25 February 2016

Are Mainstream Civil War Magazines Racist?

No, they're not. The question is, of course, a rhetorical one. I subscribe to several popular Civil War publications and enjoy all of them very much. However, if you agree with the "logic" of some folks, one might be able to at least make the accusation. Allow me to explain. 

A recent post at Civil War Memory gives us a great example of competing interpretations and perspectives regarding the Confederate flag. First, we have what some might consider the "moral reformer" perspective as posited by Kevin Levin (author of one book about the War Between the States):

"the battle flag belongs in a museum where it can be properly interpreted."

Fine, but that's just his opinion.  

But what prompted Levin voicing his opinion on the Confederate flag were remarks by Professor James I. Robertson, Jr. (author of more than 20 books on the Civil War) in which Dr. Robertson states that the Confederate flag "was stolen from the South"; another perspective held by many Americans. The remark evidently shocked Levin. I guess Dr. Robertson should have issued a trigger-warning.

Dr. Robertson was referring to the Confederate flag being appropriated for other uses, many of those bigoted and racist. And he is correct, despite Levin's claims to the contrary. Levin's post was then followed by readers making these comments regarding anyone who displays a Confederate flag outside a museum setting:
We defend the right of anyone to be a racist (and thanks to all of you who fly the flag for letting me know exactly what you are).
there is no way that your display will not be interpreted as white supremacist, racist, 
you of course have every right to display the Confederate flag in your home, on your truck, etc. Nobody should use force to stop you. But to do so is a racist act
The CBF today is used for racist purposes and or total ignorance. 
We've been down this road many times, nothing new here. And, as noted before, many of the things said about the Confederate flag could be (and are being) said about the American flag, - a fact Levin and his readers conveniently ignore. It's the proverbial elephant in the room. But that's a bridge too far for even these folks - at least for now anyway.

I suppose we could take these generalizations about the display of the Confederate flag to the next logical step. Lots of respected authors and historians speak to Sons of Confederate Camps and events on a regular basis. Many (if not most) SCV members display Confederate flags and symbols as a matter of ancestral and regional pride. This is a well known fact and not something unknown by the speakers prior to their agreeing to speak. So should we assume that these authors and historians are associating with "racists"? Are they guilty by association? The same analogy could be used regarding Civil War Roundtables; many of which use the CBF in their logos and often display the CBF at their meetings. Since they are displaying the CBF outside a museum setting, are they tainted with the charge as well?

And, as I've pointed out before, what about historians who support and write for popular Civil War magazines which display ads selling trinkets and heritage type items featuring images of the Confederate flag? If it's racist to display the CBF outside of a museum, then what is it to profit from publications that advertise it's "non-museum" display? For example, the ad shown at the beginning of this post which advertises a "pride of the South" watch featuring the CBF and which appeared last year in an issue of the Civil War Monitor (to which I subscribe). That's just one example. I could provide scores of other similar ads from other mainstream Civil War publications, such as the one below which, ironically, appeared in the October 2015 issue of the Civil War Times featuring an article about the flag by noted Confederate flag expert John M. Coski and entitled, "Embattled Banner" -

The ad above featuring the jacket includes the following text: 
The spirit of the south still runs deep, rooted in its heritage, and in those who bravely fought in the Civil War alongside visionary commanders like Robert E. Lee. Their gallantry has survived and gained undying admiration.
Neither of the Confederate Battle Flag images appearing in these ads are "in a museum." They will not be "interpreted" in a museum. They are, as advertised, explicitly a display based on regional pride. Based on what many of the commenters at the Civil War Memory post wrote, should we assume that those who would purchase and wear such items are "racists"? But what about the company advertising the product? Do they get off untainted? What about subscribers? They're indirectly supporting the ads, whether they purchase the item or not. What about the magazine - are they marketing to "racists"? And what about all those associated in a professional sense with the magazine, are they tainted as well? Maybe it's ok if you're profiting in some way for the display of the CBF, even in a non-museum setting.

What utter hypocrisy and phoniness.

