“Layers” of symbolism in the Confederate flag

Posted on September 24, 2008 by


I just responded to a reader’s comments about the Confederate flag. It made me revisit something that I had discussed with someone else in the not so distant past.

What is the problem with the Confederate flag, today?

To some, my take on it might sound over-simplistic, but I see the problem as “layers.” The flag has historical “layers.”

Even at the time of the Civil War, different layers were “woven” into the meaning of the flag. I wish that I could separate one layer from all of the rest… (wartime and postwar) that being the layer that represents the men, as humans and battlefield warriors; humans who had endured many different hardships and had truly varied opinions about the war and their own reasons (and depending on the each man individually, a soldier’s “reasons” were not necessarily in-tune with the government under which he served) for fighting being present in the ranks (and… willingness and unwillingness of a person’s service can be defined in many different ways). If I decided to fly a Confederate flag (and no, not the symbol of the historically ignorant in the form of the rectangular “naval jack”… that is, unless I was flying it in the memory of my Confederate naval ancestor… which is besides the point, because I don’t have a Confederate naval ancestor anyway) from my front porch and it be understood by all that this was the reason that I was flying it, then I think that (keeping in mind that the other layers were not represented in the flag as a symbol – including the layers that represented the preservation of the institution of slavery) most folks wouldn’t “flinch” when they saw it flying from the porch.

However, it’s all of the other layers that make it a problem. I would know what I was flying it for, but everyone who saw it would have multiple takes on what it represented. Do I take the “and the others be damned” approach, or am I conscious of other takes on meaning? First, there are the layers that were laid on the flag at the time of the war. Among the first (and actually, one might see this as the foundation upon which all other layers were laid), is the symbolism (let’s call it the “governmental cause” of the Confederacy) in the preservation of the institution of slavery. Let’s take it another step and say that there was yet another wartime layer… another meaning of the flag at the time of the war as a symbol of people that opposed the threat to the social order of the South… even if a soldier didn’t own a slave, the thought of freeing the slaves would threaten the social structure. Let’s take a look at yet another wartime layer (one that others might see as more obvious than the last two)… the symbol of the flag as representative of secession from the Union.

In these last three, we have set benchmarks that represent challenges to some modern sensibilities (just how thick is our skin?). Frankly, this (modern sensibilities when reflecting back on historic events) is worthy of another post altogether, so I won’t go there just yet.

I’m sure there are other layers from the war itself that could be added here, but for the sake of time, let’s start looking at some of the layers that were tacked on in years after the war. I’m going to take just a few here and point out the symbolism of the flag is also representative of 1) white supremacy, 2) the KKK (I know that 1 & 2 can also be merged, but I’m making a distinction between the two right here because white supremacists do not necessarily have to belong to the KKK), 3) the stereotype of the “redneck” (thanks “Dukes of Hazard” for perpetuating the good ol’ boy image!), 4) the Southern people as a whole (oh brother!), and 5) those who don’t know anything about the Civil War other than it was a symbol of a people in rebellion against the “Man.”

So, spending all of the time that one would like in trying to untangle this mess from the flag, it’s still going to be one big sticky mess; but it doesn’t end there. The Confederate flag today, as it flies… wherever… is, as a single material symbol, a rallying point for too many meanings. People rally around this one symbol, but see that one symbol as representative of too many different things. It gets to be darn complicated.

Yet, the worst part of it… in my opinion… is that even under the cry of “heritage preservation” too many agendas are present, coupled with ignorance of historical facts (and even ignorance of their own history), mythological perceptions of the past, and so on and so on… and yes, despite the “heritage not hate” battlecry (and despite what some will say), there is a racist element present (in some, not all; but I’m sure a survey issued would ultimately be seen as an unreliable measurement of the whole). So, as the Confederate heritage organizations tout the Confederate flag as a symbol of their “struggle,” the cries of some of the loudest do not by any means represent the interest of the whole (descendants of Confederate Veterans within their own organization or “at large”).