Heritage is Not History: Historians, Charleston, and the Confederate Flag

Heritage is Not History: Historians, Charleston, and the Confederate Flag

It’s hard to be a historian these days without constantly hearing about the supposed irrelevance of your work. After all, it must seem to many observers like we exist in our own academic echo chambers, engaging in ivory tower intellectualism that has little bearing on “real life.”

And then, as a nation, we have a week like last week.

Nine black Americans were murdered by a white supremacist in the church that Denmark Vesey helped to found. The images of Jennifer Pinckney at the funeral of the her husband, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, created an eerie parallel to photographs of Myrlie Evers and Coretta Scott King at their murdered husbands’ funerals. And over it all flew the flag of the Confederate army, triumphantly waving over Columbia, South Carolina. It doesn’t take a PhD in American history to see the how crucial some historical reckoning is in a moment like this.

Earlier this week, Lara Freidenfelds noted in her post about the landmark ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges that historical work was not only important in contributing to the court’s opinion, but in helping to create the atmosphere in which such a ruling was possible. This was one of those rare instances where the entire nation realized what we historians have always known — that, as Lara put it so simply, history matters.

Not only did we see how much history matters, we were reminded of how complicated history is. For example, in Obergefell, the court’s opinion relied on the work of historians to support their belief that marriage has adapted and changed through our nation’s history. Yet, the court’s dissent also called upon history, this time in an attempt to argue that “traditional” marriage has been a historical and geographic constant. The same has been true of the recent debate over the Confederate flag. Civil War historians like Kevin Levin (a longtime advocate against the public display of the Confederate flag) and Eric Foner have come forward to talk about the flag as a symbol of white supremacy — while others have literally rallied around the flag because they claim it honors Southern heritage.

History matters — but whose history? Which history? This is a moment where it becomes clear that it’s not enough for us to simply call upon popular memory or family lore. We also need professionals who are trained in historical thinking and decision making, who know how to weigh the evidence and come to conclusions. Heritage is not history — it’s a kind of historical nostalgia that sticks to the pleasant and positive. According to historian Michael Kammen, heritage “produces a beguiling sense of serenity about the well-being of history.”1 It’s a version of selective remembering that chooses the most comfortable and flattering stories and rejects the bits that complicate and darken the story. It’s the job of the historian to take those memories and think about them critically, to turn them over and over with the evidence until we understand where those stories come from. For Civil War historians and the case of the Confederate flag, this means wading through the rhetoric on heritage to dig into the less rosy, but nonetheless true, history of slavery, white supremacy, the myth of the Lost Cause, Jim Crow and the backlash against the Civil Rights Movement.

Film still from The Birth of a Nation with actors dressed as Ku Klux Klan members.
Pastoral visions of the Civil War as fought by southern whites merely defending their homes against “northern aggression” go back a long way, as seen in the popularity of D. W. Griffith’s polemical Birth of a Nation (1915), which portrayed the KKK as “saviors” of a lost South. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

If you reject the work of actual history, it’s easy to accept the Confederate flag as simply a reminder of the brave Southern men who bled for their homeland. But if you’ve done that work, that acceptance is impossible. The flag is inextricably bound up in not only slavery and the Civil War, but the growth of a post-war Southern culture that believed that the cause of the Confederacy (which was, in case you were still confused, the defense of slavery) was just, even if it was lost. It’s also entangled in the horrific out-growths of that belief: segregation, white violence, and Jim Crow. After all, the Confederate flag was not hoisted over Columbia, South Carolina until 1962, in the midst of the fight over desegregation. The flag can not be de-linked from these things. This is why Civil War historians are really not having a debate — they already agree that there is no way to divorce the Confederate flag from its white supremacist history.

The work of history, the reading, thinking, and piecing together of agonizingly small bits of information to create a whole, helps us to think through events like those of the past week. It has helped us point out the terrible symbolism of a Confederate flag waving comfortably over a state in mourning over the slaughter of black men and women. But, as so many have pointed out, this isn’t about a flag, it’s about a mass murder, and historical thinking has also helped us place this horrifying act.

[gpullquote]We understand that those are not the rantings of one sick young man, but yet another salvo in a centuries-long war against black Americans. In a moment like this, history matters.[/gpullquote]

As historians, we know that we can’t look at this act of terror as a singular action. We know that it comes as part of a long, sickening line of white supremacist violence against black men and women, against black churches, against symbols of black power and community. We collectively felt our stomachs churn when we heard Dylann Roof’s invocation of the myth of the black rapist. We understand that those are not the rantings of one sick young man, but yet another salvo in a centuries-long war against black Americans. In a moment like this, history matters.