In the Coski article mentioned above, Coski discusses the history of the flag and does not shrink from discussing its misuse. However, he wisely and correctly argues that the flag is anything but one dimensional:
The flag never ceased being the flag of the Confederate soldier and still today commands wide respect as a memorial to the Confederate soldier. 
Coski also alludes to the fact that the symbolism of the flag could, in fact, be perceived as being "stolen" as Dr. Robertson claimed:
Confederate heritage organizations correctly perceived the Dixiecrat movement and the flag fad as a profound threat to their ownership of the Confederate flag. [Emphasis mine.]
And Coski also correctly assesses how the symbolic display of the flag has evolved far beyond both its original meaning, as well as its bigoted misuse:
As the dam burst on Confederate flag material culture and heritage groups lost control of the flag, it acquired a new identity as a symbol of "rebellion" divorced from the historical context of the Confederacy. Truckers, motorcycle riders, and "good old boys" (most famously depicted in the popular television show The Dukes of Hazzard) gave the flag a new meaning that transcends the South and even the United States. [Emphasis mine.]
If the symbolism of the flag has evolved once, it can (and has) evolve again; something critics routinely ignore as they advance an agenda.

And, as I've predicted, not even museums are safe from the charges, as one of Levin's readers pointed out:
. . . about the Confederate battle flag belonging in a museum, I recently read an article proposing that the flag should not be in public museums, either . . . In the author’s opinion, Confederate relics like the flag are not worthy of such space.
Well of course. Please don't tell me you're surprised. It's going to get worse. This is the natural progression of the professional historian moral reformer mindset. Just as I predicted two weeks ago when the National Civil War Museum was criticized for displaying William Quantrill's revolver: "you're going to see more and more of it - thanks, in large part, to the current 'moral reformer' class of historians. Pretending to be an innocent bystander ain't gonna work." They've painted themselves into a politically correct corner.

One of the important take-aways from the post at CWM, along with the apparently agreeing comments, is that we need not guess which "interpretation" of the Confederate flag will take place in museums if these folks have their preference: The Confederate flag is only to be interpreted with a narrow, one-dimensional perspective: as an evil image of slavery and bigotry, thus advancing the moral crusade.

Former Virginia Senator Jim Webb put it this way:
The greatest disservice on this count has been the attempt by these revisionist politicians and academics to defame the entire Confederate Army in a move that can only be termed the Nazification of the Confederacy. Often cloaked in the argument over the public display of the Confederate battle flag, the syllogism goes something like this: Slavery is evil. The soldiers of the Confederacy fought for a system that wished to preserve it. Therefore they were evil as well, and any attempt to honor their service is a veiled effort to glorify the cause of slavery. ~ From Born Fighting by former Virginia Senator James Webb
In my opinion, suggesting that anyone and everyone who displays a Confederate flag or image outside of a museum should automatically be assumed to be a "racist" reveals an agenda other than anything to do with understanding our history. If the moral reformers want to make that ridiculous claim, then they'll have to include a lot more persons, institutions and publications than they are currently doing.

Let's see how far that goes.

Finally, Coski concluded his piece in Civil War Times by writing:
Studying the flag's full history also allows us to engage in a more constructive dialogue about its proper place in the present and in the future. 
I agree. And I would add that the knee-jerk reaction of assuming everyone who displays a Confederate flag is a "racist" not only ruins any chance of constructive dialogue, it is also patently absurd and irresponsible.


cenantua said...

Hi Richard,

The thing I find is that the flag, despite what Dr. Robertson states, really wasn't stolen from the South, but was carried into an offshoot definition of meaning by (arguably, a continuation of opinion already held in some, before the war) some of those who fought under it initially. Some of those same people actually fought for slavery, and some likely fought for other reasons. I'd even argue that the postwar likely developed a resentment (of freed blacks) in some Southerners who may have not gone to war, initially, in the defense of slavery. Nonetheless, despite his rejection of the distinction made between wartime and postwar use of the flag, I still see Kevin Levin's view on that to be monolithic.

"Regardless of whether a soldier was a slave owner or whether he acknowledged why he was fighting in a letter, diary or memoir, every soldier was fighting for a nation pledged to protect the institution of slavery. The Army of Northern Virginia functioned as the military arm of that government. The harder they fought and the more battles they won the closer they came to bringing this goal to fruition."

