The Confederate battle flag still flies above the grounds of the South Carolina State Capitol five days after a gunman who had adopted it almost as a personal crest invaded a black church in Charleston and killed nine parishioners. Unlike the state and national flags, which were lowered to half-mast out of respect for the victims, the Confederate flag flies fully and proudly—locked literally in place both by an actual padlock and by a state law forbidding it from being taken down or altered in any way.
Most salvos in the ensuing debate about the flag—whether it symbolizes heritage or hatred—treat its continued prominence in Southern society as a vestigial legacy of the Civil War. “Put it in a museum,” wrote The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates the day after the shooting. “Inscribe beneath it the years 1861-2015.”
Yet few have paused to ask: Why is the Confederate battle flag even up at the state Capitol, and since when has it been there?
It is far from the case that the Confederate battle flag has flown over the South Carolina State Capitol since the day in April 1861 when Confederate troops within the state’s borders fired the first shots of the Civil War. Actually, if you look at the history of the Confederate flag since the Civil War—as The Nation’s archive enables you to do—you realize that the presence of the flag at the Capitol today is a vestige not of 19th-century secessionism but of 20th-century segregationism.
It followed the custom of the day that Union troops confiscated the enemy’s battle flags at the end of the Civil War. They were stored at the War Department in Washington, DC, for over two decades before President Grover Cleveland, assenting to the casual suggestion of an army official, ordered the flags returned to the respective Southern states whose regiments they represented. Cleveland was the first US president after the Civil War who did not serve—he, like Lincoln himself, hired a substitute to serve instead—and had already made a few plays for Southern support (in cabinet nominations, for one thing) that had won him the ire of fervent Union veterans and the Northern politicians who pandered to them. (They were known as “bloody shirts,” i.e., those who hysterically invoke past martyrs to justify a current position—virtually a national pastime today.) The announcement that the Confederate battle flags would be returned to Southern states rendered Union partisans apopleptic. The head of the Grand Army of the Republic, the organization of Union vets, said of Cleveland’s order: “May God palsy the brain that conceived it, and may God palsy the tongue that dictated it!”
Realizing the political peril he had put himself and other Democrats in, Cleveland quickly rescinded the order.
The Nation, which had been founded by Republicans but led the “Mugwumps” in supporting Cleveland in 1884, wrote about “The Battle-Flag Flurry” in its main editorial in the issue of June 23, 1887: