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As rancorous debates over Confederate symbols continue, Robert Bonner explores how the rebel flag gained its enormous power to inspire and repel. In the process, he shows how the Confederacy sustained itself for as long as it did by cultivating the allegiances of countless ordinary citizens. Bonner also comments more broadly on flag passions--those intense emotional reactions to waving pieces of cloth that inflame patriots to kill and die.
Colors and Blood depicts a pervasive flag culture that set the emotional tone of the Civil War in the Union as well as the Confederacy. Northerners and southerners alike devoted incredible energy to flags, but the Confederate project was unique in creating a set of national symbols from scratch. In describing the activities of white southerners who designed, sewed, celebrated, sang about, and bled for their new country's most visible symbols, the book charts the emergence of Confederate nationalism. Theatrical flag performances that cast secession in a melodramatic mode both amplified and contained patriotic emotions, contributing to a flag-centered popular patriotism that motivated true believers to defy and sacrifice. This wartime flag culture nourished Confederate nationalism for four years, but flags' martial associations ultimately eclipsed their expression of political independence. After 1865, conquered banners evoked valor and heroism while obscuring the ideology of a slaveholders' rebellion, and white southerners recast the totems of Confederate nationalism as relics of the Lost Cause.
At the heart of this story is the tremendous capacity of bloodshed to infuse symbols with emotional power. Confederate flag culture, black southerners' charged relationship to the Stars and Stripes, contemporary efforts to banish the Southern Cross, and arguments over burning the Star Spangled Banner have this in common: all demonstrate Americans' passionate relationship with symbols that have been imaginatively soaked in blood.
"Colors & Blood represents the best of recent Civil War scholarship applied to a topic of the widest recent interest.... Most impressive is [Bonner's] excavation of the place of flags in everyday life and thought. . . . Colors & Blood not only provides insight into the development of the Southern Cross, one of the most controversial images in contemporary America, and into the structure and values of the Confederacy, it also illuminates lasting intersectional understandings of flags in the United States."--Thomas J. Brown, Georgia Historical Quarterly
"Thought-provoking. . . . It will appeal to all those who have an interest in flags or the Confederacy, and to those who seek a clearer understanding of the roots of today's Confederate flag controversy."--Richard Sauers, Civil War News
"Bonner's outstanding research and analysis provide hope for those who still feel that first-rate scholarship might inform, contextualize, and transcend contemporary historically charged and emotionally passionate polemics. An outstanding work."--Choice
"A timely, thorough, and highly sophisticated discussion of the origins, context, and significance of the flag(s) of the Confederacy. Colors and Blood represents quite an achievement. . . . [F]or those who want to understand why the symbols of the Confederate South remained so powerful in the New South, Bonner's close reading of rebel iconography is just what we have waited for."--W. Scott Poole, H-Net Reviews
"The book is much more than a history of Confederates and their flags. It is a study of myth-making and symbolism, an interpretation of collective emotion, a meditation on war and violence, and, lastly, a judicious commentary on historical memory and contemporary flag culture. . . . This is a fantastic accomplishment."--Paul Christopher Anderson, American Nineteenth Century History
"By using the flag as an organizing principle for the study of the complexities of Confederate nationalism, Bonner has written a book that is useful for scholars, appealing to students, and of interest to the general public as well."--Anne Sarah Rubin, Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
IN THE 1990s, rebel flags became front-page news. Across the American South, Civil Rights groups worked to discredit a symbol they associated with slavery and racism. Self-proclaimed heritage organizations mounted a fierce counteroffensive, defending the Confederate battle flag as a proud relic handed down from heroic ancestors. Though neither side retreated from its stance, legislative compromises in South Carolina and Georgia produced a momentary truce. Then, early in 2001, Mississippians voted by a lopsided margin to retain the diagonal rebel cross in their state's flag. As the twenty-first century opened, a design created 140 years earlier remained the most visible symbol of America's unfinished Civil War.
Recent Confederate flag controversies say something important about the times in which we live. They remind us that the stubborn legacies of race and region still matter in the contemporary South, even as they have moved into the realm of cultural memory. This interest in how the past is remembered is a tribute to the success of the Civil Rights movement in discrediting overt racism in the present. Conflict that now swirls around the Confederate colors isshaped by an ascendant conservatism distrustful of government and hostile toward "political correctness." Flags have become flashpoints in the contemporary South because of current tensions that make two sharply opposed visions of a regional heritage more relevant than ever. At stake in these struggles is the ability to set the regional agenda and determine how the nation's most self-conscious region will remember itself.
Disputes say something too about how easily pieces of waving banners work their way under Americans' skins. Participants in flag debates go beyond explaining what the symbol means; they testify passionately about how it makes them feel. African Americans describe the chill the flag sends up their spines and the sickness it brings to their stomachs, comparing their reaction to the experience of Jews before the Nazi swastika or of army veterans witnessing an American flag in flames. Pro-flag groups also invoke the visceral aspects of these colors, staging tributes intended to quicken the pulse, moisten the eye, and bring a lump to the throat. Such emotional appeals recall the similarly contentious disputes over the desecration of the United States flag. These two flag controversies-over Confederate symbols and over official protection of the Star Spangled Banner-have more in common with each other than is usually recognized. Both show Americans' preference for passion over reason when it comes to symbols that have been imaginatively soaked in blood.
