Hauling Down the Confederate Flag

From Elmer Ellsworth to Bree Newsome, Americans have risked life and limb to remove a symbol of a cause they revile.

"The death of Colonel Ellsworth after hauling down the Rebel flag" (Currier & Ives / Library of Congress)

With the Charleston church massacre a memory and the Confederate flag discussion verging on a media circus, there’s now a push to move on to supposedly more important issues, such as poverty and the criminal justice system.

But, as the activist Bree Newsome reminded us recently when she forcibly took down the flag in Columbia, South Carolina, removing the Confederate flag is not a mere distraction. It is, instead, something to be thought about deeply, a provocation that could lead to a fundamental change in cultural attitudes on many issues.

Defenders of displaying the Confederate flag point to history and tradition. But American history records that the defense of that flag has cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans and has made life miserable for many others. Its defenders understand the stakes; they have fought, and even killed, those who have tried to take it down.

On March 5, 1861, on the eve of the Civil War, the earliest version of the Confederate flag—with three bars and a circle of nine stars—first flew over the state house in Montgomery, Alabama, then the Confederate capital. Why was it raised that day? Because on the previous day, March 4, Abraham Lincoln had been inaugurated as president of the United States. Everyone knew that Lincoln loathed slavery. Although he had tried in his inaugural address to stave off war by saying that he would not interfere with slavery where it existed, the South saw him as a wicked abolitionist who would do away with slavery. The flag was meant as a slap in the face for him and all other antislavery Northerners. For the South, Lincoln’s attitude was irrational, unchristian, and in conflict with ethnic science. The Georgia politician Alexander H. Stephens, who as the Confederate vice president helped choose the original Southern flag from over 120 proposed designs, declared that the Confederacy was founded on “the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race--is his natural and normal condition.”

This view was accepted by nearly all Confederates, including the Virginian Minor Lincoln, a distant kinsman of the president who used stationery emblazoned with the Confederate flag to warn Lincoln that “you will get whipped out of your boots” and the Northern troops “will get the spots knocked out of them.” Lincoln’s discomfiture with the Confederate flag was especially intense because one was visible from the White House. It waved in the distance across the Potomac, atop a hotel in Alexandria, Virginia. The flag’s presence was a galling reminder that Washington, D.C., was under the threat of invasion by the Confederates, who boasted that their flag would soon fly over the White House.

Equally appalled by the hotel flag was Lincoln’s young friend Elmer Ellsworth, a Union officer who, in the first major move against the Confederacy, led an incursion into Alexandria on March 24, 1861. Once Ellsworth entered the city, his first decision was to remove the flag. He rushed up the hotel’s stairs to the roof, took down the flag, trampled on it, and descended with it. He was met halfway down by the hotel keeper, who killed him with a shotgun.

Ellsworth became a martyr in the North, where his heroic removal of the flag steeled troops for aggressive action against the Confederacy. “Remember Ellsworth!” was a favorite battlecry among Union soldiers. The stirring marching song about another antislavery martyr, John Brown, was often sung as “Ellsworth’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave, but his soul is marching on.” Ellsworth-themed stationery was used by soldiers: a popular envelope pictured Ellsworth holding the American flag while standing on the Confederate flag.

Lincoln saw the removal of the Confederate flag as an enactment of the North’s mission in the war. In a letter to Elmer Ellsworth’s parents, Lincoln said that their son embodied “the heroic spirit that animates our soldiers, from high to low, in this righteous cause of ours.”

This cause was twofold: to preserve the American Union and to eradicate slavery. On both counts, the Confederate flag was odious to Lincoln, for it stood for a rejection of the United States and for the enslavement of four million black people.

Lincoln had no hostility to the South. Born in Kentucky, he not only had Virginia roots, but he was married to a woman who was from a Southern slaveholding family and who had six close relatives who fought for the Confederacy (though she remained fiercely loyal to her husband’s cause). Lincoln admired the military skills of Southern generals like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. One of his favorite songs was “Dixie.” But he never referred to the Confederacy without using a qualifier like “so-called,” for, in his mind, the Confederacy could not exist under the Constitution. The Confederate flag, therefore, was an empty emblem, a signifier that meant nothing besides slavery and an unlawful rejection of the United States.

