What does the Confederate battle flag mean to you?

I received an email from a young lady who is working on a research paper for school and had a few questions for me on this topic. With her permission, I’d like to share her questions here, my response, and open it up for others to add their thoughts as well in the comments.

Her email, name omitted:

While looking around for sources for a research paper, I found your site. I found it very interesting and helpful, and wondered if you could answer a few questions about my topic for me.

My topic is this: “What does the Confederate flag (the battle flag) mean to Southern Americans today?”.

My questions are:

1) The main opposition to the flag seems to be for racial reasons. Do you think that African Americans take offense at the flying of this flag, and why?

2) What does the flag mean to you, personally?

3) Do you think that it is a symbol of a dead cause, or do you feel that the principals for which the South fought are still alive today?

If you could answer any or all of these questions, I would greatly appreciate it, however, if you do not have the time, I completely understand.

My response:

I’m happy to give you an answer to your questions as far as my own thoughts/perspective on the matter. I’m glad to hear the site has been useful to you.

1) The main opposition to the flag in the modern day is racial, yes. I think most who take offense do so because they have been given a tainted narrative about the war. They, as most of us, have been taught that the war was all about slavery and the southern whites were determined to keep
blacks enslaved. Given such a story, I don’t think anyone can blame them for opposing the flag. The problem is there is more to the history than that and we can’t start erasing history because we’ve been conditioned to believe it something it wasn’t. Nobody was perfect, there was certainly
slavery and there were plenty of bad people on either side, but those of southern ancestry (of all colors) are being asked to give up our heritage based on a lie and that’s not okay.

You may be interested in checkout out the work and writings of H.K. Edgerton. He runs the website southernheritage411.com and is a former president of the Asheville, NC NAACP chapter. He is one of the most vocal African Americans who are speaking up on behalf of the flag and don’t want it removed from southern culture. Here is a recent headline that involved him:
https://www.rawstory.com/2016/05/bystanders-break-up-bizarre-scuffle-between-angry-kkk-members-and-black-pro-confederate-activist/

2 & 3) I’m a Virginian, and that impacts my answer more specifically than just being a southerner. Our ancestors thought of themselves not as Americans first, or even as Confederates first, but first as Virginians (or whatever other southern state) and other earthly allegiances came second to that. Virginia was not as attached to slavery as some of the deep south. My own ancestors were farmers and as a genealogy buff I can tell you that next to no one in my family owned slaves at the time of the war. I can think of maybe two instances among dozens of ancestors… one was a single slave that it looked like was inherited and she just lived with the family, the other being a more distant family that owned several but nothing like the sprawling plantations we are led to think about. Most of my family owned none. A fellow Virginian, Robert E. Lee chose to free his slaves (inherited also, not purchased) at the beginning of the war when the south was actually winning whereas Ulysses S. Grant chose not to do so until the war ended. So I think just on that topic alone there are a lot of misconceptions about how people here viewed slavery.

The fact of the matter is our founding fathers didn’t all agree as far as having a loose collective of states who governed themselves versus a strong central power. Our Constitution left most things in the hands of the individual states but by the mid 19th century the federal government had already taken more liberties than many could stand. Through politics in the federal government, where the South was at a disadvantage, the South had been given the tax burden of the entire country. We paid most of the taxes and many northern industries were given subsidies using that tax money. Lincoln stated that they couldn’t let the south go because they couldn’t afford to lose the revenue. Charles Dickens, looking upon the war from England, wrote that slavery as a cause was “specious humbug” and that the war was a “fiscal quarrel.”

When Virginia ratified the Constitution, our ratification specifically included a clause that we reserved the right to leave the union if down the road we determined that the power was being abused. We determined that, we left as we had a legal right to do, and the federal government
chose to fight to retain us regardless of our wishes. Politicians and others in “union” states were arrested to prevent secession from spreading. It all became this big power struggle of whether they could force a union or whether we were still free people. I think that’s one of the most insulting things about the common claim about the war being over slavery and being just so the wealthy could keep their wealth. These people are saying that my family fought and died not for something that they believed in, but because they were the foolish pawns of rich men. What part of that really makes sense? We had cousins travel back here from what is now West Virginia to fight with us and died in military prison after being captured… Do these people pushing this narrative really think they chose to come back here and leave their families at risk in West Virginia all for the sake of some rich plantation owner keeping their slaves? In what universe does that make sense?

What the battle flag — and remember that’s what this flag being fought over was, a flag the men designed and chose to fight under, not an official flag of the Confederate government — means to me is a symbol of how much my ancestors valued their freedom. They fought and died because
they believed they should have a right to determine who governed them rather than allowing themselves to be controlled and taken advantage of, just like my ancestors who fought in the American Revolution. The difference is that one set of ancestors won their war and the others lost
but that doesn’t change what they valued enough to fight (and in some cases die) for. I don’t think the desire for freedom will ever be a dead cause. The Confederacy is dead, but that was more something that mattered to politicians who were concerned about political borders, tax revenues,
military prowess, whatever. I don’t really care whether there is a “Confederate States of America” in existence. I just care about honoring a cause that is tied to this land and these people, and I do think those principles are alive today. They are pretty universal among anyone who prefers freedom to safety or however you want to phrase it. People find different ways of pursuing it, find different ways of explaining it, but the cause is the same.

It’s a shame, to me, that so many people get caught up debating points that don’t really affect that and start wanting to criticize each side for how “wrong” they are. That’s exactly the type of division that was intended by whoever it was brilliant enough to come up with this flag drama. I think a lot of people are passionate about it and that passion makes them handle matters in ways that are more detrimental than anything.

What are your thoughts for her?