What is the legacy of the Confederate flag?

After the murder of nine African Americans at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina last week there were calls for the still-flying Confederate flag to be removed from outside the state capital.


South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, who recently asked state lawmakers to vote for the flag’s removal, said the flag does not represent the future of the state and that for some it is a “deeply offensive symbol of a brutally offensive past.”

It is apt that this reignited discussion over whether US states should fly the Confederate flag has been spurred by events in South Carolina, and specifically Charleston, which has a storied place in the history of the Confederacy.

Not long after Abraham Lincoln’s election as president in 1860, seven southern states seceded from the Union (the United States) and formed an unrecognised confederation, the Confederate States of America. The first state to secede after the election of Lincoln – who was opposed to the expansion of the slave trade – was South Carolina.

This attempted partition of the United States, which for the South was largely over the potential economic impacts of limits being placed on the slave industry, led to the American Civil War.

On January 6, 1861, the first shots of the Civil War were fired from Charleston harbour on the South Carolina coast. The southern combatants were fighting to maintain white supremacy over the African-American population, which was enforced through the established and profitable industry of human bondage.

Last week, on June 17 more than 150 years later, shots were again fired in Charleston, for the same purpose – and from another shooter who, generations removed, swears by the Confederate flag. In Dylann Roof’s mind, as in the minds of all who have fought for the Confederate cause, the flag represents a value system that seeks to ensure the black population of America never breaks free from the shackles of slave labour.

What is the Confederate flag?

There have been several iterations of the Confederate flag, the first known as the ‘Stars and Bars’.

The ‘Stars and Bars’ was flown from 1861 to May 1863 but during the first years of the Civil War, there was a strong push to have it changed, due to the aesthetic similarities between the US flag – the Stars and Stripes – and the Stars and Bars, which agitated southern separatists.

As quoted in The New York Times, Southern Literary Messenger editor George Bagby wrote in 1862; “Every body wants a new Confederate flag…The present one is universally hated. It resembles the Yankee flag and that is enough to make it unutterably detestable.”

In May, 1863 the Confederacy officially changed its national flag to ‘The Stainless Banner’, which features the key design element of all subsequent versions of the Confederate flag – a blue saltire over a red background, with 13 white stars inside the saltire to represent each state of the Confederacy.

The design of the new flag, combined with greater southern animosity towards the north and a stronger sense of southern nationalism, led to it being viewed as, “more than a soldier’s flag; it became a political flag, associated with the Confederate government, nation and cause.”

Contemporarily, the Confederacy is generally represented by the ‘Battle Flag’, which is the basic design of ‘The Stainless Banner’, expanded across a whole flag.

After the Civil War ended, in the ensuing 150 years the flag became a symbol of Southern pride. While many southerners consider it an emblem of the region’s culture and people, it has also been used by white supremacist groups, including the Ku Klux Klan, as a symbol of Neo-Confederate values and racism.

Do politicians want to see the Confederate flag taken down?

The debate over the Confederate flag being flown outside South Carolina’s statehouse has become a national debate since the Charleston shootings.

Republican candidate and former governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee said the flag discussion is not a federal issues and should be left to the discretion of state legislatures. This is a dramatic turnaround for Mr Huckabee, who during the 2008 president campaign was very clear in expressing his views on the issue; “if somebody came to Arkansas and told us what to do with our flag, we’d tell them what to do with the pole; that’s what we’d do.”

Other Republican presidential candidates, including Scott Walker, Ted Cruz and Rick Santorum, have echoed the sentiment that decisions on whether to fly the flag should be left to the states.

Walker did however voice his support for Governor Haley’s call to take down the flag, two days later. Other political candidates have said unequivocally that the flag needs to be taken down.

Take down the #ConfederateFlag at the SC Capitol. To many, it is a symbol of racial hatred. Remove it now to honor #Charleston victims.

