The Traitors’ Flag



The horrific racist terrorism at Emanuel AME church in Charleston, brought a quick reminder that the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia was still being flown by the South Carolina state legislature. A great fracas has ensued, including my early contribution here:

Much of the debate has focused on the post-1865 meaning of the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia and its rectangular counterpart, the battle flag of the Army of Tennessee/Confederate Naval Jack. From the flags’ adoption by the nation’s largest terrorist organization shortly after the war (where they were clearly attempting to claim the heritage of the Confederate Army) I have seen charted the inclusion of the flags in the state flag of Georgia (1956), and the running up of the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia in South Carolina (1962) as responses to the African-American civil rights movement. (Mississippi, on the other hand, incorporated the flag into their own in 1894, which raises the question, “What precipitated Mississippi’s 1894 flag change?”)

For example, it is clear from context that the Klan (and many of their ‘intellectual’ allies) have meant the flag to be an instrument of terror (like their ‘illuminated’ crosses) as well as a claim of revolt and descent from the armed forces of the Confederacy. On the other hand the states of, Georgia and South Carolina appear to have meant theirs in revolt, rejecting anti-segregation laws. In both cases, there is clearly a racist element to their displays.

Let’s go back a bit now… like a century before South Carolina raised their flag. What was the original meaning of the battle flags and naval jack?


Well, it wasn’t “states’ rights”, because even if that had been the cause of the war, there was another flag for that:

(And, if you do think that “states’ rights” were the cause of the Civil War, you might want to read the declarations of secession for South Carolina, Texas, and Mississippi the only right in question was the right to own slaves — to exploit, to beat, to rape, and to murder fellow human beings.)

constitution_3_of_4_630No, the flag in question is a flag used in battle as the identifier of a military unit. It never flew over any of the Confederate capitols (neither statehouses, nor the national capitol). It was displayed by those troops who were actively engaged in war against the United States of America. In other words, the flags in question were solely used by illegal militias whose sole purpose was armed insurrection against the United States of America. The Constitution has a little something to say about that:

“Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.”

US Constitution, Article III, Section 3

Even by this very strict definition, the people fighting under the flags in question were committing treason, something that President Lincoln knew well. It was the reason for the reason for his general pardon. He knew that there were those in Congress who would want the Confederates prosecuted to the full extent of the law, which would mean that the white adult male population of the returning states would be reduced dramatically (even more so if they included those ‘adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort’).

What does it mean today to fly those flags today? Well, you might mean that you take pride in your Southern or rural heritage. There were surely many Confederate soldiers who displayed gallantry and were respected by their opponents — Lee, Jackson, and Hill come to mind — but they are counterbalanced by the systemic slaughter through starvation and disease at Andersonville, and there is certainly a romance surrounding failed causes (see the English Cavaliers, late Scottish Covenanters, Russian monarchy, and Paris Commune). And Southern culture reaches far beyond the Confederacy and the antebellum South, so there is no reason for it to be defined by secession. Don’t be surprised if the reaction you receive is to be treated as a racist terrorist — because that is what it has meant to African-Americans for a century and a half.

The one meaning that cannot be escaped, though, is that by displaying the flag you have claimed to be an active member of the Army of Northern Virginia, Army of Tennessee, or Confederate Navy — illegal militias whose sole purpose is armed rebellion against the United States of America. In short, you have declared yourself to be a traitor. You should be happy if you are treated as such.


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