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.”