A review of John M. Coski, The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem. (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005).

John M. Coski received his Ph.D. in history at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia in 1987. He was a historian at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia from 1988 until it merged with the American Civil War Center in Richmond in 2013 to form the American Civil War Museum. Thereafter, he was a historian at the American Civil War Museum until his recent retirement. The reviewer heard him speak as a member of a panel of speakers on Confederate monuments at the 2016 Annual Meeting of the National Council on Public History in Baltimore, Maryland. His was the only voice of scholarship and reason on that panel. All of its other members parroted the “woke” propaganda line.

Coski wrote this book after creating an exhibit about the history of the Confederate battle flag at the Museum of the Confederacy. The book covers the entire history of the flag and its uses from its creation in at the beginning of the War Between the States in 1861 to the time the book was published in 2005. It is valuable in showing attitudes over the years in regard to the flag especially because it came out a decade before the lies and distortions created by Black Lives Matter following the Dylan Roof shooting and is not attainted by them. Coski shows that the flag has had many different meanings to many different people over the years.

The Confederate battle flag could not be displayed during Reconstruction immediately after Confederate defeat. Its first use after Reconstruction was limited to its display at Confederate memorial ceremonies. The first view presented by Coski is that of the Confederate veterans. The Confederate battle flag was used in the South alongside the United States flag, the U.S. flag (and not one of the Confederate national flags) to represent the national flag to which they owed allegiance and the Confederate battle flag to represent the valor of the Confederate soldiers who served under it. (p. 65) One expression by a Nashville minister in Confederate Veteran magazine for November 1913 of what it meant to him was that it “will ever be cherished in memory as the flag that our armies followed in defense of constitutional liberty and the right of self government.” (p. 74) Union Colonel Andrew Cowan, who is famous for stating the order “Double canister, twenty feet!” at Pickett’s Charge, said to United Confederate Veterans (UCV) Commander George P. Harrison at a reunion of the UCV in Washington, DC in 1917:

“We saw your southern battle flag on a hundred battle fields. It was borne with honor through the war; it was furled with honor at the end. As long as red blood flows in your veins, you will cherish its noble and tender memories in your hearts. We honor you more for that. American valor, proved on the battle fields of the Civil War is the glorious heritage of our sons and our country’s pride.” (“Reunion of Confederate Veterans,” Senate Document No. 65, 65th Congress, 1st Session, 1918, pp. 30-31; quoted in Coski, pp. 74-75.)

In 1907, a Model A Oldsmobile completed a 1,400 mile trip from New York to Daytona Beach, Florida displaying a U.S. flag and a Confederate battle flag on its hood. This use of it represented the South as a region. (Coski, p. 78) Kappa Alpha used the Confederate battle flag starting in the 1920’s and held Dixie Dances, or Old South Balls. (pp. 90-91) The Confederate battle flag was used by Southern troops in World War II. (pp. 91-94)

The Confederate battle flag was not used as a racist symbol until it was used as such by Ku Klux Klan groups starting in 1946. It was used by them in that way only once before when it was carried by the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in a Confederate Memorial Day parade in Atlanta in 1939 along with the U.S. flag. Hodding Carter attacked them for using it, saying that such a despicable group had no right to carry such a sacred flag. Before that time, the Ku Klux Klan groups of the 20th Century usually only displayed the U.S. flag, sometimes accompanied by the Christian flag. (pp.87-88) Its first use as a symbol of segregation was during the 1948 Presidential campaign. It was used as such by Southern members and supporters of the National States Rights Democratic Party, although the National Committee of that party shunned its use because they envisioned the party as a national, and not a sectional, one. (pp. 103-104)

The 1950’s saw the use of the Confederate battle flag as a fad with a large number of different meanings. “The flag ceased being a virtually exclusive symbol of Confederate heritage and became also a widely and carelessly used symbol of many things, including the South as a distinctive region, individual rebelliousness, a self-conscious ‘redneck’ culture, and segregation and racism.” (p. 97) “The 1950’s fad completed the flag’s transformation into a symbol with a myriad of contemporary associations.” (p. 109) It was also used by Southern servicemen in the Korean and Vietnam Wars (pp. 112-119) and as a symbol of opposition to federal usurpation. (p. 120) It was used by numerous organizations and businesses and at stock car races all over the South. (pp. 126-127) It was used by motorcycle gangs in the vein of individual rebelliousness and by segregationists along with the U.S. flag. (p. 145)

