The Confederate Flag: Symbol of Valor on Behalf of a Bad Cause

Mackubin T. Owens

March 1, 2000

It is a simple but elegant banner: a blue St. Andrew’s cross, trimmed in white with 13 white stars, on a red background. It still stirs the passions as much as it did nearly a century and a half ago. It is the Confederate battle flag.

This banner, which flies over the South Carolina capitol (and is explicitly incorporated into the state flags of Mississippi and Georgia), became a matter of presidential politics during the period leading up to that state’s recent presidential primary. Debate has not been limited to South Carolina. Everyone, far and near, seems to have an opinion about the flag.
Indeed, it has become grist for the mill of Northern as well as Southern newspapers.

Why all the fuss? A reasonable person might argue that the whole affair is much ado about nothing, a needless distraction from the questions that should concern primary voters. As Al Gore’s recent denunciation of “Confederate flag-waving Republicans” demonstrates, the topic has been raised primarily to embarrass the Republican candidates. It is nonetheless important because of what the debate says about us as a people.

To its detractors, including many, if not most, African-Americans, the Confederate battle flag is a symbol of racism and oppression. To its defenders, the same flag is a symbol of valor against overwhelming odds on behalf of a noble but hopeless cause. In other words, the Confederate battle flag has become a mirror for America. Reflecting on this requires that we avoid the twin extremes of either romanticizing the South or demonizing it.

Opponents rightly criticize what might be called the “moonlight and magnolias” view of the ante-bellum South, exemplified by Margaret Mitchell’s novel, Gone with the Wind, and the movie of the same name. This is a romanticized version of the “Lost Cause” interpretation of the Civil War. According to this view, the Confederacy fought for a noble cause—not slavery, but freedom from the oppressive power of the central national government. Southern patriots were the true heirs of the American Revolution but their cause was doomed from the start because of the immense disparity in resources between the South and the industrialized and populous North.

I was raised in this tradition. My forebears were Texans and Marylanders who fought for the Confederacy. In our household, the battle flag symbolized the valor shown by Southerners, most of whom did not own slaves, on countless battlefields.

But while the part of the Lost Cause interpretation that stresses the valor of the soldiers is true, the part that claims that “states’ rights” and not slavery was the cause of the war is demonstrably false. The states’ rights argument became a staple of post-war Southern apologetics, advanced by such prominent Confederates as President Jefferson Davis and Vice-President Alexander Stephens, and is still invoked by neo-Confederates and their allies today.

In fact, the sequence of events that made Lincoln’s election in 1860 inevitable began with a demand by Southerners for an expansion of federal power, not a defense of states’ rights. During the Democratic convention in Charleston in April 1860, the delegates from the seven states of the deep South walked out when the majority—who had come to nominate Stephen Douglas—refused to accept a plank calling for a federal guarantee of slave property in all US Territories. By nominating their own candidate for president, the Southerners split the Democratic vote and ensured Lincoln’s election by a plurality of only about 40 percent.

I came face to face with the falsity of the states’ rights claim when I was a doctoral candidate in political philosophy about 20 years ago. I fully intended to write my dissertation on Stephens’ A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States, the most detailed presentation of the states’ rights position and articulate defense of the idea that secession was a constitutional right having little or nothing to do with slavery. But then I met Harry V. Jaffa, America’s foremost Lincoln scholar, who asked me if I had ever read Stephens’ “Cornerstone” speech. Like most Southerners, I had not.

I was astounded by what Stephens said to the people of Savannah, Georgia on March 21, 1861. In this speech, delivered after the inauguration of Lincoln and before Fort Sumpter when Southerners believed the Confederacy would peacefully achieve its independence, Stephens repudiated the Declaration of Independence as “the sandy foundation” of the old Constitution.

In the course of his speech, Stephens acknowledged slavery to be the cause of the sectional crisis besetting the nation, and claimed that the new Confederate constitution would solve the problem upon which the “old Union” had foundered. The “foundations [of our new Government] are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition…”

So the old saw that states’ rights and not slavery was the cause of the Civil War is not true. But Northerners need to avoid the sort of triumphalism that characterizes so many anti-flag editorials. Unlike many Northern newspaper editorial writers, Lincoln never blamed the South exclusively for slavery. He stated that had he been in the position of Southern slaveholders, he would probably have behaved as they did. He understood that slavery was a national, not a regional sin.

For instance, when slavery was abolished in the North, Northern slave owners were more likely to sell their slaves south than to free them. In addition, many Yankees grew rich in the slave trade. The scions of these slave-trading families often became staunch abolitionists, denouncing in the most extreme terms those who still owned the offspring of the human beings their own forebears had transported to America. Indeed, Brown University, mocked by many as “PCU,” was founded by a family whose fortune was based to a great extent on the triangular slave trade.

It cannot be denied that the Southern Confederacy was formed in order to perpetuate an evil institution. But it is also true that in this bad cause, Southerners fought with great bravery and perseverance against immense odds, long after prudence dictated that they should have given up. Defenders of the flag see themselves as honoring this bravery.

In fact, no group of Americans has ever suffered more as the result of war than Southerners during the Civil War. As the Pulitzer Prize-winning Civil War historian James McPherson has noted, one quarter of the white men of military age in the South died in the war. “Altogether nearly four percent of the Southern people, black and white, civilians and soldiers, died as a consequence of the war. This percentage exceeded the toll of any country in World War I and was outstripped only by the region between the Rhine and Volga in World War II.”

Ultimately, the question of whether or not the Confederate battle flag should fly over the South Carolina state house is one that must be decided by the good citizens of South Carolina themselves. A substantial minority of white Carolinians want the flag to come down. Many support the governor’s proposal to move the flag to a Confederate memorial near the capitol (a move I myself support). But it should be noted that in 1996, the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War voted overwhelmingly to oppose removal of the flag. In so doing they were reflecting the view articulated by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., the Supreme Court Justice and Civil War hero in a Memorial Day speech he delivered in 1884.

“We believed that it was most desirable that the North should win; we believed in the principle that the Union is indissoluble;…that slavery had lasted long enough. But we equally believed that those who stood against us held just as sacred convictions that were the opposite of ours, and we respected them as every man with a heart must respect those who give all for their belief… The soldiers of the war need no explanations; they can join in commemorating a soldier’s death with feelings not different in kind, whether he fell toward them or by their side.” Would that critics of the Confederate battle flag were as magnanimous as Justice Holmes.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, RI, and an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the War College, Navy Department, or Department of Defense.