Sure, every soldier was, technically, fighting for a nation established on the defense of slavery. Yet, why is it convenient (as it seems) in his post to also ignore the complexities behind the soldiers? I think there are enough examples to show that, while the Confederate soldier was aware of the slavery angle on the Confederacy, it may have been secondary to their own personal interests/concerns. I'd posit that there was a strong possibility that some may have served at the expense of personal opinions of the institution of slavery (feeling personally threatened at the thought of troops formed outside your region coming to your back door trumped the "for slavery" point, for example). I've done enough studies of soldiers in the Valley (and thoughts of prewar residents in the Valley) to see this as a very strong possibility. I strongly believe that the statement, "They are in arms, but not for the same objects; they are moved to a common end, but by different and even inconsistent reasons" is worthy of consideration, even when we take into consideration the "memory" in the CBF. Incidentally, that "end" was not necessarily the continuation of slavery, but successful defense of the South. Frankly, I think, if there was a Confederate victory, regional (within the South) differences in opinion over slavery would have opened up another bag of worms that we can't even begin to speculate on (too many variables, and I hate speculative history).

As for the chatter in the comments that subscribe to the "We defend the right of anyone to be a racist" approach based on a personal identified association to the flag, it's just that, and I don't consider it serious discussion of the war or the flag. For not rebuking those comments, Levin is, I think, demonstrating something in itself.

cenantua said...

Also, the source of “They are in arms, but not for the same objects; they are moved to a common end, but by different and even inconsistent reasons” comes from a wartime piece (1862)... and is not postwar "Lost Cause apologist".


Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

"was carried into an offshoot definition of meaning"

Yes, I agree. I think Robertson was specifically referring to non-Veteran organizations and uses.

"ignore the complexities behind the soldiers?"

I originally started to use the post to specifically address that as well, but it became too convoluted and long for a blog post. Maybe part 2.

"I don't consider it serious discussion of the war or the flag."

No, it's not serious, but I believe it needed a response since, as you point out, Levin let it go without disagreement.

Thanks for the insightful comment Robert.

Jubilo said...

Dear Old Dom.,

Really now, does anyone read Kevin the Carpetbagger anymore?

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

David - actually, yes. Give credit where credit is due. He has a large and faithful following but, as the evidence mounts around us, popularity is not always an indication of one's correct grasp of the truth. Thanks for reading and commenting.

Michael Aubrecht said...

VERY well written

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Thanks Michael. Hope all is going well with you.

BorderRuffian said...

Levin has had articles published in those "racist" magazines.
He's helped to sell more Confederate flag items than you and me put together.

Eddie said...

I cannot imagine why there is no current blacklash on the Stars and Stripes with the effort of the U.S. Congress and U.S. President to preserve slavery via the Corwin Amendment. Or the eight slave States which opted to remain in the Union until Lincoln forced them out of it. Or, ultimately, the four slave States which remained under the Stars and Stripes fighting against the Confederacy. I honor and respect the Confederate soldier for the reason which William C. Davis has written about, "The widespread northern myth that the Confederates went to the battlefield to perpetuate slavery is just that, a myth. Their letters and diaries, in the tens-of-thousands, reveal again and again, that they fought and died because their Southern homeland was invaded and their natural instinct was to protect their home and hearth."

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

BR - Ha! Poetic justice?

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Eddie - the reasons for fighting were as varied as they are today. Slavery was certainly one of the reasons, but as you point out, there were many others as well.

All The Cats said...

May I say Sir that after reading this very fine piece, I have rarely been more proud of my Louisiana Confederate Cavalrymen ancestors and what they actually fought for and in some instances, died for. I find it very hard, very hard indeed, when I have Andersonville thrown at me to not respond with my own list of my family that died in Federal Captivity at places like "Hellmira."

As a gentleman, I normally strive to apply the example of General Robert E. Lee who simply replied when some scurrilous comment was made about him that as he was a gentleman, no lie could ever do him any harm whereas the truth would only inure to his credit.

