The Soldiers’ Flag?

One of the common refrains we hear from defenders of Confederate heritage is that the flag they choose to display represents not the Confederate government but the soldiers of various Confederate armies, specifically the big two: the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of Tennessee.

This is almost correct.

The two flags in question represent military organizations, as their names clearly indicate: the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of Tennessee. The soldiers did not adopt these flags: the commanders of these armies did. Indeed, the Virginia Flaggers often botch this whole matter up, using the banner flown by the Army of Tennessee to honor the Army of Northern Virginia (maybe they are all closet James Longstreet fans) or using the Confederate navy jack to honor Confederate soldiers (why not honor the Confederate navy?).

Once we understand that the flags in question are those of an army, we can have a more intelligent discussion about what those armies did (such as the fact that the Army of Northern Virginia was under orders to capture and send south supposed escaped slaves during that army’s invasion of Pennsylvania in 1863).

For example, here is the flag of the German navy flown during World War II:

Courtesy Wikipedia images.
Courtesy Wikipedia images.

Would you find it acceptable to display this flag to honor the sailors of the Kriegsmarine? After all, you aren’t endorsing Hitler or the Nazi regime: you are simply honoring the heritage of service by displaying the sailors’ flag, right? After all, weren’t they fighting for what they believed in, and don’t we always honor those soldiers and sailors who do, never pausing to ask what they believed in or what would be the consequence of their success on the battlefield?

Now, before some of you go frothing at the mouth or claim that this is all easily dismissed by invoking that foolishness known as Godwin’s Law (click the link for an explanation), I’m not saying that Confederates were Nazis, or anything like that. That you might claim otherwise suggests that in your subconscious you make that link. I’m talking about Confederate service personnel versus German service personnel, each flying the flag of their military branch or organization. Also, note this comment from the above source:

Although falling foul of Godwin’s law tends to cause the individual making the comparison to lose his argument or credibility, Godwin’s law itself can be abused as a distraction, diversion or even as censorship, fallaciously miscasting an opponent’s argument as hyperbole when the comparisons made by the argument are actually appropriate.

After all, here’s the flag of the commanding general of the Wehrmacht:

And here’s the headquarters flag of Robert E. Lee:

I note that I could not find the latter flag on Amazon.

Now, you might say, with good reason, that it is the swastika, associated with the Nazi party, that makes the two German military flags objectionable. Fair enough. Then we should note what appears on the second and third Confederate national flag:

Source: Wikipedia Commons
Source: Wikipedia Commons
CSA 3 flag
Source: Wikipedia Commons

Oh, that’s right: the Confederate Battle Flag found its way onto both banners (and Lee’s headquarters flag is a simple manipulation of the first national flag). Thus, by war’s end, the image commonly associated with the Confederate battle flag had also become part of the iconography of the Confederacy, period.  Thus it cannot be said simply to represent the soldiers and sailors themselves … it represented something more.

I’m looking for meaningful explanations and justifications. You can provide them in the comments section.

27 thoughts on “The Soldiers’ Flag?

  1. Stefan Jovanovich July 5, 2015 / 12:20 pm

    The only explanation the Flaggers can offer is that the First Amendment gives them the absolute right to be dicks in what they say and what they proudly wave. Some of us think that is the only justification they or anyone else needs. But, then, we also think Lenny Bruce had it right. If you really want to abolish evil prejudices from people’s minds, then the first step is the one the Founders took. You have to let everyone use the words that are hateful but not libelous because liberty is what is most important.

    Where the flaggers join their opponents is in the presumption that their individual rights somehow given them the moral grounds for telling the government what to do with its property. As a matter of Constitutional law the government of South Carolina has the right to fly anything it wants if the governor and the legislature vote to do so and the State’s Constitution does not prohibit the display; they also have the right to take down something they used to fly.

    I doubt this will satisfy anyone who thinks that prohibition is good policy where speech and thought are concerned. I am certain that some judge will find someone guilty of a tort or criminal offense for flying the Confederate flag (choose whichever) within sight of a public highway. It will not matter to that judge that, under the 10th Amendment the Federal government has no authority over the question and under the 1st Amendment neither the Federal nor the State governments have any authority over what flags people fly on their own property. As Justice Taney and other robe wearers constantly remind us, the Constitution is merely a suggestion of what liberties we may think we have.