Colors and Blood explores how these waving swathes of cloth acquired their enormous power to inspire and to repel. It introduces a wartime flag culture that set the emotional tone of the Civil War in the Union as well as in the Confederacy and brought together powerful themes of defiance, sovereignty, and bloodshed. The flags that generated such passions in the 1860s provided in durable form a range of messages about a common undertaking. In doing so, these symbols extended popular understandings of sacrifice, defense of community, and treason, while they served also to shape relationships between men and women, masters and slaves, and soldiers and civilians. Northerners and southerners alike devoted enormous energy to flag-related activity during the Civil War, which was at once a watershed moment for the Stars and Stripes and a generative period for the cult of Confederate flags. Confederates faced two unique challenges, however, that make an extended story of their symbols particularly worthwhile. First, they recast elements from an inherited American flag culture to forge their own symbolic system, doing so with no little controversy among themselves. Then, defeated Confederates confronted an even more difficult task in making the prime symbol of their nationalism into a relic of a Lost Cause. In this, former rebels against government created an afterglow of wartime passions by extending earlier themes of soldierly devotion with an emphasis on the nonpolitical nature of their most cherished icon, the diagonal Southern Cross.
By focusing on flag culture in the wartime South, this study contributes to a debate over Confederate nationalism, a topic every bit as old, and nearly as contentious, as rebel flags themselves. Confederates were quite self-conscious about their nationhood during the Civil War, claiming that they and the Yankees were part of "two distinct nations" differing from each other "in blood, in race, in social institutions, in systems of popular instruction, in political education and theories, in ideas, in manners." Choosing a set of flags for their new republic was a concerted effort to furnish a distinct people with distinct symbols of their own. Whether or not there was an objective basis for Confederate claims of distinctiveness has stirred considerable disagreement ever since. Many scholars have concluded that the entire notion of a distinct southern nationality was fraudulent and that few Confederates fully supported political independence. The supposed deficiency of southern nationalism has become a familiar theme in historical scholarship, as has the notion that the Confederate enterprise was quixotic and artificial. Some have even suggested that internal weaknesses associated with the insufficient nationalism of the South had more to do with the outcome of the Civil War than the strength of the Union armies.
Southern historians have only recently begun to approach Confederate nationalism as a process worthy of study in its own right and not just one of many deficiencies that helped the Yankees win the war. Drew Gilpin Faust set a new agenda by incisively comparing the Confederacy to other new nations, noting how its citizens actively fashioned a sense of nationhood that had not existed prior to secession. Confederates did so, Faust explained in 1988, by engaging in an ongoing set of cultural practices that intersected with ideological, religious, and military developments in a society mobilized for combat. Her approach, which coincided with a blossoming scholarly interest in modern nationalism's paradoxical mixture of transparent artificiality and its pretenses to ancient lineage, provided one of the most effective American case studies of how rituals and symbols legitimated power. Historians who have since written on this topic have been indebted to Faust's insights, even while they do not always share her conclusions. Gary Gallagher has made a particularly important contribution, following Faust in treating Confederate nationalism seriously, though placing much more attention on the martial themes in Confederate purpose.
Despite the increasingly sophisticated approaches to Confederate nationalism, there remains an important gap in the literature, which an examination of the emotional dimensions of the South's popular flag culture can help to fill. Current work has yielded considerable insight into ideology-whether expressed in the language of theology, constitutionalism, political economy, or nineteenth-century ethnology. We also have a great deal more understanding than we once had of how the clergy and military leaders worked to inspire popular allegiance to the common cause. Yet in trying to explain such fundamentally emotional issues of loyalty and sacrifice, neither ideology nor the leadership of a few can satisfactorily explain that gut-wrenching patriotism that was felt, rather than thought, by the many. The Union effort was clearly bolstered by "an emotional attachment to vague but numinous symbols of national solidarity," as the historian Charles Royster has put it. Yet because the Confederacy did not win this flag-draped war, it has been harder to see how patriotic symbols were powerful sources of cohesion within the wartime South as well.
Confederate flags helped to focus patriotic emotions from the early days of the secession crisis in 1860 past the moment of military defeat in 1865. A series of banners generated a multimedia flag culture characterized by the breadth of its cultural practices. Poetry, songs, and orations that paid tributes to specific flags appeared constantly in print, providing a set of common understandings about collective aims. Inherited conventions about the meaning of certain flags elements, such as stars, stripes, and crosses, became a topic of common discussion and wide understanding. Just as important, a series of impromptu rituals drew attention to flags, which were endlessly raised, blessed, presented, and, in a similarly dramatic fashion, protected through bodily sacrifice. Cloth, words, and public performances together conveyed to millions of participants what their country stood for and what their suffering during war was meant to accomplish.
