The Question of the Confederacy: Stains of Slavery on the Stars and Bars

by Caitlin Vasington

On a balmy evening in June of 2015, Dylann Roof entered the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and murdered nine innocent churchgoers. Almost one month later, after it was revealed Roof had been motivated by white supremacy and associated himself with Confederate symbols, the Confederate flag was lowered from its mast at the South Carolina State House, where it had flown since 1962. The decision to remove the flag was met with vitriol from many Americans who believed that Confederate monuments should remain in place. This dispute has haunted the American political sphere from the Civil War onward, through segregation and the Civil Rights movement to the riots in Charlottesville and the resurgence of white supremacy. While public memory is a complex and complicated element of history and politics, it is undeniable that the Confederate flag represents the struggle of Southern states to maintain the institution of slavery. Therefore, the Confederate flag should be removed from public domains because it represents the ideals of racism and dehumanization. 

One of the primary arguments for the preservation of Confederate symbols is the belief that the Civil War was a struggle for state’s rights and was a war of Northern aggression against the Southern way of life. This assertion rests soundly in opposition to historical evidence and represents an idealized Confederacy in order to make history more agreeable to white Southerners who wish to view their past through rose-colored glasses. In reality, the states that made up the Confederacy fought to enforce the institution of slavery in Northern abolitionist states through the imposition of the Fugitive Slave Act. In essence, they applied their own institutions to other sovereign states and removed their independent rights to free government (Loewen 157). Confederate states did not fight for the rights of sovereign states to remain independent from the control of the federal government; they fought in direct opposition to this principle to uphold the institution of slavery. Furthermore, the Confederacy was founded on the basis of the preservation of slavery, and efforts by the Union to destroy the Southern way of life were efforts to dispel the institution of slavery. Section IX Article IV of the Constitution of the Confederate States of America states, “No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed…” (Richardson), which permanently cements the institution of slavery into the Confederate government. Moreover, in a speech to citizens in Savannah, the Vice President of the Confederacy declared that, “[Confederate] foundations 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” (Cleveland). These statements alone prove the Confederate government was undeniably founded upon the preservation of slavery. Due to this, Confederate symbols in public places are indisputably connected to this ideal. 

The controversy around the removal of Confederate symbols is deeply rooted in the public memory of the South and the perpetuation of the Lost Cause myth of the Civil War. As James Loewen argues in his book, The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader, “Neo-Confederates fight to maintain their ancestors’ honor, which they do by obfuscating why their ancestors fought” (Loewen 392). The concession that the Confederacy fought to preserve slavery seems to be, for many Southerners, an admittance of guilt or acceptance of blame for the horrors of slavery. This is a nearly impossible stain to accept on a people’s ancestral history. Therefore, in the wake of Reconstruction, “an ideology infiltrated southern communities that were dissatisfied with their defeat as they recalled the antebellum days of the South” (Shackel 176). This ideology perpetuated the idea that the South fought a noble war in a struggle to preserve states’ rights. Modern Neo-Confederates and many other Americans continue to believe this sanitized version of history and use it to justify allowing Confederate symbols to be displayed in America. However, it is important to note that a vast majority of Confederate symbols were not erected after the war in direct efforts to honor dead soldiers, and were instead constructed during the peak of the Civil Rights movement as an effort to resist the changing social hierarchy of the nation. As Diane Roberts points out in the Utne Reader, “‘It doesn’t matter to them that the Confederate battle flag didn’t fly over the Alabama Capitol in Montgomery until George Wallace hoisted it in 1963 to spite Bobby Kennedy […] They act like the thing had been flapping in the breeze above the dome ever since Jeff Davis […] proclaimed secession’” (Shackel 188). The evidence that most Confederate symbols were brought into the public eye in response to efforts to achieve racial equality is further support for the connection of the flag with racism and oppression. It is hard to fathom why a flag, solely representative of a noble war against the tyranny of the federal government, would be largely dormant in public life until a national movement for African American equality begins to challenge the Southern way of life. Unless, it is more accurately representative of the federal government’s insistence on the destruction of oppressive systems such as segregation and slavery. A final element of the myth of the noble South is that many Confederate sympathizers point to the African Americans who fought for the Confederacy as evidence that the flag is not representative of racism and slavery. However, as Loewen articulates, “Trying to derive cause from the alleged voluntary participation of the subordinate group is illogical from the start […] Thousands of Jews did fight in Hitler’s armies […] but that does not change the fact that Hitler pursued a policy of exterminating Jews” (Loewen 382). This comparison emphasizes the fact that the contributions of an oppressed group to an oppressive system do not change or undermine the underlying purpose of the system, therefore the African Americans who fought for the Confederacy did not dismantle the inherent racism and dehumanization of the Confederate system of government and subsequently the oppression that Confederate symbols represent. 

Former Confederate General Robert E. Lee opposed the construction of Confederate monuments, and stated that, “I think it wiser not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife” (Boyette). While Lee believed it would be best to dispose of all remnants of the Civil War, it is historically irresponsible to attempt to remove all evidence of civil discourse. Instead, Confederate symbols should merely be removed from positions of public veneration and relegated to museums and books, to be surrounded by historical context. The removal of statues is not an erasure of history. Instead, it is an effort to correct public memory to include the historically ignored perspectives of disenfranchised groups. Shackel demonstrates this point in his statement that, “While collective memory can be about forgetting a past, this is often at the expense of a subordinated group…reflection on the meanings associated with our collective national memory shows that they have usually focused on elites and white traditional heroes” (Shackel 179). Therefore, as the United States progresses into an egalitarian society accepting of diversity, it is necessary for symbols of racism and slavery to be removed as to rectify the mistakes of the past in our collective national memory. This must be done in order to come to terms with the historical oppression and injustice that continues to haunt our national legacy.

Works Cited

Boyette, Chris. “Actually, Robert E. Lee Was against Erecting Confederate Memorials.” CNN,  Cable News Network, 17 Aug. 2017,
http://www.cnn.com/2017/08/16/us/robert-e-lee-statues-letters-trnd/index.html.

Henry Cleveland, Alexander H. Stephens, in Public and Private: With Letters and Speeches, Before, During, and Since the War (Philadelphia, 1886), pp. 717-729.

Loewen, James W., and Edward H. Sebesta. The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader: the “Great Truth” about the “Lost Cause”. University Press of Mississippi, 2010.

Richardson, James D. A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Confederacy
Including the Diplomatic Correspondence 1861-1865 (Nashville : United States Publishing Company, 1905)

Shackel, Paul A. Memory in Black and White: Race, Commemoration, and the Post-Bellum Landscape. AltaMira Press, 2003.