    • John Foskett July 6, 2015 / 8:44 am

      If the opponents are citizens of the State, they most certainly have the “moral [and legal] grounds for telling the government what to do with its property.” In fact, that’s what is happening in South Carolina. The “moral grounds” are especially compelling where the government-sanctioned display of this flag reflects a history of violent race-base d discrimination against thousands of the State’s citizens. Opponents outside the State have “moral”, if not “legal”, grounds to do the same thing. As for the rest of your theory, beware the reach of the Commerce Clause. Hence the 1964 Civil Rights Act. I know – “judicial activism”. One thing Taney (I note you ignored Marshall, Story, etc.) got right is that the text of the Constitution doesn’t literally address every matter that comes up. That’s why it’s a Constitution and not a piece of narrow, context-driven legislation.

      • Stefan Jovanovich July 6, 2015 / 10:50 am

        John has discovered that people can vote and speak freely; but he is still a little shaky on this question of judicially-made law (happy to address Marshall’s presumptions any time). That is to be understood; we all end up talking our own book (i.e. promoting the trade from which we make our livings). But, just for the sake of academic accuracy, let’s try to agree that the Constitution is not, as John points out, “legislation”; it is the supreme law of the nation precisely because its words have all had the direct vote of approval of the citizens themselves. The presumption of the Supreme Court and its subordinate courts to find “law” that goes beyond the words and meanings of the Constitution itself is dangerous precisely because it claims for the Court and the Congress and the Executive an authority they do not have. Americans have always lived in an age where large numbers of them (right now John and our host and almost all the contributors here) want the Constitution to say more than it does. To reach that result, people have almost always taken the judicial short-cut. Instead of undergoing the tedious process of getting states and the Congress to adopt the wording of an amendment, people have lobbied and soft-and-hard bribed the judiciary to find the law they wanted in the words already there. The reach of the “commerce clause” is the most conspicuous of the modern Constitutional discoveries by judges; the endorsement of military slavery – aka conscription – is another that has its roots in the Civil War. But that’s OK; telling people that they have no freedom of contract and can have their lives sacrificed on the altar of the national interest is always done for the highest of “moral grounds”.

        • John Foskett July 6, 2015 / 1:49 pm

          Actually, you’re the one who’s “a little shaky” on it. The founders could never have addressed the vast changes in society, science, and other realms which would be in place 100, 200, or more years in the future – so they gave us a broadly-phrased document with a tripartite system of government (including those pesky courts) and a cumbersome procedure of amendment, rather than a paint-by-numbers set for mindless robots to apply. In fact your own reference to “goes beyond the words and meanings of the Constitution” illustrates the problem. We have “the words”. We do not have “the meanings”, and that requires interpretation. Your disagreement isn’t with the design and the procedures. It’s with the results. As for the reach of the Commerce Clause being a “modern Constitutional discover[y]” by judges, that “discovery” was actually foreshadowed by Marshall and Story long ago.

          • taxsanity July 6, 2015 / 2:39 pm

            Brooks — okay, show me where in any McPherson book, any Foner book, any Catton book, to take three, that they showed that the guy who got Kansas Act passed, then went to Kansas and not only killed to spread slavery, not only killed and arrested to stop folks from speaking against slavery, but BRAGGED about it.

            You can show me Bruce Catton’s vast knowledge of Southern belt buckles. But you can’t show me anything Catton ever said about Southern leaders bragging about their War Ultimatums. In fact, I don’t think Catton, McPherson, or Foner ever mentioned Southern War Ultimatums that appeared in Richmon newspaper under the headline “THE TRUE ISSUE”.

            I admit, I havent read all McPherson’s stuff. He seems most eager never to impinge or even question the honor and love of Constitution by Jeff Davis. Catton seems to have the same virus.

            But Im certain none of these “historians” have ever made it clear who killed who — and why — from 1856 on. They would need to expose David Rice Atchison, and show what he bragged ab out and did.

            Once you know about Souithern War Ultimatums, and their killing sprees, and how Atchison got Kansas Act passed, I don’t see how you can pretend Lincoln wasn’t exactly right on what he said about Kansas Act, in House Divided — and elsewhere. Of course, Lincoln was not doing breaking news in his speeches — it was already known, well known, what Atchison and his paid men were doing in Kansas, with or without his speeches bragging about it.

            None of these “historians” seems to grasp what Lincoln did — that Southern leaders repudiated States rights by 1856, and never believed a word of their own claims. States rights is a construct in your head — and Jefferson Davis, while he did use that excuse a few times, he was very clear, very emphatic. Kansas could NOT keep slavery out, (no matter if 95% of the white male voters rejected slavery) because blacks were not even human beings, they were property.