The popular patriotism that placed flags at its center has largely eluded the attention of cultural historians of either the Confederacy or of the Union. The conventional, syrupy aesthetic that informed wartime flag culture has been all too easily dismissed as the "Patriotic Gore" that Edmund Wilson derided in his classic study of Civil War literature. Confederate flags that already drew forth sentimentalism during wartime were further softened by their association with a nostalgic Lost Cause and with the mass-marketing of regionalism of the twentieth century. Until controversy over these flags flared in recent years, the diagonal rebel flag had been reduced to a quaint marker of a Dixieland that had passed into the mists of history. As this vestige of the 1860s became part of later cultures of memory and heritage, the sharper wartime edge of banners, poems, and activities became hard to take seriously. Even while the Civil War remained America's "felt history," it was difficult for many to see anything other than nostalgia in the sort of patriotic reverence for flags and for the cause that was expressed while the conflict was still underway.
The Civil War generation accorded their flags more importance than subsequent scholars have allowed. They recognized the powerful ways that these emblems expressed political commitments and elicited military courage in battle. Living in an age of popular nationalism, Confederates were as attuned as their northern counterparts were to the sort of public display in which flags worked best to churn emotions. To a far greater degree than patriots of the American Revolution, Victorian men and women who rallied the faithful during the Civil War immersed themselves in dramatic mythmaking, taking their symbols with tremendous seriousness. Seeing how Confederates chose their symbols and celebrated them seems straightforward, since this process was done in public, especially through the burgeoning world of print journalism. Yet since patriotism rested then, as now, on how things ought to be rather than how they how they were, professions about what these flags meant must be placed in the context of larger objectives to be fully understood.
The scholarly respect accorded to nationalism in the past twenty years has recently been extended to the contours of emotional life. Particular efforts have been made by American historians to understand Victorian sensibilities and the value placed during the mid-nineteenth century upon both emotional intensity and the restraint of dangerous passions. Men as well as women, we have learned, were committed to a culture of sentiment that saw immense positive value in what later generations would consider excessive weepiness and needlessly inflamed ardor. The most intense displays of emotion have usually been associated with private settings, especially the domestic sphere. But as an emotive wartime flag culture made clear, feelings were an important part of public life as well. In normal times, society might hold together with sober self-interest and a modicum of sympathy for one's fellow citizens. But when it faced war on the scale witnessed in the 1860s, a stronger set of emotions was needed. Under these conditions, Victorianism distinguished itself as a culture "impatient of limitations and hospitable to luxuriant sensations," as the historian Anne Rose has put it.
Taking the wartime passions of the 1860s seriously requires reconsidering many cultural figures and forms that have been long dismissed. Sidney Lanier provides a good example, since he was singled out in Wilson's Patriotic Gore for his tendency to be "at once insipid and florid" and apt to be "sometimes a little stupid" in his rhetorical excess. Yet Lanier not only produced the sort of purple prose featured in this book's epigraph, from Tiger Lilies. He also worked out a larger philosophical stance based on the belief that "a man must always feel rightly (that is his emotion must operate rightly) before he can think rightly (that is before his intellect can operate rightly)." Given this understanding, Lanier believed that "the initial step of every plan and every action is an emotion." Though he developed his insights by immersing himself in German Romanticism, Lanier's outlook fit the circumstances when he made these observations late in 1860. Just a few weeks after his philosophical speculations, he noted how a flag presentation at his small Georgia college had called forth "sparkling eyes and flushing cheeks" of all assembled. His explanation of how "woman's sanctity" would instill in the soldiers a "still but thrilling war-cry in the hearts" as they moved from feeling to action echoed a series of similar formulations made in literally thousands of American communities.
As the following chapters make clear, that flag culture which Lanier both observed and later joined as a Confederate soldier operated at distinct stages and through a variety of distinct emblems. Resistance banners, which were the first cloth symbols to challenge the Stars and Stripes, hastened disunion while representing new commonwealths to the world. The Stars and Bars flag, chosen soon thereafter as the first national flag, provided a new and untested government a powerful means of eliciting popular support through a burgeoning body of patriotic poetry, song, and ritual. Military banners drew even wider attention, especially at the local level, where communal ceremonies engaged a range of martial themes that would intensify after blood had been shed and regimental colors had become a central part of how both soliders and civilians imagined combat. The Southern Cross, the same rebel flag that still generates controversy, emerged in this martial context, becoming the leading Confederate symbol at least by 1863, when it was incorporated on a new national flag known as the Stainless Banner. Midway through the war, a coordinated martial iconography had been created that allowed both soldiers in the field and civilians in occupied areas to show their true colors. At each of these stages, wartime flag culture helped to push forward Confederate efforts to found a new republic and injected questions of national purpose into the vibrant realm of popular culture.
Excerpted from Colors and Blood by Robert E. Bonner Copyright © 2004 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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