And because Confederate flags—the Stars and Bars and battle flags alike —were  goads to rebellion against the U. S.,they had to be removed whenever possible. Throughout the Civil War, one of the first things a Union commander did when he took over a Southern town or fort was to replace the Confederate flag with the Stars and Stripes. Southerners were equally intent on hoisting their flag when they won a victory—most notoriously at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, when General Nathan Bedford Forrest raised the Confederate flag after having slaughtered some three hundred captured African American soldiers on the premise that black people didn’t deserve to be held as war prisoners.

On both sides, color-bearers, holding their flags high, were at the front of battle lines, marching into the jaws of death. And when, as regularly happened, a flag-bearer was killed, a soldier near him would seize the flag and continue forward toward the enemy’s guns. Success in advancing the flag was crucial even in defeat, as at Gettysburg, where during Pickett’s charge the Southern flag was planted behind the Union line in what is referred to as the high water-mark of the Confederacy.

This shared devotion to the flag is inspiring, but the deaths of 750,000 Americans in the Civil War—the equivalent of 8.8 million today—is unthinkably tragic. The bloodbath resulted from the Confederacy’s defiance of the fundamental American principle of human equality. When Lincoln declared in his second inaugural address that everyone knew that slavery was the cause of the war, he was saying what was obvious at the time. As a Georgia editor wrote in 1862, “Negro slavery is the South, and the South is negro slavery.” A Mobile, Alabama journalist insisted that “slavery and the cause must rise or fall together, for they are identical.”

It was this Confederate equation of the South with slavery that the post-Civil War constitutional amendments were intended to destroy. The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, the Fourteenth empowered Congress to prohibit “all badges and incidents of slavery,” and the Fifteenth awarded the vote to black males—the first steps in what would be a long march toward civil rights.

But this march was interrupted during the decades after the Civil War with the rise of the myth of Lost Cause, whereby the horrors of slavery were minimized and an Old South of chivalry, independence, and a noble resistance to tyranny was imagined. The Confederate flag became a favored symbol not only among Lost Cause devotees but among assorted antigovernment activists, all the way down to the Tea Party.

Still, the shadow of racism around the flag lingered. The thirteen men in Pulaski, Tennessee who founded the Ku Klux Klan in December 1865 were all ex-Confederates, including Nathan Bedford Forrest of Fort Pillow fame. Although they fashioned their own triangular flag, the KKK over time became associated with the Confederate flag. The connection between the Klan and the flag was stamped on cultural DNA of generations of Americans by D. W. Griffith’s influential 1915 movie The Birth of a Nation. In this masterful but abhorrent film, a Southern white girl has a Confederate flag wrapped around her waist as she runs in terror from a black man who is allegedly threatening to rape her. The girl falls to her death from a cliff and is found by her brother, who wipes her bloody face with the flag. The brother supervises a Klan lynching of the black man and then leads a ritual in which he dips the blood-stained Confederate flag into water and declares, “Brethren, this flag bears the red stain of the life of a Southern woman, a priceless sacrifice on the altar of an outraged civilization.”

Small wonder that protestors against Griffith’s film destroyed the Confederate flag—or, conversely, that the KKK came to rely on the flag, as did segregationists in general. In 1965, for example, three Klansmen, accused of murdering the freedom rider Viola Liuzzo, waved a Confederate flag at an Alabama rally where they were cheered by a huge crowd of whites. In a contrary gesture, the Harlem preacher A. Kendall Smith in May 1967 was arrested for burning a Confederate flag in protest against its sale and public display; he said that his action was intended to “symbolize the day when black Americans can look forward to the Ku Klux Klan destroying these flags too.”

Has that day come? Perhaps, but only if the flag debate becomes more than just a diversion or a temporary salve to America’s collective conscience. Dylann Roof, the Confederate-flag-holding suspect in the Charleston murders, was chillingly accurate when he wrote in his online manifesto that he was acting in line with American history.

The Confederate flag merits no one’s pride. It and other Confederate emblems should be removed from all public places. More importantly, the Lost Cause itself must be held up to the honest light of history, and revealed to be what it is: a white-supremacist fraud and a profoundly anti-American fairytale.