In a seeming paradox, it is often the most flamboyantly patriotic Americans who appoint themselves guardians of a discredited rebel flag. A century and a half after the Union and Confederate flags were flown by armies at war, a certain kind of conservative thinks nothing of celebrating both symbols, sometimes even on the same hoodie. This strikes some as comically contradictory. “Nothing says ‘America First’ quite like Trump’s unadulterated support for the Confederacy,” the Lincoln Project, a band of Never Trump Republicans, sarcastically tweeted earlier this month after the president announced that he would “not even consider the renaming of...Magnificent and Fabled Military Installations” bearing the names of Confederate generals. The Lincoln Project evidently thinks the two ideologies are incompatible. Yet for most of U.S. history, patriotism and white supremacy, the values supposedly embodied by the two flags, have hardly been at odds. Rather, they have been mutually constitutive and disturbingly aligned.
For the four years of the Civil War, the advocates of racial oppression and political reaction endeavored to destroy the United States; for fourscore years before that, however, they were the country’s most stalwart friends. In the period only later dubbed the antebellum era, white Southerners weren’t aching to leave the Union. Instead, they sought to strengthen it, expand it, and further solidify their control of its most powerful and least representative institutions: the Senate, the presidency, and the Supreme Court.
Until Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860, many Southern whites, including slaveholders, considered themselves loyal Americans—even, they incessantly boasted, the most loyal. After their states moved to secede and form a rival Southern nation, Confederates believed they were the ones holding true, if not to the flag they had always revered, at least to what it had always stood for: slavery, states’ rights, and white supremacy. Southern slaveholders, nearly to a man, loved and cherished the Union and were sorry to depart it. They seceded only to remain loyal to the country and the Constitution as they understood it. “If we cannot save the Union, we may save the blessings it enshrines,” one reverend preached in New Orleans in November 1860. “If we cannot preserve the vase, we will preserve the precious liquor it contains.”
The Confederates worshipped the American revolutionaries, especially fellow slave-holding rebels like George Washington (the “first rebel president,” they called him), and saw themselves as continuing his work, not repudiating it. The first flag they adopted, in 1861, so resembled the familiar old standard it confused soldiers on the battlefield and had to be replaced.
Treason was the plank of the Confederate political program with which many rebels were least comfortable and which they disposed of as rapidly as possible after the war. The vice president of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens of Georgia, best known today for the notorious “Cornerstone” speech in which he declared racial inequality the fundamental idea of the new Southern nation, had opposed the drive toward secession. He quickly reversed himself after Georgia decided to secede despite his objections, and was appointed to the second-highest position in the Confederate government specifically in a bid to unite the divided and ambivalent master class.
Shortly after Appomattox, former Confederates were once again offering odes to the glorious Union they had so recently attempted to destroy. This wasn’t hypocrisy; it made sense. While they were proud of the attempt they had made to stand up for their supposed rights, the defeated rebels now recognized that their patriotic forefathers had been right after all: The Union itself offered the best protection for the system of racial subordination and unfree labor they depended on, and which they now sought to re-establish in fact if not in name. In 1867, just two years after the collapse of Southern independence, a former Confederate senator from Georgia named Benjamin Hill called the Union “the wisest, noblest, and grandest contribution ever made by the human intellect to the science of government.” To Hill’s mind, both the United States and the Confederacy represented the same thing: a nation founded on white supremacy. The rebellion that created one had succeeded; the other had failed. But so long as the first recommitted itself to the doctrines of racial hierarchy that had defined it until the war, the ex-rebels’ loyalty to it would once again be absolute. (Seven years after giving that speech, Hill was elected to the U.S. Congress.)
Wealthy white Southerners like Hill trusted that the four years of death and suffering would convince Americans in the North never again to challenge the fundamental compromises that had been made in order to enact the Constitution in the first place. And they were right. After 1877, when Republicans agreed to withdraw military troops from the South in exchange for allowing their presidential candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes, to take office after a disputed election, the effort to reconstruct the Union on more equitable, democratic, enlightened terms was aborted. The end of Reconstruction signalled a return to the great American political tradition of compromise for the sake of national unity, whatever the cost—especially if that cost was to be paid by people of color. “Some of the war’s greatest results, the civil and political liberties of African Americans, were slowly becoming sacrificial offerings on the altar of reunion,” historian David Blight has observed.
As they had before the war, many Northerners once again sympathized with the traditional Southern equation of patriotism with respect for the right of the white citizens of each state to take charge of their own affairs. The 1877 pact confirmed the Confederates’ original contention that union was possible on no other terms than those amenable to white supremacy. Georgia’s Robert Toombs, a former Confederate general and cabinet official, pledged his willingness “to face thirty years of war to get rid of negro suffrage in the South.” Hardly any Northerners were willing to face the same to keep it in place.
For almost a century after the rebellion, Northerners eagerly participated in the heavily symbolic dramas of reunification intended to place the sectional conflict firmly in the past. Confederate monuments were erected, statues of eminent rebels placed in the national capitol, their names affixed to the military bases of the army they fought against. All this was part of an attempt to reunite the nation and submerge past differences. Northerners didn’t even have to work hard to reabsorb the former traitors into the fold of national identity. It was easy. The Confederate ideology blended smoothly with the predominant strain of American patriotism, especially its unquestioning faith in racial despotism and fetishization of national unity. Confederate nationalism was integrated into the story that generations of American schoolchildren imbibed. The Civil War was deemed a disturbing and regrettable interruption to an otherwise enviable and heartwarming saga in which the well-being of the nation was and would forever remain predicated on the perpetuation of white supremacy—and, as importantly, vice versa.
A sign at a recent Black Lives Matter protest in Providence, Rhode Island, quoted the scholar Chenjerai Kumanyika: “We’re trying to become something this country has never been.” An apt and inspiring message. But it also suggests the scale of the challenge ahead. Tearing down the statues and renaming the bases is only the beginning. There is much more, and more difficult, work to do. America has never been the kind of nation capable of condemning the Confederacy to lasting infamy. To call the Confederate battle flag an emblem of national heritage, then, is not entirely wrong. Mocking those who cherish the banners of both sides in the Civil War only makes sense if the two symbols are in conflict, as they have only rarely ever been. And if the United States flag is to mean something other than what slaveholders before and ex-Confederates after the Civil War thought it meant, it will be up to us to make it so.