The Never Ending Battle over the Confederate Battle Flag

By Colin Woodward

When I was in Richmond over the holidays, I spent some time in the Museum District, where I lived while I was an archivist at the Virginia Historical Society. While driving down the Boulevard one afternoon, I saw protestors outside the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. A handful of people were picketing that the VMFA was not respecting the Confederate battle flag and the South’s “heritage.” I had no idea what this was about, but I was surprised to see that one of the protestors was African American.

After doing a little research, I discovered that a group calling itself Virginia Flaggers wants the VMFA to fly a Confederate battle flag (not to be confused with the Confederate national flag) at the Lee Memorial Chapel, which is visible on the VMFA grounds. Apparently, the chapel is owned by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who lease the chapel property to the VMFA. In 2010, the VMFA renewed its lease with the SCV, which, at the VMFA’s request, took down the battle flag. But now, the Virginia Flaggers–who probably have little to do now that the Tea Baggers have been shouted down by the Occupy Movement–want the flag put back up.

I don’t see what the Flaggers hope to gain. I can’t imagine why the VMFA would give in to a few protestors, who apparently can’t get enough visible evidence that Richmond was the Confederate capital. Are the monuments to Lee, Jackson, Stuart, and Jefferson Davis not enough? Or the flag that flies over the UDC building, which is right next door to the VMFA (and is not, tellingly, open to the public)? I would answer, yes.

The Virginia Historical Society was once housed in Robert E. Lee’s home. Later, it was moved to its present location on the Boulevard in a building called Battle Abbey. The Rebel flag, however, does not fly at the VHS, which is one reason why the building is the state’s premiere source for Virginia history. You cannot hope to attract a wide, respectable audience while flying a flag that offends a large number of Americans. Yet, the Virginia Flaggers are offended that the VMFA have removed an offensive symbol on property it pays for.

The VMFA is a first-rate institution that recently spent millions of dollars to renovate and expand. The improved and sunny VMFA is a symbol of Richmond entering the 21st century. The Confederate battle flag, however, is a relic of the 19th, something that backward-looking people embrace. Sometimes the flag is used hatefully by the KKK; other times it is flown more innocently, as at an Ole Miss game.

Does the battle flag symbolize more than slavery and the oppression of African Americans? Sure. But in future, the fewer Confederate flags you see flying in public view, the better for Richmond and the South. To add more flags to the southern landscape, even at historical sites, is at best a little embarrassing. The VMFA holds a wonderful collection of artifacts from all periods of history. It contains a memorable portrait of a Confederate soldier returning home titled “The Lost Cause.” It is moving in a way that a thousand people waving Confederate flags at a parade is not.

The Lost Cause by Henry Mosler, held by the VMFA.

John Coski, who works at the Museum of the Confederacy in downtown Richmond, wrote a terrific book, The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem. I’m sure he will have no shortage of materials should he decide to write a new chapter in a later addition of the book.

Colin Woodward is a historian and archivist. He is the author of Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2014). He is writing a second book on Johnny Cash.

12 thoughts on “The Never Ending Battle over the Confederate Battle Flag

  1. This is a sad piece, obviously by someone who is ashamed of Confederate history. To see this kind of writing, 25 years after “The South Was Right” was published, 15 years after “When in the Course of Human Events” was published, and several years after “Lincoln Unmasked” and “Hamilton’s Curse” were printed shows how far we have to go to stop the hate and get the truth out. The Confederate flag is enjoying a resurgence, and some of its most vocal supporters are African American. You can’t keep telling the same lies forever, and hope people will not learn the truth. The mess our country is in today, stems from the end of our republic with the downfall of the Confederacy. Every evil predicted by the Founders came to pass, as they knew that man is sinful, and incapable of controlling himself. They put strict limits on government to protect the country, but that was undone, and a dictatorship of the elite was loosed upon our land. Only the truth can save us, and time is running out.

    • I don’t the issue of the Confederate battle flag is synonymous with Confederate history. Many who have waved the flag, put it on their car bumpers, had it stitched on a hunting cap, or bought a commemorative plate with the flag on it, have had very little understanding of Confederate history…. When it comes to the Founders, they were not, on the whole, anti-government. They were also of the elite: Jefferson and Washington were both large planters. The Founders did not have faith in pure democracy. John Adams, a prosperous lawyer, for one, believed government was necessary to control the passions of sinful man. If you think the Confederacy was the last real fight against big government and rule by elites, it was not. The Confederacy was run by wealthy men who vastly expanded government powers in wartime. During the war, the Confederate government became more intrusive into the daily lives of its citizens than the North did through the draft, slave impressment, and a tax-in-kind. But, all this has very little to do with the issue in Richmond. People can protest the VMFA’s actions. That’s their right. But I think the VMFA is doing the right thing. They aren’t undermining Richmond’s claim to be the Confederate history capital one bit.

