Captured Confederate Flags and Fake News in Civil War Memory

Captured Confederate Flags and Fake News in Civil War Memory

Earlier this summer, after a decades-long fight that gained traction over the past four years, the city of Charlottesville finally removed its infamous statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. In doing so, Charlottesville joined the ranks of cities like New Orleans, Baltimore, and Richmond, southern cities that have removed their Confederate monuments in the last decade.[1] When his city began its monument removal, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney noted that statues of Confederate soldiers and leaders create a false history of the Civil War and its aftermath by honoring men who committed treason: “It’s the fake news of their time.”[2] Fake news has been inherent to the Lost Cause narrative since its inception, employed to justify the construction of Confederate statues and the deification of Confederates across the country. It has also played a key role in the history of another, often overlooked, variety of Confederate monument: captured Confederate flags.

Large statue hoisted in air by large crane.
Removal of Richmond’s Robert E. Lee Statue, September 2021 (NPR)

During the Civil War, Federal regiments captured and brought home hundreds of Confederate battle flags. Some are maintained by Northern states to this day, which has made them a unique type of monument. Minnesota, for example, famously refuses to return a flag captured from the 28th Virginia Infantry at Gettysburg, creating a strange situation in which a northern state owns, and has occasionally displayed, a Confederate banner. In the immediate aftermath of the war, little attention was paid to these trophies. Indeed, some captured flags vanish from the historical record almost immediately after their capture. By the 1880s, however, as the nation emerged from Reconstruction, some legislators began to understand the symbolic significance of flag returns and, by the end of the decade, it was a controversy making headlines across the country. The heart of the conflict was a 1887 Executive Order issued by President Grover Cleveland that mandated battle flags held in federal custody be returned to the states from which they originated. In theory, returning captured flags would strike a reconciliatory tone, signaling to both sides that wartime was over. In practice, it was met with near-universal disdain. Northerners saw it as a cowardly concession to a South they had not yet forgiven; ex-Confederates considered it an insult, a political misstep, or simply an empty gesture.[3]

Then, as now, high tempers led to reckless journalism. Both Southerners who wanted their flags back and Northerners who vehemently opposed the idea claimed the endorsement of a particularly polarizing figure: Jefferson Davis. Soon after the original order was issued by the Cleveland administration, the New York Sun reported on a letter allegedly sent by Davis in which he argued that “the order of the War Department to return the captured flags to the late Confederate states was a violation of all known military precedents,” and went on to say that the flags should be returned to the states that captured them.[4] This was a fairly radical stance for an ex-Confederate to take; even most conservative Southern newspapers had admitted to wanting the flags back if they could get them. For Davis to come forward with the notion that the captured flags belonged to the victors was news indeed. There was only one problem: the letter was fake news.

From the beginning, there was some doubt as to its authenticity. One Minnesota newspaper ran the letter with a note stating, “it may be that the above letter is not authentic.”[5] Soon, the public caught on to the fabrication, and Southerners were, predictably, outraged. The Staunton Spectator wrote that “such conduct is unpardonable,” and, a few days later, published a Davis letter of its own.[6] In that letter—which was also carried by the Sun—Davis wrote that “to retain as a point of pride a flag captured in battle by either the Union or Confederate soldiers would be equivalent to renewed exultation of triumph by one or the other, and surely not a step toward the restoration of peace.”[7] Davis, echoing other Southern papers, noted that the South had not requested the return of the flags, but still saw the gesture as one of goodwill and reconciliation, a potential recognition of the “nobility” of the Confederate cause.

The fact that both factions sought to claim Davis’ endorsement displays the extent to which he still held political and cultural power, twenty years after the end of his administration. If the first letter was the truth—if Davis did believe that the flags should remain with their captors—then Northern claims were vindicated. If even the president of the Confederacy admitted that the North had a legitimate right to the flags, then Northern claims of virtue gained considerable momentum. It would be a ratification of Northern nobility from the heart of the Confederacy, an endorsement of what Robert Penn Warren dubbed the “Treasury of Virtue,” the North’s self-imposed sense of righteousness that made them the guardians of national morality.[8] On the other hand, if Davis believed the flags should be returned, then the reconciliation gained ground. According to their very own Jefferson Davis, the ex-Confederates were loyal Americans, and the Northerners were standing on a soapbox condescending to them rather than getting on with rebuilding a nation.

