleston on February 18, 1865 “by turning his back on it,” according to Anderson. The first Union soldiers to enter the seat of secession were from the 21st U.S. Colored Troops.
President Lincoln sent orders that Anderson was to lead a delegation to raise “the SAME United States flag” over Fort Sumter that was lowered on the exact date four years earlier. Lincoln approved an entourage including abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison, the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, and the British antislavery crusader George Thompson. It also included Robert Vesey, whose father Denmark had co-founded Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church before leading an abortive slave insurrection. That evening, after the flag-raising ceremony, thousands of newly freed slaves marched about singing “John’s Brown Body” and carried Garrison on their shoulders. They were unaware that Lincoln was being assassinated.
In 1988, Lee Atwater, the tactician of racial politics in a very different Republican Party, gave me a tour of the State House at Columbia, South Carolina. I was there as a reporter for the Washington Post. Standing in the rotunda under the dome he showed off the monumental statute of John C. Calhoun, godfather of secession, and then pointed out the window to the Confederate flag. It had been flying there since 1962, an emblem of resistance to the civil rights movement.
“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger,’” Atwater had explained to the political scientist Alexanders Lamis back in 1981. “By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes …”
Atwater wrote some words in my notebook—“establishment” and “populism”—and explained how he used a racially coded “populism” against the “establishment” of liberal government. This was “populism” as old as Ben Tillman’s Red Shirts militia that violently overthrew Reconstruction and imposed Jim Crow. (A large statue of the racist crusader Tillman, who became governor and senator, is planted in front of the State House.)
“I know how to play it,” he told me, twanging on an air guitar. Soon, he would help win the presidency for George H.W. Bush, turning Willie Horton, a black rapist, into Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis’ “running mate,” as he put it. In 2000, George W. Bush won the decisive South Carolina primary over John McCain partly by defending the flying of the Confederate flag on the grounds of states’ rights.
On June 17, 2015, at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church, 21-year-old Dylann Roof attended a prayer meeting and systematically murdered nine parishioners. “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country,” he explained. “And you have to go.” Four days later, Governor Nikki Haley finally agreed that it was time to lower the Confederate flag over the State House. Now, 150 years after the flag was raised again at Fort Sumter, only the flag of the United States may fly at the South Carolina Capitol.