It has been used as a symbol of country music by Hank Williams, Jr., Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and Confederate Railroad; by British rhythm and blues band Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers; and as a symbol of Southern rock by such groups as Lynyrd Skynyrd. (p. 174) One example of its use to represent “redneck” culture was and individual rebelliousness was the CBS television series The Dukes of Hazard, which aired from 1979 to 1984. It has been used as a symbol of and by individual truckers. When the reviewer was driving through Northeastern Ohio in 1981, he saw a restaurant with a Confederate battle flag on a lighted sign on the front of it. When he stopped to investigate, he found that it was a restaurant for truckers. He found no Confederate symbols inside the restaurant. The flag was a symbol of national liberation in Eastern Europe in the late 1980’s and was used by those peoples as such a symbol in their overthrow of Soviet Communist rule. It is considered a symbol of individual rebellion and also of American values and culture in Europe today. (pp. 292-293)

The United Daughters of the Confederacy, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and Kappa Alpha sought to prevent misuse of the Confederate battle flag and to limit its use. (p. 123) In opposition to its use by racists, the Birmingham News in 1963 called the Confederate battle flag a “revered” emblem not intended to be used as “a symbol of hate, bigotry, and discord.” (Quoted in Coski, p. 148) The Civil War Centennial Commission from 1961 to 1965 opposed desecration of the Confederate flag and so also did the Virginia General Assembly in 1970. (p. 171) Martin Luther King opposed attacking such symbols as the Confederate flag. Atlanta Journal editor Ralph McGill, a strong supporter of King and the civil rights movement, said of the Confederate battle flag in 1960:

“It is a noble banner, and one greatly revered by friend and foe alike. But the trouble is that the heirs of the past and of those who fought and died for it unfurl the flag at the drop of a hat and, often, for the most unworthy, dubious, and shabby causes.

“One sees the flag embroidered on the leather jackets of tough young hoodlums, brought to court for the most shocking crimes…It gives one pause to see the honored flag being carried by hard-eyed or slack-faced men in a KKK demonstration against the Constitution of the United States and the courts which must enforce its provisions. To see the banner displayed at meetings of extremists where there are incitements to violence, such as destroying schools, is disturbing and dismaying…

“The noble flag is now unfurled over hot dogs, hamburgers, and peanuts. There is no objection. This is precisely the point. It is in grave danger of becoming the symbol of unworthy men, ideas, motives, and objectives…

“This is no way to honor a flag. Those who live and revere it must rally around it. The South needs to reread Father Ryan.” (Quoted in Coski, p. 178-179)

Dixie Outfitters calls the Confederate battle flag “a symbol of less government, less taxes, and the right of the people to govern themselves.” They also state, “We believe the real meaning of the Confederate Flag has been distorted by various groups for their own purposes. We strive to feature the Confederate Flag in the context of history, heritage, and pride in the southern way of life.” (Quoted in Coski, p. 180)

Alabama Governor Guy Hunt said, “What some of you in the news media have never understood is that slavery was under the Stars and Stripes many years before you ever had a Confederate flag.” (Quoted in Coski, p. 242) An advertisement in a South Carolina newspaper stated, “We must never allow a small group of misguided people to make us ashamed of our past.” (Quoted in Coski, p. 246) A statement accompanying a bill approving the display of the Confederate battle flag alongside Confederate monuments in South Carolina said:

“The Confederate flags are not racist emblems per se. It depends on how they are utilized. The misuse of these emblems for racial purposes is deplored and condemned. These emblems have been misused. They are battle flags which should not be used for political purposes.