            Jefferson Davis made that clear — both that blacks were not human beings (not persons) and that was his logic to force slavery into Kansas. Did anyone bother to read his book?

            Yeah, yeah DAVIS “forgot” to mention he sent killers to Kansas, Davis “forgot” to mention Atchison speeches bragging about killing there, Davis “forgot” to mention Kansas whites voted 95% against slavery and became a free state, when he was part of the Southern War Ultimatums to spread slavery into Kansas — but does that mean Foner can’t point that out? How about McPherson. Maybe he has space for a that information somewhere, it’s kinda basic.

            They were BRAGGING about killing to spread slavery, their war ultimatums were about the spread of slavery, their own SEnator, Atchison, bragged he got Kansas Act passed, then went to Kansas and killed and terrorized.

            Catton not only didn’t mention it, none of those guys did, in any clear way. Catton spends more time on belt buckles, for some goofy reason.

            When you understand Davis paid Atchison, while Atchison was killing, and Davis got reports from Atchison about the progress of killings, and how”soon, it will be over” – and that Davis justified and backed everything Atchison did — then you will know more than McPherson apparently does — he never told anyone. As if a US Senator in Kansas killing people and bragging of it, is of trivial importance.

            Heaven forbid to make it clear what kind of vile and violent men Lincoln was dealing with, and how almost no one in the North in 1861 was willing to shove back.

            Why not have Southern states do that now? What would you do if they issued War Ultimatums today, that we must make Kansas a slave state. That’s what happened THEN.

            What would you do if the Secretary of War sent 1000 killers to Kansas, paid them, and sent a US Senator to lead them, and that Senator bragged as loudly as he could — all but rent billboard space — that he was there not just to spread slavery, but to silence those who dared publish newspapers against it.

            But Catton was keep on those belt buckles.

            The whole reality of what Lincoln actually faced, is pretty much whitewashed.

            David Zarefksy must have spent a lot of time reading Catton, McPherson, and Foner, becasue he claims Lincoln had only a “paucity:” of evidence that Southern leaders were out to spread slavery. How on earth could he miss the War Ultimatums, Dred Scott decision, Jeff Davis claim that the resistance to slavery in Kansas was intolerable, and the killing sprees in Kansas, boasted about by Atchison at the time.

            Maybe these folks should spend less time reading Catton’s goofy Jeff Davis based narrative, and his tear jerking stuff about men on both sides, and what they ate for breakfast, and their letters to momma, and spend more time reading Southern books, Southern speeches, Southern war ultimatums, and reports from Atchison about the progress of killing to spread slavery.

            It depends where you get your information. I have no prove, but there seems not much difference in substance to Catton’s narrative and Jeff Davis. States Righs (don’t make me vomit, Davis sent killers to Kansas to not just kill to spread slavery, but stop any speech against slavery, how is that states rights).

          • Brooks D. Simpson July 6, 2015 / 3:04 pm

            People have covered Jefferson Davis’s comments on desertion before. See Hattaway and Beringer, Jefferson Davis, Confederate President, page 307.

            I don’t see why you target Foner, who has not written a large-scale study of the coming of the Civil War, or Catton, whose sole effort was a rather light treatment in the Centennial History he wrote.

            When you make claims about what McPherson has written and not written while admitting that you haven’t read much of his work, I think you say all that needs to be said about your criticism of other historians. But if you turn to page 147 of Battle Cry of Freedom, McPherson indeed talks about Atchison’s threats of violence.

            You would be much more effective in your comments if you didn’t engage in long-winded denunciations of scholars when you also admit that you are unfamiliar with what they have written, or to make claims about what people in the profession have said that can be disproved in less time than it took for me to compose this answer.

    • Joshism July 6, 2015 / 5:10 pm

      “As a matter of Constitutional law the government of South Carolina has the right to fly anything it wants if the governor and the legislature vote to do so and the State’s Constitution does not prohibit the display”

      Perhaps it’s time we had some federal legislation regarding what flags can be flow at government offices?

      • John Foskett July 7, 2015 / 7:08 am

        As our host suggests, you appear not to fully grasp the subtleties and nuances of our federal republic.

      • Joshism July 7, 2015 / 9:24 pm

        I’ve never been a believer in state sovereignty. One of the reasons I think the CSA is hooey.