— Mitt Romney (@MittRomney) June 20, 2015Good point, Mitt. 杭州桑拿,杭州夜生活,/Ryusfp8Xbh

— President Obama (@POTUS) June 21, 2015

Democrat candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders also said they support the flag being brought down. Jeb Bush, who was involved in the decision to remove the Confederate flag from the Florida state house, was the Republican presidential candidate to take the strongest stance in favour of removal.

My perspective on the Confederate flag issue: 杭州桑拿网,杭州夜生活,/4HG9CPuz92 pic.twitter杭州桑拿会所,/As7iKYE78w

— Jeb Bush (@JebBush) June 20, 2015What did the Confederacy represent?

The reasons for the formation of the Confederate States of America and its secession after Abraham Lincoln’s election are largely unambiguous.

As historian and President of Harvard University, Drew Gilpin Faust notes, “in public discussion of both the war’s origins and its purposes, southerners repeatedly cited slavery as a fundamental source of sectional conflict and a foundation for their peculiar national identity.”

“Journalists throughout the South reiterated and reinforced the identification of not just southern politics, but the fundamental character of the South itself with slavery.

“Far from marginal within Confederate nationalism, slavery was central to southerners’ understanding of their purposes.”

Through the 1800s, the slave trade was a foundational and essential element of the US’s economy and industry, and across the broader south, the Confederate flag became the defining symbol of the region’s desire to maintain this status quo.

The Confederacy’s rationale for wanting to allow the slave trade to continue operating unfettered is not hard to discern. Florida secessionist and South Carolina native John C. McGehee, articulated the reasoning in clear terms just prior to the start of the Civil War in 1861; “At the South…slavery is the element of all value, and a destruction of that destroys all that is property.”

As Professor Roger L. Ransom has noted, “In 1805 there were just over one million slaves worth about $300 million; fifty-five years later there were four million slaves worth close to $3 billion.”

“In the 11 states that eventually formed the Confederacy, four out of 10 people were slaves in 1860, and these people accounted for more than half the agricultural labor in those states.

“The value of capital invested in slaves roughly equaled the total value of all farmland and farm buildings in the South.”

The Southern economy of the time did not involve human slavery, it relied on the low overall labour costs of maintaining slaves. Slave labour equalled critical and cost-effective human capital.

In regions that relied on cotton production and trade, the economic importance of slaves was greater still. The cotton industry, which relied on slave labour, was critical to the financial stability of the country, accounting for half the value of total exports from the country by the mid-1930s.

Professor Ransom notes the similarities in growth trends between the value of the slave population and the export of cotton from the United States.

The Confederacy fought on an agenda which prioritised the maintenance and protection of the slave trade. If contemporary Neo-Confederate values represent anything, it is this.

What about the Confederacy in South Carolina?

In the pre-Civil War years, when much of the south was shamelessly reliant on slaves as financial instruments, the state of South Carolina held more slaves per capita than any other.

According to 1860 census data, the slave population in South Carolina was 402,406, and the ‘free’ population was 301,302. That means more than 57 per cent of the state’s population were slaves.

South Carolina was unambiguous in its reasoning for seceding from the Union once Lincoln was elected.

As Ta-Nehisi Coates cites at The Atlantic, the state’s declaration of cause for seceding from the Union is far from vague: “A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery.”

South Carolina was instrumental in the formation of the Confederacy and the fight for the continuation of an economy reliant on slave labour. The flapping of the Confederate flag outside the state capital is a reflection of this legacy.

How has the corporate sector responded?

In the wake of the Charleston shooting and subsequent public calls for the Confederate flag to be taken down wherever it flies, several major retailers have moved pre-emptively, announcing they will cease stocking material with Confederate insignia.

Major retail chains Walmart and Sears announced they would stop selling any product with a Confederate flag, as did online retail giants eBay and Amazon.

In a statement, a Walmart spokesperson said the company has “taken steps to remove all items promoting the Confederate flag from our assortment – whether in our stores or on our website.”

Perhaps even more significant, major flag manufacturer Valley Forge Flag announced it would stop producing Confederate flags.

A spokesperson for the company said: “We hope that this decision will show our support for those affected by the recent events in Charleston and, in some small way, help to foster racial unity and tolerance in our country.”