It’s been a hell of a week to be a historian. We here at Nursing Clio shrieked with joy as the decision in Obergefell v. Hodges was announced, and we certainly squealed happily about the citations to historians. But we also had heavy hearts as we thought about those nine funerals, thinking about how it has happened before, and is happening now, and will happen again and again unless something changes. I pray that we’re not connecting these kinds of historical dots again any time soon.


  1. Michael Kammen, The Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (New York: Knopf, 1991), 626. Return to text.

Sarah Handley-Cousins is an Assistant Teaching Professor at the University at Buffalo. She is author of Bodies in Blue: Disability in the Civil War North (UGA, 2019) and a producer of Dig: A History Podcast.

8 thoughts on “Heritage is Not History: Historians, Charleston, and the Confederate Flag

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      When will these “northern historians” finally realize that the civil war was about states rights (or maybe tariffs) rather than slavery?

      Also, I’d like to know where Walt Whitman fits into all of this.

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        I’m not sure what you mean by “northern historians,” as opposed I assume to “southern historians,” but I can say that while tariffs and states’ rights were part of the cause of the US Civil War, you need to go deeper than that: a state’s right to do what? The disagreement that fed the Civil War was about a state’s right to not only preserve slavery within its borders, but also extend it wherever they wanted, even over the objection of other states. When it came to popular sovereignty and the Fugitive Slave Act, slaveholding states were more than willing to ignore state’s rights and invoke federal supremacy in the name of property rights — property rights in people.

        So it was about state’s rights, but more fundamentally about slavery. To disagree with that is understandable, given how many in the US have relatives who were slave owners. This is, I hope, not a proud history for these people, so it’s much more comforting to believe that those ancestors rebelled against their country not so they could continue to enslave, breed, and sell human beings, but because the government tried to take their “rights.” But to ignore the fact that the right they fought to protect was the right to own slaves is not only inaccurate, but also prevents truthful reconciliation and minimizes the very real ongoing impacts of that history.

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        The emphasis on states’ rights as the main cause of the Civil War (a.k.a.War of Northern Aggression) is part of the rewriting that took place after the collapse of Reconstruction. From the earliest decisions of the Supreme Court to the present, almost all appeals to the doctrine of states’ rights have concerned race, directly or indirectly. This can be seen in the Constitutional Convention, where there was concern about losing the support of the Southerners.

        However, in the pre-secession debates, the boot was on the other foot. Southerners objected to the Northern states unilaterally refusing to enforce such laws as the Fugitive Slave Act.

        If one looks at the debates and declarations concerning secession, it is evident that slavery was the issue, not states’ rights as such.

        This, in the Texas Declaration of Causes. secession is framed as a conflict between the slave-holding and the non-slave-holding states. Slavery is justified in paragraph after paragraph. Thus:–

        We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.

        That in this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding States.

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        I’m a friend and colleague of the author, and left my original comment as a gag. David and Adam’s comments are more thoughtful than my joke deserved, and they would win the day in a country that actually respected reason and decency.

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      Much food for thought!

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      Yet another unsolicited opinion from a person who has not had to defend their heritage or had their heritage called into question. This article is about as useless as removing the flag itself from skylines and views of Americans across the nation. But, as it falls so rise the egos of stepford society and the inability to actually be an “American”! Good or bad what a people feel is their history, whether by heritage or the readings of scholars, is indeed history. Just as the “yes” men and women have their right to denounce a thing… Their is also the the inalianable right granted to all Americans to defend said thing as well! Be it socially acceptable OR taboo. But what do I know. I’m only a high school educated southern white male. I live my life with common sense and courtesy, for all people’s, and apparently that too is wrong. Let us all bow down to the politically correct majority. Let us forget our ancestors and the reason we actually exist in the first place.

      No! No! No!

      Enough is enough. Let us all stand true to our convictions and look to heal this nation. And let us remember, that every time we point a finger, there are 3 more pointing back.

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      In 1948, Strom Thurmond’s States’ Rights Party adopted the Battle Flag of Northern Virginia as a symbol of defiance against the federal government. What precisely required such defiance?

      Georgia adopted its version of the flag design in 1956 to protest the Supreme Court’s ruling against segregated schools, in Brown v. Board of Education. The flag first flew over the state capitol in South Carolina in 1962, a year after George Wallace raised it over the grounds of the legislature in Alabama.

      When “Southern heritage” and its flag were revived, what was being championed? Within my lifetime, it was segregation, bans on interracial marriage and even water fountains from which African-Americans weren’t allowed to drink.

      The South Will Rise Again. The Lost Cause. Is that your heritage? Not, for example, the African-Americans who were the majority in Alabama before the war? Not the small farmers in Florida or the Germans in Texas who opposed secession and were persecuted, often violently? Not the Cajuns and creoles? Not the blues and jazz musicians?

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