  2. Sandi Saunders July 5, 2015 / 2:38 pm

    I have pondered this one like I think anyone with Civil War interest does. It seems to me that if that particular flag held all the honor and valor of your ancestors, you would work hard to publicly fight those who abuse it, misuse it and misapply it. I can find no information on the SCV asking the KKK, or any other established white supremacy group to “cease and desist” using that memorial flag for their specious purposes. I can certainly find no information on the SCV or any other Confederate group demanding the Civil Rights protesters take down their flag and “cease and desist” from using it in such a hateful manner. Lastly, I can find no information or see any effort to block anti-government, secessionists, and neo-confederates from their careless use and pompous display of their flag for political purposes having nothing to do with honor and valor of those who fought under it in the Civil War.

    The only logical conclusion then, is that they approve of and accept any iteration, use and purpose for which anyone flies that flag. And that diminishes their claims to valor, honor, service and patriotism they still try to claim. Pretending that what that flag means to you is all that matters is childish bunkum.

    However, their constant refrain comparing the racism, atrocity and “evil” done under the Flag of the United States tells us that is precisely their argument.

    • Andy Hall July 5, 2015 / 4:10 pm

      I can find no information on the SCV asking the KKK, or any other established white supremacy group to “cease and desist” using that memorial flag for their specious purposes. I can certainly find no information on the SCV or any other Confederate group demanding the Civil Rights protesters take down their flag and “cease and desist” from using it in such a hateful manner.

      The SCV and other heritage groups somewhat regularly denounce the Klan and similar groups for their use of Confederate iconography. It doesn’t do any good, of course, but it makes them feel better that they “did something” and they can congratulate each other on standing up for the integrity of the flag.

      Pretending that what that flag means to you is all that matters is childish bunkum.

      Yes, it is.

      • James F. Epperson July 6, 2015 / 4:43 am

        The SCV was rather silent, I believe, when the flag was used as a political statement in opposition to desegregation. The UDC, I believe, did offer some tepid objections.

  3. Al Mackey July 6, 2015 / 9:27 am

    Even if we accept for the sake of argument that it is the “soldiers’ flag.” It’s the flag carried by soldiers whose victory would mean the continuation of slavery. It’s the flag carried by soldiers who kidnapped black Pennsylvanians and took them south into slavery. It’s the flag carried by soldiers who murdered black soldiers because of their race. It’s the flag carried by soldiers who levied war against the United States, thereby fitting the definition of treason against the United States. The more one knows about the Civil War and Southern history, the less one supports the display of this flag on government property.

    • Leo July 6, 2015 / 10:32 am

      I wish someone would explain that to Phil Bryant.

      • Laqueesha July 10, 2015 / 3:00 pm

        He’ll probably do what the neo-Confederates do. Stick his fingers in his ears and sing “Dixie” until the cows come home.

    • James F. Epperson July 6, 2015 / 2:07 pm

      Precisely, Al, and your final sentence exactly describes my evolving view on all this.

  4. taxsanity July 6, 2015 / 12:34 pm

    what honor, what bravery? You know, right, that Jeff Davis himself said 2/3 of Confederate soldiers deserted by 1864?

    Oh, are we supposed to pretend that never happened, like we pretend the Southern War Ultimatums — all to spread slavery into areas that already rejected slavery — never happened?

    Yeah. 5,000 Civil War experts, I have yet to meet ONE that knows Jeff Davis exposed the massive desertsions, but in Army of Virginia, and deep in the South. Gotta pretend those who killed to spread slavery (that was their war ultimatums) were honorable.

    Sorry, I wont do it.

    Edward Pollard, writing while bodies lay in the fields, worried his Confederacy would be remembered for the massive desertions — and many who evaded service. Don’t worry Ed, there are 5,000 Civil War experts alive right now, they won’t tell anyone, either.

    Contrary the BS – the South had plenty of men to fight the Civil War and win it, I can’t help it if they deserted. The smart ones deserted.

    No one seems to grasp the number of Southern men who fought for the NORTH. Take those Southern men who fought for the North, take the 90% of Souhern soldiers that deserted, and you have more than enough men.

    I didn’t say so — Jeff Davis did. If just HALF the deserters returned, said Davis in Macon in Sept of 1864, the South could not lose. Maybe he had a clue? He was connected the Civil War, ya know. Yeah, he didn’t know wht 5,000 civil war experts today know, of course. He had to be wrong.

    We should also keep pretending other things — like Southern leaders didn’t brag they were killing to spread slavery and promised to keep killing until they had slavery in all the West, including areas that had rejected slavery. We have been pretending that for 150 years, another 100 years, won’t be a big deal.

