Dr. Ian Isherwood is an alumni of Gettysburg College, Dartmouth College, and the University of Glasgow, where obtained his PhD. His focus is on modern British history, particularly the history of war. He highlights the importance of an interdisciplinary approach in understanding history, especially when examining the subject of war. He is the author of Remembering the Great War, and has written articles and book reviews appearing in War and Society, Literature and the Arts, The Journal of Military History, First World War Studies, War, and War in History.
NICOLE ELLIOTT: I’m looking to ask a history professor my questions about the Confederate flag because they have more knowledge than your average person. Many of the people who hold up the flag represent it for familial piety, while still justifying its use by bringing in its history, even though they may be ignorant. Do you think there is anything that needs to more well known about the flag in relation to its historical context?
IAN ISHERWOOD: There are multiple Confederate Flags that developed as the war was ongoing. The one that you are used to seeing is the Confederate battle flag. There were national flags of the Confederacy, and there were battle flags. The flags history has changed the war itself and the ways in which it has been appropriated as you say, a symbol of hate. It’s also seen by many as a symbol of defiance or rebellion; that is an aspect to it that’s a little bit different because you’ll notice that the flag is sometimes displayed in other countries. They are seeing it potentially differently from how people in the states are seeing it. Whether they are white supremacist groups or Southern heritage advocates. Who are not always the same thing. The way that the flag is used has different meanings depending on who is using it.
That I am used to is the one being appropriated by hateful groups is something of concern to me. The Confederacy did have other flags, and I don’t fully understand why people claiming the flag, because of familial piety, do not represent those other flags. The Confederate battle flag had a resurgence during the Civil Rights Movement–
There have been a couple different times in which the flag has been researched or a debate around the flag has erupted. The 1960s is when we see a huge debate around the flag because it starts to be incorporated in some southern state flags. It is around the same time of desegregation of schools and the Civil Rights Movement that you see the flag being used by groups that are opposing those things; that are opposing desegregation. That’s one of the phases in which we see the flag become a symbol of Southern defiance of segregation policy. Then it comes to a head again in the 1990s, and in the last 4 or 5 years too. There was a big debate over the presence of the confederate battle flag on state flags, and whether or not that was appropriate. In the last 5 or 6 years, we see the flag being appropriated by all kinds of all kinds of right wing groups, Alt-Right groups, and fascist groups. But whether the flag is an appropriate part of our body politic and that is currently ongoing. I think in a town like Gettysburg we see the flag an awful lot. More so than any other northern town because of our, quote on quote heritage. That’s problematic for lots of folks. I don’t necessarily understand why it’s everywhere. I get the historical argument behind it. But it seems a bit overwhelming.
The flag to me does not only seem historically relevant to the people of Gettysburg. Do you think the historical relevance outweighs the hateful connotations that come with the flag?
Well, I don’t think you can separate the flag from the cause. Flags are symbols of politics or policy, they are symbols of nations, and there is a huge debate about whether the Confederacy was ever considered a nation. It was never recognized as one. The Confederacy is an alternative form of government for a slave owning republic that was created in response to an election and a breakdown of the body politic in the U.S in 1860 and 1861. Whether it ever had a degree of legitimacy is a subject for significant debate. The flag is a symbol of what that nation represented. There is universal agreement amongst historians that the war was fought over slavery. Can you separate the flag from the central issue of the Confederacy for what the article of secession all agree to, that slavery was an integral part of what the new confederate state was supposed to be about. I know there are a lot of people that are pretty wetted to the confederate flag, and try to make the argument that it is not about slavery and it has nothing to do with it, but I do not see how you can actually make that mental leap. It seems too far.
You said that you were a WWI or WWII historian?
This is more in reference to WWII, and I don’t think this is necessarily a valid comparison, but the Swastika and Confederate flag. Do you see them as comparable?
I have seen that argument being made in popular culture. The notion of directly equating Fascism and the holocaust to the American Civil war would be very controversial.
I am not trying to relate Fascism to the Civil War, but I’m curious about the way that the Swastika itself was dealt with and squashed. Why was the Confederate flag not dealt with similarly?
That’s a really interesting question. That’s something we can play off of. What happens during reconstruction and immediately after reconstruction? The Confederate symbols become not only tolerated, but celebrated. This is why you cannot separate the Confederate iconography, which is what the battle flag is. It’s an icon from the notion of Jim Crow, from the Civil Rights Movement, and anti Civil Rights forces. You can’t separate the battle flag from that because it is being used by groups during Jim Crow to lift up Confederate leaders and the confederate cause into a new part of American Politics. You’re right, in that aspect. You can look in the way the German government reacted to Nazi Symbols after the Second World War. They were not tolerated at all as part of culture, but then you look at the American and Confederate iconography and it quickly makes a resurgence within American culture.
I’m interested in this because of the events of this Summer in Charlottesville. The people and council of Charlottesville voted to take down the statue of Robert E. Lee, which then sparked national outrage. Who do you think has the right to decide to take those memorials down?
It depends on where they are located. We have confederate monuments that are on our battlefields. They were put on the battlefield, most of them, in the 1960s. They’re state monuments payed for by a combination of state funds and private donors. They were put up on Federal land. They were advocated by members of Congress and Senate. So that becomes a Federal question. Charlottesville though, is not the same issue. If you see a Confederate monument erected in the 1920s that does not represent the views of the community any more. The legal authority is probably in the hands of the council, but then there are advocacy groups that are interested in those monuments for the reasons that are pretty self evident in Charlottesville. I think the bigger question is: how can we take a conversation like the one we have seen and how can we have a serious conversation about the memorials in our culture? Are these monuments really about history or are they about the idea of memory. I don’t think they teach people a lot about history. They teach about the way in which people want to remember their history.