The two sides of the Jefferson Davis incident are the same two sides that exist in contemporary monument debates. On one hand are certain, mostly white, Southerners who want their flags flown and their statues erected as monuments to their heritage. On the other side are those who feel that monuments to such people represent a deification of the values for which they fought. This is still the great underlying truth of Confederate flag debates: Neoconfederates see Northerners as patronizing, hypocritical outsiders who don’t respect their heritage, and many Northerners see the pro-flag faction as backwards, ignorant, and racist —in large part because the flag stood for, and still stands for, treason and white supremacy. Each side feels misunderstood, misheard, and mistreated, contributing to the cyclical nature of these conflicts. For the most part, neither side is particularly interested in exploring the fundamental racial aspects of the conflict; instead, it is purported to be entirely a question of heritage and memory. Our contemporary debates about Confederate monuments, whether they are statues in Charlottesville or flags tucked away in a Minnesota archive, are not, ultimately, very different from the debates of over a century ago.

Group photo of five uniformed soldiers standing and one officer sitting in a chair.
First Minnesota Volunteers (Minnesota Historical Society)

Every few years, the state of Virginia asks the state of Minnesota to please return that Confederate flag, the one that the Minnesotans captured at Gettysburg in 1863. Minnesota, so far, has never shown any interest in doing so.[9] The flag was captured on the third day of the battle by the Minnesota First, a regiment that had, the day before, suffered extreme casualties in a near-suicidal charge to hold the Union line. According to some accounts, the regiment saved the battle, and the Union.[10] Today, the flag is imbued with a new mythology, one of Union heroism and Minnesotan sacrifice, and the state is determined to hold on to its trophy. In 2000, responding to a request to return the flag, Governor Jesse Ventura summed up the state’s policy quite succinctly: “Absolutely not. Why? I mean, we won.”[11]

[1] David Mistich, “After Removing Two Confederate Statues, Charlottesville Officials Vote to Take Down a Third,” NPR (July 10, 2021).

[2]“The History and Future of Confederate Monuments,” CBS News (July 12, 2020).

[3]  Caroline Janney, Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 2013), 225.

[4] “A Letter From Jeff Davis,” The Sun (June 24, 1887). Library of Congress.

[5] “Jefferson Davis: An Alleged Letter From the Ex-Confederate Chief,” St. Paul Daily Globe (June 24, 1887). Library of Congress.

[6] “A Forged Letter Purporting to be Written By Jefferson Davis,” The Staunton Spectator (June 29, 1887). Library of Congress.

[7] “Mr. Davis on the Flags,” The Staunton Spectator (July 6, 1887). Library of Congress.

[8]  Robert Penn Warren, The Legacy of the Civil War (Lincoln, NE: Bison Books, 1960), 59.

[9] Kathy Sawyer, “Capture the Flag,” The Washington Post (April 23, 2000).

[10] Richard Moe, The Last Full Measure (New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc, 1993), 29.

[11]“Ventura Won’t Give Flag Back to Virginia,” Chicago Tribune (Feb. 29, 2000).

Maria DiStefano

Maria DiStefano is a student of American history at the University of Pennsylvania. She is particularly interested in the intersection of history, memory, and education systems.

5 Replies to “Captured Confederate Flags and Fake News in Civil War Memory”

  1. Yep. The North won and Neo-Confederates and Lost Causers need to be reminded. The Confederacy won Reconstruction; and that needs to be overturned once and for all.

  2. I’m looking for the names of the (6 ?) Union soldiers who escorted Jefferson Davis to Ft Monroe prison. Any professors, who focus on Civil War and Davis, I could contact would be greatly appreciated. Online research has proven futile thus far.
    Thank you.

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