The Use of the Confederate Battle Flag in South Carolina Politics, 1876-1944
I was really inspired by Kragar’s article on rebutting Confederate history lessons so I wanted to write a little bit about how the Confederate flag was used politically between the aftermath of the Civil War and World War II.
Too often, the Southern “heritage” people want to cut off their historical discussions at the end of the Civil War or frame them more recently in the post-World War II era. I want to illuminate that quite intentional historical avoidance/forgetfulness, so we understand exactly what ideas clothed the earliest political uses of Confederate battle flag heritage during the aftermath of the Civil War.
Symbols have meanings and they have historical uses. As we all have heard, the St. Andrew’s Cross style Confederate battle flag was first designed to intimidate Northern fighters during the Civil War, including free blacks, while uniting Scots-Irish Southern white men.
After Reconstruction, however, is when the flag started being deployed in what has become an-all-too-familiar manner. In the 1876 election and after, a paramilitary group consisting mostly of Confederate veterans that called themselves the Red Shirts overtook Southern politics. They called for a return to Confederate politics by disenfranchising black power, possibly originating the “Let’s take our country back” approach. Ex-Confederates donned red shirts and fought for blood in the streets. Wade Hampton II, an ex-Confederate cavalry leader, worked with “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman to organize ex-Confederates to disrupt Republicans in South Carolina with violence, in campaigns such as the Hamburg Massacre. They sought to win back Democratic Party control of South Carolina. They prominently displayed the Confederate battle flag at their rallies to intimidate free blacks from voting, and often featured token red-shirt clad blacks in their parades to argue that blacks supported the Red Shirt movement. Unlike the Klan, the Red Shirts were not a secret society… they didn’t have to be. On the strength of the Red Shirt movement, Hampton and Tillman each became Governor, and Tillman later became a five-term US Senator.
“Pitchfork” Ben Tillman
It wasn’t until the last Confederate veterans were dying after World War I that the battle flag became used a symbol of nostalgia. President Woodrow Wilson encouraged it because he was a Virginian, and he thought nostalgia would unify the nation and maybe help bring the South up to speed. By this time Tillman was also dead, but his political successors in South Carolina continued his white supremacist legacy and rallied around the Confederate battle flag.
Between 1920 and 1944, the most powerful white politicians in South Carolina used the flag and racist rhetoric to unite their white working-class political base in the Upstate. United States Senators from South Carolina Cole “Coley” Blease, and Ellison “Cotton Ed” Smith dominated state politics between 1910 and 1944. They encouraged voter intimidation of black people and refused to fund any black schools. They encouraged their white constituents to rally around Confederate memory against Washington and racial reform, symbolized by waving the Confederate battle flag. They loved lynching so much that they each performed a gruesome interpretive “lynch dance” during their political campaign speeches, mocking hanged black men. Senator Blease’s reading of a doggerel titled “N****** in the White House” had to be stricken from the Congressional Record in 1929. When a black minister took the podium for the convocation of the 1936 Democratic Convention in Philadelphia, Senator Smith walked out and told reporters that it was no place for a white man and that John C. Calhoun was proud of him. Smith was also known for riding to Washington in a wagon full of cotton, emblazoned with Confederate battle flags.
So when Governor Ernest “Fritz” Hollings raised the Confederate flag over the state house in 1961, it was already a very familiar political symbol in South Carolina with a long history of usage to rally white supremacists to suppress black voters. Essentially, the flag said “Black voters aren’t welcome here” — with a reminder of past violence.
All of that hate is also part of the history of the heritage, conveniently obscured by our nostalgic friends.