My one regret, after reading this is that I cannot offer you my hand in person and stand you to a drink and dinner in small recompense for your very heartfelt sentiments.

I have taken the liberty of forwarding this to my niece now finishing her last semester at Harvard. I doubt that it will do any good whatsoever with her ocean of PC wallowing but sometimes a man just has to stand up.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Thank you ATC!

Ralph Steel said...

The confederate flag was not stolen from the south. The KKK of today which is claimed to have co-opted the flag is the same KKK that was begun by men who fought under that flag between 1861-65!

I. Adair said...

Mr Williams:

This piece you have written must be the most clear-headed I have seen on the subject of the flag. Yes, the flag has been stolen and misappropriated by some who are very unsavory characters. But that does not erase the fact that it was meant to represent those men who took to the battlefield--to repel what they believed was an illegal invasion. My great-great-great grandfathers, who were very far from wealthy, fought not to assist the small number of people who owned slaves, but to defend their shack-dwelling families and their part of the world. (Incidentally, I find it incomprehensible that Yankees and scalawags say my ancestors should have joined the invading Union troops instead and blown away their own families and neighbors.) An ancestor of mine was murdered by Klan members in his own home, but that does not mean that I should accept the Klan's wrongful use of the battle flag as the legitimate interpretation of the flag. To be consistent, I would have to stop flying the U.S. flag for what the U.S. government has done over the decades. All that being said, I can't wait to refer a few misguided people to your article!

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Thanks Ralph, but it's a bit more complicated than that. Try to bring your A game when you comment here.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...


Thanks much for the kind words and for taking the time to comment.

"my ancestors should have joined the invading Union troops instead and blown away their own families and neighbors."

Yes, the suggesting is quite troubling, isn't it?

Michael Bradley said...

To claim that all those who display a Confederate flag are racists is an excellent example of stereotyping----which is itself an indicaton of prejudice! In short, those who make such a statement are themselves acting in a racist fashion.

By the way, there is no organic connection between the Reconstruction-era Klan and the various groups which today use the same or similar names. I know of no historian or of any historical evidence which would support such a claim.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Hello Michael - good to hear from you. Of course it's stereotyping. It's so juvenile. It's like arguing with a bunch of MSNBC talking heads.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Levin doubles down:

"I have little patience for the discussion of whether every display of the Confederate flag on private property reflects a racist intent or message. Given the history of the Confederate battle flag, from the Civil War to today, apart from a few exceptions there is little reason to give you the benefit of the doubt."

So does that mean we should assume he's cool with the various magazines mentioned above being associated with the same charge? Just asking. How do you differentiate? Why do the magazines get "the benefit of the doubt"?

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Levin's latest remark certainly does not, in Coski's words, allow "us to engage in a more constructive dialogue." But I don't really believe "constructive dialogue" is the ultimate goal in a lot of these instances. This certainly doesn't resemble anything close to the scholarly approach Coski takes in the CWT piece.

Anonymous said...

Kevin displays the Confederate flag every day on his blog.

Adding comments does not wipe out the flags on every page of his blog.

If anybody wants to find a lot of pictures of the racist flag, then all they need to do is go to that site.

He is just distributing the pictures all over the internet.
If he didn't comment on them under Fair Use, then he could be charged with copyright infringement, with unlawfully distributing copyrighted pictures.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

He would argue HIS use of the flag is ok, since it's for "scholarly" (sic) discussion. As an interesting side note, it also adorns the cover of his book: front and center. Was that absolutely necessary?

ropelight said...

I'm delighted to see the Dixie Cross flyin' free. It makes me feel good, proud of myself, my state, my region, and my country. There's no denying brave and honorable Americans fought and died fighting both for and against the Confederate Battle Flag.

It's every bit as much a part of our national history as the Liberty Bell, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, or Old Glory.

Anyone, anyone, who can't or won't acknowledge that simple fact, isn't much of an American.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...


"It's every bit as much a part of our national history as the Liberty Bell, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, or Old Glory."

Indeed. And, with those words in mind, you should like part 2 - coming up soon.