“The state is displaying the Confederate flags as symbols of our heritage. They are not flown in defiance of any government or as a statement regarding any civil rights, constitutional, or racial issues. These flags represent the valor which was displayed by the men and women of this state in another time. That heritage of honor, courage, and independence is worthy of remembering.” (Quoted in Coski, pp. 247-248)

Coski states, “As on other fronts in America’s culture wars, the debates and media coverage tend to magnify the extreme positions and obscure the moderate positions to which most people adhere.” (p. 302) The reviewer does not agree with all of his conclusions in this book. For example, Coski feels that display of Confederate flags should be exclusively returned to their use in Confederate memorial ceremonies only. Nonetheless, his book is a treasure trove of research and information about the flag, more examples of which follow.

ACLU Attorney William Simpson helped broker a settlement in a T-shirt case in a North Carolina school in 1989. He stated, “If your need to express your pride in your Southern heritage is worth hurting those who are offended by the flag, then do what you must. But at least try to see why the message you intend to send is not always the one that is received.” On the other hand, Simpson asked those offended by the flag “to see that the Confederate flag means many different things to many different people. Recognize that the flag has significance beyond racism. Try to understand that the message you receive when you see the flag may not be the message the person displaying it intends to send.” (Quoted in Coski, pp. 304-305)

Regarding the taking down of the Stars and Bars, the first Confederate national flag, at Six Flags Over Texas, Houston Post editor Lynn Ashley said, “Taking down a flag, in this instance, is rather like rewriting history, pretending something didn’t happen when we all know it did.” Coski said, “For Ashby, flags represented ‘history’ – objective facts about the past that did not necessarily dictate how people should regard the past. The Six Flags displays in Texas also include those of Mexico and Spain. Does that mean, Ashby asked, that Texans are proud of Santa Anna’s corrupt rule, the Goliad massacre, or the Spanish Inquisition?” (Coski, p. 274)

Coski also relates other relevant facts, such as that George Washington’s name was eliminated “from a New Orleans public school in accordance with a new regulation that prohibited naming any schools after slaveholders.” (p. 198)

While the reviewer did not participate in it, he walked by while the Million Man March was going on in Washington, D.C. in October 1995 on his way to the Library of Congress. In the march, he saw a black man in African dress carrying a Confederate battle flag. He wondered what the man’s motive was and never knew who he was or what it was until he read of the man in Coski’s book. He was Charles Nixon, living in Richmond, Virginia. His motive was to transform it from “a symbol of division” into “a tool of progress.” In the late 1950’s in Greensboro, North Carolina, he and a group of friends had the Confederate battle flag waved in their faces while being called the n word. Nixon sought to overcome bad use of that flag with good use of it. “He designed a ‘ballot’ on which he superimposed the words ‘Vote Next Election’ on a naval jack [rectangular Confederate battle flag], incorporating the St. Andrew’s cross into the word ‘Next.’” (p. 306)

Timothy A. Duskin

Timothy A. Duskin is from Northern Virginia. He has a B.A. degree in history from American Christian College, Tulsa, Oklahoma and a M.A. degree in international relations from the University of Oklahoma. He worked for 22 years as an Archives Technician at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. He has also worked as a Writer for the U.S. Taxpayers’ Alliance in Vienna, Virginia and as a Research Assistant for the Plymouth Rock Foundation in Plymouth, Massachusetts. He has a strong interest in and devotion to history and is active in a number of historical organizations.


  • Paul H. Yarbrough says:

    It flies its flag within its heart.
    And hears that Rebel’s cry– brave shout,
    In spite of those who hate
    This valiant land of love and hope.
    Oh, Dixie land
    By: PHY

  • Eddie Inman says:

    Excellent article! Thank you!

  • Steve Haynie says:

    The band’s name is spelled Lynnerd Skynnerd, not Lynard Skynard.

  • Julie Paine says:

    I have always loved the Confederate battle flag, but it has only been in the past few years that I have learned what it really meant to those who carried it. In their honor, that banner hangs proudly in our home…in Idaho. 🙂

  • Valerie Protopapas says:

    Why is anyone surprised when the noble symbols and heroes of the South and of history in general are debased, maligned and threatened with extinction. Doesn’t anyone notice that Our Savior, His Cross AND His Church are also being summarily debased, abused and removed from our present evil culture? Why would we expect men like Lee and Davis and Jackson to be welcome in a culture of perversion that is waging a constant war against Truth and decency? Indeed, it would be mysterious indeed if the South remained unaffected by the current demonic culture. In fact, the only real test of what remains good available today is evidence of attacks upon it by our political, cultural and, yes, our RELIGIOUS leaders!

