Yesterday there was an article posted on npr.org titled ‘Feeling Kinship with the South, Northerners Let Their Confederate Flags Fly.’ In it, the author profiles two Iowa men, neither of whom have any real geographic or family connection to the South or the Confederacy as a historical fact, yet fly confederate flags and feel a deep kinship to the Southern cause—though not in a racist way, of course. The article also quotes several academics and historians, as well as the proprietor of Dixie Outfitters, a website that sells Confederate-branded apparel and gifts, who notes that Northern customers now make up about 20 percent of his business.
I don’t know if the article was meant to be shocking, but I wasn’t shocked. I grew up in the ‘Heritage Not Hate’ set. Both sides of my family fought for the Confederacy. Some were even slave owners. I had a miniature Confederate flag in my room, purchased from a Stuckey’s in East Arkansas, where in the 90s you could also still purchase ‘Mammy’ salt and pepper shakers like these. In fourth grade we read a book about Harriet Tubman, and when I came to my parents aghast by the conditions described therein (awww, I was so woke!), I was given a quick lecture from the other side of the ‘debate’: That slaveholders overall were kind to their slaves, because after all, why on earth would you damage your own property? Beating or otherwise violently subjugating your slaves made about as much sense as mistreating your pet or letting your car break down. And that was a logical argument, save for the fact that (1) people do that sort of thing all the time, and (2) what about slavery was ever logical?
And just to be clear, the Civil War was fought about slavery. The Confederacy seceded from the United States in order to guarantee the continuation of the institution of slavery, which was of vital importance to the cultural and economic identity of the South. To your argument that the War was really about States’ Rights, I would agree. It was about the rights of states to keep slavery legal. It’s ridiculous to think that the Confederacy seceded out of principle, seeking to defend the general authority of the 10th Amendment. And to your argument that most of the men and boys who fought were too poor to own slaves, I also agree with that: Just like nearly every grand conflict, the Civil War is the story of rich men sending poor men out to die. But this doesn’t mean that the common soldier had no skin in the game; though poor whites may not have had any specific financial benefit from slavery, they most certainly benefitted culturally to be able to look down at (and blame) a caste more downtrodden then themselves. And to your argument that the North was just as racist as the South and financially invested in the economy of the Peculiar Institution, and that General Sherman and his men committed war crimes that shocked the world, I agree with that too. None of that changes the Confederacy’s motivation for secession: the safeguarding of a white supremacist culture.
But the Civil War is still so close to us. What struck me most in that NPR article was the ages of those two flag-bearing Iowans. One was 60, and the other 65. They’re baby boomers, same as my parents and aunts and uncles. When they were born in the 1950s, we were not a century beyond the end of the war. In fact, their grandparents were most likely alive when 50,000 Union and Confederate vets gathered at Gettysburg in 1913 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of that battle. The grandparents of our parents knew veterans of the Civil War. That’s how close the war still is.
So much of our nostalgia is the nostalgia of our parents or our grandparents. We like it because our parents got it for us because their parents got it for them. That’s why circus peanuts are still a thing (and for that matter, circuses). So when my parents saw those Mammy salt shakers at that Stuckey’s in Arkansas, they perhaps intellectually recognized that that sort of imagery was inappropriate (or perhaps not), but emotionally recognized them as a piece of their own childhood, of the kinds of racial tchotchkies that were made for decades, that their parents and grandparents owned. The salt shakers become a totem for a past they yearn for, but for personal reasons, not political. Heritage, not hate.
Baby Boomers also have a doomed war of their own to deal with. In 2025 it will be 50 years since the fall of Saigon. One of the downsides of American optimism is that we are rarely equipped to acknowledge defeat, preferring instead to deny, project, or blame. We’re down but we’re not out; it was a moral victory; if only James Comey hadn’t sent out that damn letter! Vietnam was a military defeat that could not be called a military defeat (except by Bill Murray), and one of the ways we processed it was through the lens of a different defeat that could not the called a defeat. That’s why, for my money, one of the greatest Vietnam movies of all time is Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales.
Eastwood plays the eponymous outlaw, a former Confederate bushwacker who goes rogue instead of surrendering to the Union at the war’s end. His former compatriot, played by John Vernon, is tasked with bringing him in, dead or alive. Josey Wales travels west, and though ostensibly a loner like Eastwood’s previous Man With No Name, he collects a makeshift family of American strays, such as the rascally Chief Dan George and a virginal Kansan played by Sondra Locke. Along the way he kills bandits and bounty hunters, makes peace with the Comanche (in what feels like a deliberate rebuke to John Ford’s The Searchers, at least in the aspect that all the Indians in the film are played by real Indians), and confronts his warmaking past in the form of Vernon’s friend-turned-foe. It’s a rollicking Western, taking the viewer on a journey of a post-war America that doesn’t quite know what to do with itself anymore.
