‘A symbolic cacophony’: As monuments come down, the unraveling of the rebel flag continues

By: - July 28, 2020 12:01 am

Confederate battle flags were removed from graves at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond in July. (Rex Springston/ For the Virginia Mercury)

When Confederate monuments go down, they go down fast.

The rebel flag, on the other hand, has been pulled apart, thread by thread, for years. And now it’s unraveling fast.

The best-known Confederate symbol, the flag is disappearing from public places — think NASCAR — and could even be endangered in contemplative settings like cemeteries and battlefields, experts say.

“One index to watch will be book covers,” said historian John Coski of Richmond. “Will publishers of books about the Civil War and the Confederacy use Confederate flags on covers, as they have done for decades?

“Another (thing to look for) will be flag displays at Civil War sites and in cemeteries: Will parks and cemeteries prohibit or avoid Confederate flags?”

Indeed, Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond is home to thousands of Confederate graves. Usually the place is a sea of rebel flags, but last week they were gone.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans, a heritage group with about 3,000 members in Virginia, maintains the rebel flags in Hollywood. Andrew Bennett Morehead, a Virginia spokesman for the group, said the flags were removed in early July so they wouldn’t attract vandals who might damage graves.

Morehead said it’s his understanding that the removal will be temporary. A staff member in Hollywood’s office said she also understood the removal to be temporary.

As for the flag’s diminishing presence in general, Morehead said: “It’s cowering to … domestic terrorists inciting riots.”

Working out of the American Civil War Museum in Richmond, Coski is one of the country’s top experts on the flag. He is the author of “The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem.”

Many see the flag as a symbol of slavery and racism — the banner of the Confederacy’s effort to break from the U.S. and create a separate slave-holding republic. Supporters say the flag is an emblem of independence and southern heritage. 

The flag is all those things, Coski said. The trouble is, many people on each side of the debate don’t want to understand their opponents, he added. “They just want their perceptions to rule over all others.”

Protests and public support for racial justice have spread across the country since May 25, when George Floyd died under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. These events are creating the biggest wave against public displays of the Confederate flag since the 2015 killing of nine black people in Charleston, S.C., by a white supremacist who posed with the flag.

“If you had asked me two years ago if Stonewall Jackson’s statue (in Richmond) would be removed anytime soon, the answer would have been ‘no,’ “ said Adam W. Dean, a University of Lynchburg historian. “The same is true with the Mississippi flag decision,” which removed the Confederate emblem from that state’s flag.

The push to scrub public spaces of the rebel flag will probably expand to places like cemeteries, said Dean, who specializes in slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction.

“I think the flag will not be a public symbol for much longer. It, of course, will still be of historical interest and part of museums. … I believe that the practice of putting Confederate battle flags at graves in Hollywood Cemetery will start to fade away, perhaps disappearing in 10 years.” 

The flag has gotten a lot of attention the past few weeks. President Donald Trump defended it. The Pentagon banned it from military bases.  Even the General Lee — the “Dukes of Hazzard” car with a rebel flag on top — came in for renewed criticism and support. 

“The car is innocent,” said Tom Wopat, one of the stars of the TV series.

But is the Confederate flag really innocent? Here are some facts about its past, present and future: 

It’s not what you think it is.

The flag we all know is rectangular with a blue, star-studded, diagonal cross on a field of red. It is often called the Confederate battle flag.  

But it is not the Confederate flag. It is one of several flags the South flew during the Civil War, Coski said.    

It is not even the Confederate battle flag. It’s one of dozens the rebels flew in combat.

Many people say Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army fought under the flag, but that is almost certainly false, Coski said. Lee’s army carried a similar flag, but it was square. 

Late in the war, the rectangular banner became the battle flag of the Confederacy’s other major force, the Army of Tennessee in the western theater of the war. It was also the second Navy Jack, the flag flown from Confederate ships.

Someone hoisted the “Stars and Bars” Confederate flag over a baseball field at Douglas Freeman High School in Henrico last month. (NBC 12)

It is not the “Stars and Bars,” as the first national flag of the Confederacy was known, named for its resemblance to the U.S. flag, the Stars and Stripes. 

The battle flag was never the official flag of the Confederacy. Rather, there were three national, or official, flags.

The rectangular flag was rejected as the national flag, but the square version was incorporated into the cantons, or corners, of the second and third national flags. 

After the Civil War, it was the rectangular flag that caught on with the public.

The flag became synonymous with segregation.

Some Northerners retained an animosity toward the Confederate flag after the war. But as years went by and Southerners fought bravely alongside Northerners in the Spanish-American War and World War I, the flag gained some national acceptance — from Whites. 

The flag kept a fairly low profile well into the 20th century, popping up at southern Memorial Day observations and Confederate veterans’ parades. 

“Occasional northern and African-American voices questioned the wisdom of displaying a flag they associated with disunity or treason,” Coski said. 

The Ku Klux Klan is often linked with the rebel flag — indeed, former Confederates founded the Klan —  but the white-supremacy organization didn’t take up the flag until the 1930s and ‘40s, Coski said. 