    • Richard E says:

      Valerie, may I have your permission to quote this (with an attribution line, of course!) It is the most succinct, insightful thing I have read in a long, long time.

    • William Thomas Apperson says:

      That’s beautifully stated!

  • William Quinton Platt III says:

    You can’t tear down the US flag until the Confederate flag is gone. You can’t pull down statues to Washington and Jefferson until all the Robert E. Lee statues are gone.

    You can’t reason with evil.

  • Billy P says:

    Exactly right, Valerie! Thank you for making that comment. You are 100% correct.
    I have told my wife over and over that the reason these men are attacked is because (first) they are Christian men, and the devil has increased his work. The battle flag itself, the St. Andrews Cross is attacked because at its core it is also a Christian symbol.
    That’s at the heart of it, the first reason is because it is an attack on Christianity, and nothing spells strong Christian men than many of our southern heroes. After all, their armies behaved honorably, unlike Sherman’s, but Sherman and his army are excused, given exoneration and national praise, and his golden monument still stands, which makes perfect sense these days. (I mean, who wouldn’t want to emulate his drunken virtues? The “means justifies the ends” is about all anyone can get from that one, other than even war criminals can get a golden statue, but that’s not much of a legacy. I digress.)

    The other reasons behind the attacks are because they have been taught by today’s so-called educators to hate southerners, to hate white men, to hate white people in general, to hate the founders, to hate the pilgrims, to hate their own skin color, to hate their parents, to hate God’s design for families, to hate what God made them, etc.
    With full confidence, I contend that the most ignorant, godless, uneducated, programmed, weak and violent in this world inhabit American universities.

    This is a battle of the spirit not the flesh, just like the Bible says it would be. There’s nothing within a Christian, one who knows Jesus, that would want to desecrate another’s grave or marker. Can you imagine the depth of depravity it would take for someone to say, “hey, we are moving your ancestor’s body because it offends us”. “Our feelings trump your dead’s resting place. His 160-year-old bones scare me, offend me”. What a weak lot ripe for destruction and rightfully so!!

    With everything I see on my tv today, I have to think God is no longer in the God bless the USA business. and I wouldn’t blame Him. This country isn’t repenting or behaving in a manner worthy of those blessings, or of His mercy anymore.

    But those who do not know Jesus are led, controlled by the evil one and they are doing his bidding like the useful, disposable demons they are. The devil and evil strive on chaos, on fear, on lies (sound like the US government- R and D’s?) and no one does it better than the troublemakers desecrating our monuments and burning our cities. They create nothing and destroy everything. They replace markers of great value with…..nothing….maybe they put up some chaotic modern art in offensive phallic form at best. Again, nothing.

    God bless our southern defenders and ancestors who were far better people than this. I will fly my southern flag(s) daily, proudly and in their honor. In my heart, my country is occupied and has been since 1865, held hostage by the Lincolnite nation, whose despotic ways have it teetering on the fall.
    But, what a great legacy of honor, courage and duty our Confederate ancestors gave us. Nothing the evildoers can do can rob any of us of that. It’s important that our young hear the truth.

    So honored to have that Confederate blood in my veins. Deo Vindice.
    And, most importantly, Victory in Jesus!

  • Tom Wiggins says:

    All over the world, the Confederate battle flag symbolizes and represents resistance to tyranny.

  • Baron says:

    ~13 years ago, I saw high schoolers with battle-flag belt buckles in one of the most politically-left cities in the USA (in a yankee State). No one said anything about it, and those teachers would freak out of a student said “retard”. An older friend of mine that lived there his whole life kept calling it the Dukes-of-Hazard flag.

    I have many Confederate hook-loop patches that I wear from Weaponized Design. They’re beautiful embroidered patches, with my favorite being either the Rappahannock flag or the 11th Miss. infantry regiment flag. I wear these patches to push back against the insane progressives, and maybe expose more people to the fact that some Americans have not forgotten the South.

Leave a Reply