Did you know that a little over 100 years ago there was a movement to incorporate the Confederate battle flag into the flag of the United States of America? I stumbled across this information in a single paragraph of a news story from the February 26, 1914, edition of The Fayette Tribune and Free Press while I was doing research for the newspaper columns I wrote for 16 years and that are now being collected into the West Virginia Histories book series. (Shameless plug.)
The news story in question was about the annual encampment of West Virginia’s Grand Army of the Republic veterans at Moundsville the previous week. The final paragraph read
Resolved: That we will oppose by every effort within our power the movement on foot throughout the southern states, and fathered by the national organ of the Confederate veterans, to change our National colors “Old Glory” by the substitution of a facsimile of the Confederate flag for the blue field of the flag of our nation.
“National organ of the Confederate veterans” could only mean Confederate Veteran magazine. In Volume XXI, No. 12, December 1913, I found an article titled “Fraternity in National Flags,” by A. J. Emerson, Esq. of Denver, Colorado. Emerson wrote other articles for CV magazine, including one in 1912 in which he talked about Stonewall Jackson and lemons during the 1862 Shenandoah Valley Campaign, which is among the very few accounts by former Confederates that claim the often-eccentric Stonewall enjoyed sucking lemons.
But in his December 1913 article Emerson wasn’t writing about sour fruit. Well, sour grapes, maybe. He laid out his rationale and historical precedent for putting the battle flag of people who had fought to break up the United States into the flag of that same United States.
A word of clarification here: the flag that gets people hot under the collar today, be they pro- or anti- in their sentiments, was not the flag of the Confederate States of America, although a version of it was incorporated into the CSA’s third national flag. (Yes, in less than five years, they went through three designs for a national flag.) The controversial banner gave the Confederates a flag that could not be mistaken for the U.S. flag in the smoke, dust and confusion of battle, which had happened during the First Battle of Manassas/First Battle of Bull Run.
How to add the Confederate Flag to the Stars and Stripes
Now, back to the story of making that battle flag part of the Stars and Stripes. Emerson proposed placing the Confederate cross among the stars on the blue field of the U.S. flag. He said, “It would be most delightfully pleasing to the Southern people … Southerners are an emotional people … They will follow a flag they love as far as any people on earth. They love the Union, the Union of their fathers. But somehow it has come to pass that they do not love the flag so well as they love the Union. “
Oh, he declared, but they do love “the little battle flag under which so many of their loved ones died … If their fellow citizens of the United States shall place their little banner on the national flag, the Southerners will be so pleased with this recognition of their brotherhood that they will condone every offense ever committed against them under that flag.”
Continuing in the same vein, Emerson reminded non-Southerners of the South’s continuing affection for the late Confederacy: “(T)hat the Southern people are not being assimilated as it was once fondly hoped they would be; that the presence of the negro race in their midst forces them to stand together for weal or woe and insures their solidity for a long time to come; that they are being developed into a people quite as distinct from all other Americans as the Scotch are from the English.”
Well, if England, Scotland and Ireland could merge . . .
At the opening of his article, Emerson wrote of how the flags of England, Scotland and Ireland had been merged into the British Union Jack flag, which allowed the people of each of the three nations to see their own country in the British flag. He might have wanted to have a chat with some Scots and Irish before making that assertion.
His final argument was that placing the Confederate emblem into the U.S. flag would create “a symbolical record of the greatest crisis in the history of the American nation, and also signalize the historical fact that the people of the United States are a reunited people.”
Emerson was not the first to put forward this idea. Confederate Veteran pointed out that a Mr. Clayton of Atlanta had created a similar design, which had appeared in the Atlanta Constitution newspaper. CV said Emerson’s argument was one that “all patriots should consider with patience,” while conceding Emerson presented a “very pretty” picture but “many who dreaded the Confederate battle flag in the sixties are uncompromisingly angry yet.”
The Grand Army of the Republic responds
CV’s editor was certainly right about “uncompromisingly angry.” GAR encampments around the country denounced the proposed flag change. At Jackson, Michigan, in June 1914, one G. Edwin Dunbar wrote, “the ‘Daughters of the Confederacy’ and others are making a determined and earnest effort to have our glorious flag defaced and dishonored by foisting upon its field of blue the rebel cross.” A resolution was passed saying the encampment “does earnestly and emphatically protest against said or any other change in ‘Old Glory.’ … Our comrades who died for the flag would almost raise from the dead to prevent such a desecration.” The resolution was to be sent to the President and to Michigan’s U.S. Senators and Representatives. Minnesota’s GAR and that of other states said much the same thing.
Part of a larger pro-Confederacy movement
The flag redesign effort was probably part of a larger movement that had been going on for years to ennoble the memory of the Confederate cause and, frankly, to rewrite history in a way that absolved the South of any blame whatsoever for secession, war or terrorist acts during Reconstruction. The United Daughters of the Confederacy mounted a nationwide campaign around the turn of the century to erect statues to the memory of Confederate soldiers and the Lost Cause. The same year the flag dispute became widespread, 1914, was when the UDC got a massive Confederate monument erected in Arlington National Cemetery with the blessing of the U.S. Government. The Ku Klux Klan: or Invisible Empire, written by Laura Martin Rose, historian and president of the UDC in Mississippi, was a textbook published in 1914 praising the KKK and presenting a view of Reconstruction entirely sympathetic to the South. It became one of the gospels of Southern education.
I suspect Invisible Empire was one of the reasons H. E. Paine, Patriotic Instructor of Post 139, Scranton, Pennsylvania, informed his state’s GAR Encampment that they had started their program of speaking in schools about Union patriotism “too late. We have waited until they have prepared school histories which would make you blush with shame if you read them, and those books are all over the country to-day, especially in the South. You see those men of the South began writing history forty years before we started … the people in the Southland in this school work are away ahead of us.” (Proceedings of the 48th Annual Encampment, Department of Pennsylvania, Grand Army of the Republic, (held at) Indiana (PA). Published by Wm. Stanley Ray, State Printer, Harrisburg, PA, 1914)
Concerning the Confederate battle flag, whatever you think of it you have to admit it does its job, if a flag’s job is to inspire deep emotions. That one certainly does, both for and against. The attempt to make it part of America’s flag some 100 years ago did the same thing.
(I was unable to find any comments by the UDC or Sons of Confederate Veterans from 1914, only the December 1913 Confederate Veteran article.)