And there are no black people in it. Not only that, but the racial motivations for the war are completely stripped away. Josey Wales starts the film as a quiet farmer. It is only after a marauding gang of Union soldiers identified as ‘Redlegs’ murder his wife and family that Wales joins up with the Confederacy and becomes the killing machine that was his destiny all along. The war itself and the politics behind it are obscured, and so Josey Wales’ war could be any war, and his rugged individualism and anti-authoritarian streak become catch-alls for rebels and outcasts of any political stripe. The film clearly hates war, but loves warriors. It has no interest in what a Confederate might stand for, but sides with the Rebels every time. And so it happens that the Confederacy becomes a symbol for wounded pride and stoic Americana. Its struggle is the struggle of any underdog cause, and its rebellion is ironically recast as a rebellion against the forces of oppression and conformity.
(Sidebar: Josey Wales is based on the novel Gone to Texas by Forrest Carter. Carter also wrote The Education of Little Tree and falsely claimed Indian heritage. Before he was a novelist, he wrote speeches for George Wallace, including this one.)
There are no Confederate flags in Josey Wales, because the film isn’t really about the Civil War, but there were plenty of other places in the late ’60s through the late ’70s to find them. First, though, a tiny bit of history. What we think of as ‘The Confederate Flag,’ whether it’s called the Southern Cross or Stars and Bars, was in fact the battle flag of Robert E. Lee’s northern Virginia regimen. It was one Confederate flag of many, and would not become a symbol for the Southern Cause until a generation after the war, when Mississippi adopted it as part of its state flag in 1894. D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of A Nation popularized the Stars and Bars further, and the Ku Klux Klan (also popularized by Birth of a Nation) adopted it during its 1920s resurgence. During the first half of the twentieth century, before the bougie likes of Martin Luther King, the civil rights movement was carried forward by a collection of radicals, intellectuals, union organizers, and, yes, communists. (Read Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore’s excellent Defying Dixie for the story of all that.) And so in the 1950s and 60s, the fight against the Soviets and the North Vietnamese abroad becomes mixed together with the fight against integration and fair housing at home. When Georgia added the Confederate flag design to its own state flag in 1956 (two years after Brown vs. Board of Education), it was a sign of resistance against all forces that sought to destroy the American way of life—‘American way of life,’ in this specific context, being the ability to brutalize men and women of color.
And so it goes that the Confederate (or ‘Rebel’) flag shows up across the Boomer political spectrum, often without irony. It’s there in the unreconstructed ranks of Lynyrd Skynyrd with ‘Sweet Home Alabama,’ its loud n’ proud rebuke to Neil Young’s ‘Southern Man.’ It’s there in The Band’s ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,’ a beautiful song that uses Civil War imagery (a la Josey Wales) to dramatize the contemporary struggle of a defeated veteran/nation. It’s there in National Lampoon’s Animal House, where D-Day’s room in Delta House has a giant Confederate flag hanging on one wall, unremarked upon. And of course, the dumbest and yet most popular flag bearers, the Dukes of Hazzard. Just some good ole boys, you know. Never meaning no harm.
In this context, it is all too easy to divorce the Confederate flag from any political association other than a general “Boooo, Government!” And if your embrace of the flag is in this same rambunctious, rebellious spirit, or as a reminder of your own family history, then racial hatred has nothing to do with it. Right?
Except there is no reconciling those two sides. That’s the trap of Confederate nostalgia. The fact that ‘Heritage Not Hate’ even includes ‘Not Hate’ is self-defeating. Of course it’s hate. If you choose to fly that flag, there’s not asterisk you can put on it that says *I’M NOT A RACIST, I JUST APPRECIATE THE HISTORY AND ANTI- BIG GOVERNMENT ETHOS. And even if there was, it wouldn’t be enough. If you appreciate ‘the history’ of the Stars and Bars, either you’re a Northern Virginia Regimen wonk or you’re appreciating the culture of Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan wherein the Stars and Bars became the standard Confederate symbol. If you appreciate the Confederacy’s stance on federal overreach, then you must acknowledge that their point of contention with Washington was the ownership of other human beings, which is as Big Government as you can really get. And what of those many, many people who embrace the same flag in the explicit name of violence and oppression? Do you just fall back on the “No True Scotsman” fallacy? Of course, all of this is assuming that a man or woman who would fly the Confederate flag in 2017 is doing so out of respect for history or a general spirit of rebellion only. And as much sympathy as I might have to such a person, having been raised among you, I also know that you don’t really exist.