When a mob of armed insurgents flooded the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, they brought an accessory: the Confederate battle flag. As the crowd of President Trump’s supporters rioted, many hoisted the symbol of a short-lived splinter nation that tore the Union apart.
Today, alongside the nation’s growing acknowledgment of systemic racism and widespread Black Lives Matter protests, the Confederate flag predictably makes appearances at white supremacist gatherings.
But how did the battle flag, also known as the Southern Cross, come to represent the Confederacy in the first place? It’s a story of rebellion, racism, and disagreement over the true history of the Civil War—and as the controversy over its use during the Capitol riots shows, it’s divisive even 160 years after it was designed.
How the Confederate flag came to be
Though inextricably linked with the Confederacy, the flag was never its official symbol. When rebels fired on Fort Sumter in April 1861, they flew a blue banner with a single white star called the Bonnie Blue Flag. But as secession got underway, the Confederate States of America adopted a flag that riffed off the Union’s stars and stripes.
Known as the “Stars and Bars,” the flag featured a white star for each Confederate state on a blue background, and three stripes, two red and one white. It was distinct from the Union’s flag. But it didn’t look like that from a distance—and in the thick of battle, it was hard to tell the two apart. This caused major problems at the July 1861 Battle of First Manassas and during other skirmishes as some troops mistakenly fired on their own comrades.
In an effort to avoid the visual confusion, General Pierre Beauregard commissioned a new battle flag design. William Porcher Miles, a Confederate congressman and Beauregard’s aide-de-camp, designed it, borrowing an X-shaped pattern known as St. Andrew’s Cross and emblazoning it with one star for each seceding state.
But though it was extremely popular, this new battle flag— which eventually became known as the “Southern Cross”—wasn’t adopted as the Confederacy’s official military or government symbol. Although future official Confederate banners did incorporate its symbolism in the left-hand corner, they instead added a white field that represented purity. The Confederacy adopted a total of three national flags before its collapse in 1865.
With the war over, the South entered Reconstruction, a period during which the now reunified United States ended slavery and gave Black Americans citizenship and voting rights. But once Reconstruction ended in 1877, white Southerners hastened to restore what they saw as their rightful place at the top of a racially segregated social order. Segregation and oppressive “Jim Crow” laws soon disenfranchised Black Southerners—and members of the Ku Klux Klan terrorized them.
The myth of the Lost Cause
By the early 20th century, white Southerners had mythologized an imagined South that fought the war not to uphold slavery but to protect states’ rights and a genteel way of life—an idyll endangered by “Northern aggression” and interference. As historian Caroline E. Janney notes, the Lost Cause myth came about immediately after the war as Confederates struggled to come to terms with their defeat “in a postwar climate of economic, racial, and social uncertainty.”
Efforts to memorialize the Confederate dead also began as soon as the war ended, but they ballooned as white Southerners reclaimed their power after Reconstruction. Then, as Confederate veterans began to die in the early 20th century, groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy pushed to commemorate them—and make their version of history the official doctrine of Southern states.
Confederate monuments soon dotted the South, and the battle flag was added to the state flag of Mississippi. Historian Gaines M. Foster for Zócalo Public Square writes that its use “was regional and tied to the memory of the war.” (Toppling statues is a first step toward ending Confederate myths.)
The Dixiecrats defend segregation
That changed in 1948 with the “Dixiecrats,” or States’ Rights Democratic Party, a racist, pro-segregation splinter party formed by Southern Democrats. They objected to the Democratic Party’s adoption of a pro-civil rights platform and were dismayed when hundreds of thousands of Black Americans registered to vote in Democratic primaries after the Supreme Court declared all-white primaries unconstitutional.
The Dixiecrats’ adoption of the Confederate battle flag as a party symbol led to a surge in the banner’s popularity, and a “flag fad” spread from college campuses to Korean War battlefields and beyond. The Southern Cross symbolized rebelliousness, writes historian John M. Koski—but now it gained “a more specific connotation of resistance to the civil rights movement and to racial integration.”
The identification stuck, and the flag’s use proliferated. In 1956, prompted by the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling that declared segregation unconstitutional, Georgia adopted a state flag that prominently incorporated the symbol. Across the South, Citizens’ Councils and the Ku Klux Klan flew the battle flag as they intimidated Black citizens. And both South Carolina and Alabama began flying it over their capitols.
Rebellion, heritage, and hate
But though the flag had been adopted by advocates of segregation and white supremacy, many denied that aspect of its meaning and instead insisted it stood for the Southern ideals espoused by the Lost Cause. The Dixiecrat-era “fad flag” stoked its sale on everything from T-shirts to mugs and bumper stickers. Its popularity persisted, and over the ensuing decades, the battle flag became a generic symbol of rebellion spotted on TV shows like The Dukes of Hazzard and on stage with bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd.
The flag had become big business—and led a double life both as a nostalgic symbol and a deeply evocative banner of racism. As historian John M. Coski writes, “Confederate heritage organizations insisted that the flag was rightfully theirs and stood only for the honor of their ancestors.” At the same time, however, the symbol was publicly claimed by those who challenged Black people’s humanity—people like Byron De La Beckwith, a Mississippi white supremacist who murdered civil rights activist Medgar Evers in 1963 and who wore a Confederate flag pin on his lapel throughout his 1994 trial. (How the assassination of Medgar Evers galvanized the civil rights movement.)
It was also challenged by Black activists and their white allies. In 2000, the NAACP began a 15-year-long economic boycott of South Carolina because of its use of the flag. Protesters fought the symbol in public spaces and educational institutions. But despite recurrent debates about its meaning and appropriateness, the flag never really disappeared.
Does the flag have a future?
In 2015, the flag came roaring back into the national consciousness when a white supremacist killed nine churchgoers at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. After images of the shooter, Dylann Roof, carrying Confederate battle flags emerged, multiple states bowed to pressure to remove them from memorials. South Carolina, which had defiantly flown the banner at its capitol for years, retired it that year, and multiple retailers stopped selling merchandise featuring the flag now labeled a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League.
The Southern Cross still has plenty of supporters who insist their love of the flag is about “heritage, not hate.” In a 2019 survey of nearly 35,000 U.S. adults, polling firm YouGov found that although a plurality of Americans (41 percent) think the flag symbolizes racism, 34 percent think it symbolizes heritage. In the wake of the 2017 Charlottesville white supremacist rally, demand for the banner surged across the country. (‘Physical symbols of white supremacy’ are coming down. What changed?)
Historian William Sturkey, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina and author of Hattiesburg: An American City in Black and White, says that racists turn to the symbol again and again when they feel embattled and threatened. “When their backs are against the wall, they turn to the flag,” he says.
Heritage or no, the Confederate flag retains its associations with centuries of racial injustice. Though it has some Black supporters, it remains shorthand for a defiant South and all that implies. For many on the receiving end of hundreds of years of racism, the Confederate battle flag embodies everything from hatred to personal intimidation—a far cry from the sanitized Lost Cause narrative that helped fuel its rise.