    We also have to pretend LIncoln wasn’t really against slavery — and ignore everything he did and said, except of few out of context politically necessary quips. We have to pretend Northern politicians didn’t call Lincoln a “Negro Worshiper” and that Lincoln was “obsessed with equality for the *igger”. Good job, Civil War experts

    And lets keep pretending Lincoln did not take a bullet to the brain for his speech about voting rights for some blacks — when Booth heard it, he changed his plan from kidnap to killing.

    • Brooks D. Simpson July 6, 2015 / 12:59 pm

      You have an interesting grasp of what Civil War scholars know.

      • Kristoffer July 7, 2015 / 4:23 pm

        His grasp may be interesting, but it’s certainly understandable. Let me put it to you in a Godwin’s Law analogy: How would you like it if historians were en masse covering up Joseph Goebbels’ knowledge of and approval of the Holocaust by refusing to mention his knowledge of it in his diaries and his hints at it happening in his public writings?

  5. Buck Buchanan July 7, 2015 / 7:37 am

    Unit colors belong in museums or other places of memory. Army National Guard units are allowed to commemorate Confederate service through campaign streamers.

    That is enough commemoration for an Army which took up arms against the United States inmy book.

  6. Brian Hampton July 7, 2015 / 8:26 am

    >maybe they are all closet James Longstreet fans


    I’ve always been partial to the Cleburne flag.

  7. charlie July 7, 2015 / 12:13 pm

    John Coski makes a good point in his book “The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem.”

    “For a nation that survived only as long as its armies survived, the flag of the solder understandably became the flag of the nation.”

  8. Stefan Jovanovich July 8, 2015 / 5:47 am

    Rhetoric always has its temptations. John Foskett is too good a scholar to be serious in claiming that the Constitution is “broadly-phrased”. We have Madison’s and Morris’s notes and the correspondence of the delegates and the debates of the legislatures of the States that ratified. They parsed every word and were incredibly precise. The confusions about what the authors of the Constitution meant – and what the People voted to approve – come entirely from the fact that we do know what they meant; and we want to escape the restrictions of a document whose premise is that government itself should be limited.
    We lawyers – now the absolute majority in Congress itself – are the ones who are most unhappy with a “law” not written by lawyers. That is why we have the notion of the 3 co-equal branches of government as an article of our modern faith. Neither the Founders or anyone in the 19th century, including Justice Marshall, would have accepted that interpretation of the Constitution. Congress was to have its specified powers, the President was to be Commander in Chief and the Supreme Court and any subordinate ones that Congress created were to adjudicate solely Federal questions. Congress’ primary authority was confirmed by the fact they alone had the power to amend the Constitution itself.
    I do agree with John’s identification of the grounds for dispute. As long as judges and lawyers claim the right to “foreshadow” what the people should have voted on by amendment, we will have an autocracy claiming for itself the authority our Constitution reserves solely for the People.

    • John Foskett July 8, 2015 / 8:53 am

      I’ll leave it at this. “Neither the Founders or anyone in the 19th century, including Justice Marshall, would have accepted that interpretation of the Constitution.” Really? You ought to read Mr. Jefferson’s critique of Marbury v. Madison, as well as those by others at the time. And the notion that a a core framework document drafted in the 18th century would expressly cover the myriad of social, political, and other changes one, two,. or more centuries in the future fails the laugh test. The founders were generally pretty sharp guys, but none of them was Nostradamus.

      • Stefan Jovanovich July 8, 2015 / 9:18 am

        I am sorry, John; but no one can allow Jefferson to have the last word on matters Constitutional. The man had no principles that were ever strong enough to prevent him from taking political advantage of events; and like Adams he had an opinion for all sides of all questions.
        The Founders did not claim omniscience. That is why they established explicit procedures for amending the Constitution. What they did not allow was the kind of judicial amendment that you keep defending. There is no argument that yours is the majority opinion for now; but so was the absolute authority of the Crown in 1774. All the best.

        • John Foskett July 8, 2015 / 10:10 am

          Nice use of flawed analogies. Your ad hominem attack on Jefferson is irrelevant to the point – he accused Marshall of doing the very thing which you accuse the modern Court of doing. And several others joined him. Ignoring it “don’t make it not so”. And that was early in Marshall’s tenure, before he (and Story) wrestled with the Commerce Clause – resulting in additional, similar criticism. All the best.

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