  2. Personally I think you are wrong. This is a Confederate monument and should be allowed to display the battle flag as well as any other flag they wish to fly. It amazes me that the hoopla is over a flag that was carried into battle — not the flag of the Confederacy. If the 1st National Flag is allowed to be flown — which is the official flag — not allowing the battle flag to be flown seems, to me, to be a little ridiculous.

    The VMFA should have known that if they were going to be in charge of a Confederate monument, they would have to be historically correct — and that would be the allowing of any Confederate flag to fly over the monument.

    • So long as the VMFA has control over the site, I see no reason why the museum would give in to the “heritage” crowd. If my landlord is okay with me painting my apartment, I don’t see why the original coat has to be there, even if it’s what some of my neighbors want and might be “historically correct.”

      This whole argument is silly. The Lee chapel was not an official Confederate site, unlike the Confederate White House downtown. That anyone has flown a battle flag near the VMFA is completely arbitrary. Even real Confederate buildings did not fly battle flags out front (sensibly, because it was a BATTLE FLAG).

      • Your final statement is probably the most relevant. It was a battle flag. However, it seems that an organization like VMFA should be able to put forth that argument – and not have it originate in an internet blog. I am from Virginia originally, and I now live in Massachusetts. It seems that there is more of an issue with the flying of the battle flag in the South than there is here in New England. Many people I talk with here (I run a Civil War reading group and take part in Living History events and re-enactments, as a Confederate) cannot understand what the problem is. One gentleman said to me a couple of weeks ago that it seems like political correctness is running amok in the South — trying to deny its heritage in order to please a few.

      • I don’t think it’s a matter of political correctness or pleasing “a few.” Richmond is majority African American city. That fact, combined with the fact that many white people who live there are not from Virginia (or the South, for that matter) means most Richmonders, I think we can assume, would rather see more flags pulled down than put up. But that doesn’t really matter. Once the VMFA’s lease runs out on the site, the Confederate groups can fly their flag at the site. Until then, they should let this issue go. The absence or presence of a flag doesn’t really affect a site’s historical value. I shudder when I hear rumors of the Confederate White House moving to Appomattox. Moving something like that would do far more damage to Richmond’s heritage–good or bad. The loss of a symbolic and political thing (the flag), which can be easily reproduced, is far less important than the loss of a truly historical thing (the building).

  3. The White House of the Confederacy is not moving to Appomattox . Instead, a new MOC has been built there, and recently opened. The original MOC remains in Richmond. The VMFA has control over the Confederate Memorial Chapel. They lease it to a camp of the SCV.

  4. Your comment about Richmond being a predominantly African-American ( a term I do not like because you are either an American or not — can you imagine every group hyphenating their nationality: Scottish-American, Lithuanian-American, Norwegian-American, etc…..) city intrigues me. Are you talking about just inner city Richmond or the greater Richmond metropolitan area? Whatever….. I was speaking with a black man in Harrisonburg a few weeks ago and he said that the Confederate battle flag does not offend him, and that his main concern is that if everybody is forced to take it down people will start to forget about the issues of slavery and the South — sort of an out-of-sight, out-of-mind thing. His belief is that is long as the flag is visible there will be discussion about it and what it does/does not represent.

    • The city of Richmond proper (roughly 200,000) people is mostly African American. I’m not going to get into the appropriateness of the term “African American.” “Black” is fine, too, sometimes, though that’s also a problematic term. If you want to call yourself Scottish American, go for it…. It’s an interesting point about the flag keeping the discussion of slavery/race going. I’m no advocate of taking all the flags down. That’s silly. The Flagger issue is more focused than that. Dixie wouldn’t be Dixie without the Stars and Bars in some places. And the battleflag isn’t necessarily offensive when it’s on, say, the Dukes of Hazzard car. It’s really about context. A young woman at Myrtle Beach walking around in a Stars and Bars bikini isn’t that threatening. But when the battleflag is flown at a Klan rally, it’s a very different symbol. The Flaggers are pretty harmless overall. But that doesn’t make what they’re doing right.

  5. What did you mean by your comment about the United Daughters of the Confederacy Memorial Building: “not, tellingly, open to the public.” What does ‘tellingly’ mean? For your information, it is the headquarters of the UDC. It is not a museum. Our business office is there. There is a genealogical library open for research by appointment We ARE open to the public on the Saturday closest to President Jefferson Davis’ birthday, this year, on June 2nd at 2:00 pm

    Why don’t you attend?

  6. Doesn’t the term, “stars and bars”, refer to the First National Flag of the Confederacy?
    Correct me if I am mistaken. The insulting way the Battle Flag is used is disgraceful, but there is no way we can protect it. I don’t think it does much good to appeal to the better nature of folks.
    People should be taught how to carry it, so as not to let it drag in the dust.

    • You’re quite right about the Stars and Bars referring to the first national flag.

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