The flag burst into prominence in 1948 when the so-called Dixiecrat Party displayed it as a symbol of segregation. White supremacists also wielded the flag during the Civil Rights era of the 1950s and ‘60s.

Beginning in the 1950s, young Whites took up the flag in a fad that swept the South and North. The flag came to represent Confederate heritage, racism, the South and rebellion.

“By the mid-1960s, the Confederate flag was a symbolic cacophony,” Coski said.

Those discordant notes continue today.

Some people still claim the flag solely represents southern heritage, but it’s impossible to separate the flag from the Confederacy’s quest to protect slavery, said Dean.

“There is a narrative out there, even among educated people, that the battle flag was at one point ‘pure’ until it was ‘co-opted’ by the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacists,” Dean said by email. “This is just not true considering the centrality of slavery to secession and the Civil War.”

The flag has been taking fire for a long time.

For a native Virginian it’s hard to believe how far the flag has fallen. You used to find it on the occasional front-yard flagpole, children’s Johnny Reb caps, beach towels, shot glasses. It jumped out at you in roadside convenience stores and Virginia Beach swimsuit shops. A gray-haired, cartoon Confederate saying, “Forget, Hell!” appeared on cigarette lighters and novelties. 

The flag still pops up in the occasional rural yard. But it’s definitely harder to find than it used to be.

Another former “Dukes of Hazzard” star, Ben “Cooter” Jones of Portsmouth, reflected on criticism of the flag a few days ago. “This thing that you talk about didn’t happen until about 15 or 20 years ago,” he said.

That’s not true. Legal and political challenges began in the 1960s, Coski said. “The flag has been in retreat for decades.”

According to a Quinnipiac University poll released this month, 56 percent of those questioned associate the Confederate flag with racism. Thirty-five percent see it more as a symbol of southern pride.

A major turning point for the emblem came in 2015 when a white gunman killed nine people in a Black church in Charleston, S.C. Photos emerged of killer Dylann Roof posing with Confederate flags.

Among other reactions, South Carolina removed the Confederate flag from its statehouse, and retailers including Walmart banished the flag

Coski said the Charleston tragedy hastened the flag’s abandonment by much of Middle America.   

“I think that, after 2015, many Americans who revered and heretofore defended the flag publicly looked in the mirror and saw Dylann Roof staring back at them.”

Dean, the Lynchburg historian, said, “I think that the (current) Black Lives Matter protests and larger movement have been the biggest tipping point (for the Confederate flag) since Charleston.” 

“Due to education efforts over the past 30 years and current activism, people are finally understanding what the Confederacy was about and asking, ‘Why are its symbols continuing to be venerated in public?’”

The Virginia Flaggers hoisted rebel battle flags on Boulevard in Richmond in 2019. (Rex Springston/ For the Virginia Mercury)

The flag still has a hard core of support.

John Whiting, who sells vintage paper items at Antique Village in Hanover County, said demand exploded for old postcards and magazines bearing the Confederate flag when Richmond’s rebel monuments started coming down this summer.  

“It’s hotter than ever,” Whiting said of the flag. “Demand increases with volatile times. …People are buying them — I hear this explanation over and over again — before they are no longer available.”

President Donald Trump defended the flag to CBS News. 

“Well, people love it,” he said, “and I know people that like the Confederate flag, and they’re not thinking about slavery. … I just think it’s freedom of speech, whether it’s Confederate flags or Black Lives Matter or anything else you want to talk about.” 

A group called the Virginia Flaggers has put up Confederate flags in recent years on private property near major highways. In 2011, members began flying rebel flags regularly in front of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond to protest the museum’s removal of flags from the nearby Confederate Memorial Chapel. 

The Flaggers’ Facebook page says: “Flaggers speak for those who have no voice. …Our enemies are those who worship ignorance, historical revisionism and Political Correctness.”

An 8-foot by 8-foot Confederate Battle flag was put up in 2017 along the Chesapeake Expressway by The Virginia Flaggers. (Style Weekly)

The group claims to have hundreds of followers. But the page recently listed no future events, and the Flaggers appear to have paused their museum protests. 

“The last time we recall seeing the Virginia Flaggers protesting near (the museum) was in mid-May,” said Amy Peck, a museum spokesperson. “We don’t know whether the group has ended their protests.”

The Flaggers did not respond to messages seeking comment.  

These colors do fade

Coski, the flag-book author, said, “We’re moving toward a world in which the primary users of the Confederate flag are heritage groups” such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which uses flags mainly at private events, and the Flaggers, who “insist on putting big flags in people’s faces.”

“I think the flag’s  presence will decline to almost nothing, but never reach nothing,” Coski said. “That pattern has been clear for years.” 

How does Coski feel personally about the incredible shrinking Confederate flag?

“I’ve not thought about it,” he said. “After studying  the flag for almost 30 years, I think I’ll be seeing it in my sleep even if I no longer see it in the wider world.”

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Rex Springston
Rex Springston

Rex Springston was a reporter for the Richmond News Leader and The Times-Dispatch for 36 years. He lives in Richmond and contributes reporting on history, wildlife and other topics for the Mercury.