Serious students of the war should ignore such irrelevant distractions

In find the “flagger” phenomenon and the response it has inspired among some serious students of the Civil War equally puzzling. As with those who embrace the fantasy that thousands of black men “served” in the Confederate army, flaggers seek, among other things, to get the Confederacy right on the topics of race and slavery. The St. Andrew’s cross banner, they claim, should evoke appreciation for Southern “heritage” and heroism in a doomed but praiseworthy struggle against hordes of Yankee invaders. It should not, they insist, be treated as the most iconic symbol of what became a blood-soaked effort to establish a slaveholding republic. These claims have provoked reactions from scholars and others who, in my view, bring a good deal of unwarranted attention to something that otherwise would be consigned to the irrelevant fringe of Civil War interests.

Before moving on to discuss the flaggers and slavery, I want to address their unhappiness with efforts to yoke Confederates to Nazis. I believe comparisons of the Confederacy and Adolf Hitler’s Germany lack any appreciation of historical context. However repellent slavery is to our sensibilities, the Confederacy was not “just like Nazi Germany”—to claim it was drains all meaning from the systematic extermination of 6 million Jews and millions of other “inferior” people and an array of additional heinous policies and actions of Hitler’s government. Nothing is easier than portraying people from earlier eras as benighted (Americans in 50 or 100 years surely will view us as thoroughly wrongheaded on many issues), and I find it understandable that flaggers bridle at retrospective attempts to portray all Confederates as monsters.

But the effort to play down slavery in the flaggers’ portrait of the Confederacy runs aground on the solid rock of historical evidence. Anyone dealing honestly with testimony from the secession crisis and the war, as opposed to postwar efforts by ex-Confederates to rewrite the history of the conflict, must accept the absolute centrality of slavery. So also must they concede that the Confederate flag—whether the “Stars and Bars,” the square St. Andrew’s cross battle flag or the rectangular St. Andrew’s cross naval jack (the last often confused with one or both of the first two by the uninformed)—represented a nation overtly and proudly connected to the peculiar institution. To talk about the Confederate flag’s historical meaning without linking it to the slavery-­based society that created it is tantamount to discussing the great natural wonders of Arizona without mentioning the Grand Canyon.

Several years ago, in my second “Blue & Gray” column, I used passages from Alexander H. Stephens’ “Cornerstone Speech” and “A Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union” to demonstrate how forthrightly white Southerners acknowledged slavery’s importance in 1861. I will quote from two other prominent witnesses here. On April 29, 1861, Jefferson Davis justified secession in a message to the Confederate Congress. The Republican Party’s goal of barring slavery from federal territories would render “property in slaves so insecure as to be comparatively worthless” and thereby annihilate “in effect property worth thousands of millions dollars.” Confronted with this threat to “interests of such overwhelming magnitude,” argued Davis, “…the people of the Southern States were driven by the conduct of the North to the adoption of some course of action to avert the danger with which they were openly menaced.”

Robert E. Lee’s reaction to the Emancipation Proclamation reminds us that the white South relied on slavery to maintain racial and social control in a nation with a black population numbering more than 3.5 million. “In view of the vast increase of the forces of the enemy,” Lee wrote with obvious agitation to Secretary of War James A. Seddon on January 10, 1863, “of the savage and brutal policy he has proclaimed, which leaves us no alternative but success or degradation worse than death, if we would save the honor of our families from pollution, our social system from destruction, let every effort be made, every means employed, to fill and maintain the ranks of our armies, until God, in His mercy, shall bless us with the establishment of our independence.”

Long experience has convinced me that offering testimony such as Stephens’, Davis’ and Lee’s—or language from the Confederate Constitution—has no impact on those who argue that states’ rights or economic interests or something else, anything but slavery, fueled secession and the Confederate founding. The futility of trying to engage such people in a discussion about evidence prompts my inability to understand why any histo­rians take flaggers seriously. This is not a debate that can be won on the merits, as historians who write and speak about the Civil War era know very well; indeed, because evidence means nothing to individuals who prefer their Confederacy cleansed of the taint of slavery, it cannot be won at all.

Just as logic and unimpeachable historical testimony will not sway flaggers, it is crucial to recognize that flaggers have almost no impact on anyone who knows anything about the Civil War. In the fall of 2013, perhaps 200–300 flaggers erected a large Confederate standard along Interstate 95 a few miles outside Richmond. “The flag will serve to welcome visitors and commuters to Richmond,” remarked one optimistic enthusiast, “and remind them of our honorable Confederate history and heritage.” This event, insignificant by any yardstick, nonetheless attracted considerable coverage from news­papers and blogs—which in turn raised the question in my mind: Why bring so much attention to something of no importance?

Flaggers revel in a sense of confronting powerful opponents in support of their forebears who resisted Union power. “We are Southern Flaggers,” declares one of their Internet sites, “Made from steel of Southron blood. As our ancestors stood against overwhelming odds, we too stand, defending our heroes, flags and heritage.” Flaggers need critics to heighten their sense of purpose. Why any historians would oblige them escapes me.