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It seems whenever there's news of some protests in the USA, the Confederate battle flag will almost invariably show up in the associated photoreports.

Granted, this may just be observer bias due to me not having been to any of the protests/rallies and due to the media favouring the depictions of the flag in their news reports for some reason, but this is also my point - why this flag, of all the other flags the Confederacy seems to have used?

Wikipedia claims its revival started in late 40s with the Dixiecrat party, but that doesn't answer my question of why this flag, and not others.

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    Can you share/link pix of those other flags? I honestly dont know what the alternatives were. Aug 6 '21 at 8:18
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica - There are several behind that first link in my answer. There is of course a reason you aren't familiar with those alternatives, which is what the balance of that answer is about.
    – T.E.D.
    Aug 6 '21 at 12:53
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    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… Another very simple reason: the CSA official country flag changed too much. If one does not want the battle flag, which country flag should be picked? The last one was used for a too short time to be relevant. And then there were 2 other designs, one looking like a surrender white flag, another too similar to USA. Battle flag is more distinctive and long lasting.
    – Luiz
    Aug 6 '21 at 13:32
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    @gerrit - I think what you are asking is if it gets used on more left-wing protests, and I believe you are correct that it largely does not. However, it does commonly show up in rather mainstream Republican contexts, as well as some places that are heavily identitarian but not overtly political, like sporting events (particularly NASCAR, although they are trying to ban it) and music events (particularly Country).
    – T.E.D.
    Aug 6 '21 at 15:02
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    As an American, it may help to point out that there are regions of the country where there are Confederate battle flags flying outside most of the houses on a daily basis -- even just miles outside the capital of Washington D.C. And: most everyone in the USA just calls it "the Confederate flag". The only place I've seen comparable flag-showing is Northern Ireland. Aug 8 '21 at 13:26
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It appears that the main problem with the official confederate flags is that they were effectively designed by committee. The resulting flags, in the opinion of General Beauregard, looked too much like the US (Union) flag, or the various state flags, to avoid confusion on the battlefield. As you can imagine, this seemingly utilitarian concern was the general's primary requirement for a flag.

The bureaucracies he had to appeal to of course preferred the designs they came up with, so the Army of the Confederacy in the end just stuck with its own "battle" flag, and the official confederate government stuck with theirs.

However, in a very real way the Confederacy was its army. There were about 12 million people living in the seceding states (including slaves), but very few of them would have had much business (and fewer much affection) with government buildings flying the official flag. However, there were on the order of a million soldiers in their army (probably around 20% of the area's white male population), and they were marching, fighting, and dying for that battle flag every day.

And of course on the Union side, nearly everyone who dealt with the Confederacy was in the Union army, and to them the battle flag was its standard.

So when the various southern veterans groups needed a flag, it makes perfect sense they'd use their battle flag. Similarly when dead-enders and White Supremacists wanted a flag to identify with the Confederacy's "lost cause" of a hierarchical White Supremacy-based society, they went with the flag most recognizable both to their supporters and to those they were opposed to.

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  • Was there "the army" with only one battle-flag for all? All those wiki pages linked here do seem to suggest quite otherwise. And Beauregard insisted on a square one. Seems to me (just looking at designs, nothing more), that either Swan's idea for state, 2nd navy jack, or Tennessee army are now the most popular choices, Van Dorn's Army of the West battle flag however not. [My uneducated guess-theory: The later official state flags were just awful designs, as most specialty battle flags. Those who wanted 'South' took some flag from there that looked distinctive & nicest?] Aug 5 '21 at 23:19
  • @LаngLаngС - It appears, particularly at the beginning, that every state had its own flag (and uniforms!). The battle flag is what the Confederate Army ended up standardizing on. And of course lower units (in both armies) had their own unit standards too. I suppose it probably technically is more accurate to say "The Army of Northern Virginia", but that of course was most of the Confederate enlisted, so I'm not sure the extra accuracy is worth the extra words.
    – T.E.D.
    Aug 5 '21 at 23:37
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    I think it's worth noting that the second and third national flags of the Confederacy (1863 onwards) were basically "the battle flag with some extra bits tacked on", which shows the dominant popularity of the battle flag even at the time.
    – MJ713
    Aug 6 '21 at 13:10
  • @MJ713 - Yes. Looking over the flags (see my first link), it appears that the first "committee" flag was basically a clone of the old US flag with only 3 stripes, but pretty much every flag after that was some manner of reaction to the popularity of the Battle Flag.
    – T.E.D.
    Aug 6 '21 at 13:22
  • It’s also maybe not completely irrelevant that the Utilitarian concerns somewhat are relevant for the modern usage of the flag: You can’t express your political stance that clearly, if people have to look closely to see that you are not just sporting the flag of Georgia (which seems to be inspired by the Confederate flag though).
    – Wrzlprmft
    Aug 6 '21 at 19:40
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This seems like lower-case history, but still history: the popular 1979 TV series "The Dukes of Hazzard" featured a car named the "General Lee" with the confederate battle flag painted on the roof. It was on nationwide for 7 seasons, keeping that flag the whole time. As to the show's popularity, even today "Daisy Dukes" are "short, form-fitting, denim cut-off shorts [...] named after the character of Daisy Duke [...][in] The Dukes of Hazzard". A shot of the car:

top of car with "General Lee" on side and confederate flag painted

My editorializing is that by 1979 that flag was at least a contender for "The Flag of the South", which is partly why it was chosen for the show (the other part being how it looked on top of an orange car). The show then cemented it as the southern US flag, and at the same time sanitized it somewhat; especially for TV-watchers of that generation not from the South. They'd probably know that was a real flag, but be left with the impression it represents the common man (the Duke boys) standing up to corrupt officials (the evil Boss Hogg).

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    Though most versions of the General Lee were (famously) orange, not red. To this day, any orange-painted muscle car inevitably brings up the association, with or without Confederate flag on the roof. While red ones are just - red muscle cars, far more common, thus less likely to be Dukes-inspired. Aug 6 '21 at 15:34
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    @DarrelHoffman Huh -- relooking at "real" pictures of it, the flag actually has a red background on an orange car! I'd always assumed the blue stripes were merely painted over the orange of the car, which was close enough to red. Aug 6 '21 at 16:44
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    Popularity with whom? The battle flag was commonly seen long before 1979 - I can attest to 1960s from personal observation - and accepted as the flag of the Confederacy. (It wasn't until much later that I even knew that it had had other flags.) Though the name of the TV series is vaguely familar, if I'd ever seen an episode, it didn't make it to long-term memory. And FWIW, I've never heard the term "Daisy Dukes" either :-)
    – jamesqf
    Aug 6 '21 at 17:29
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    @Owen Reynolds: So there is a subculture who were/are (I assume it gets re-run endlessly on cable) fans of the show. and culturally influenced by it. Then there are the rest of us :-) But my point still stands: the battle flag was widely used both as a symbol of the Confederacy, and for many outsider groups. long before 1979. It wasn't thought of as racist until fairly recently: it was the REBEL flag, something I think is implicit in its use on that TV show.
    – jamesqf
    Aug 7 '21 at 3:30
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    @Criggie As compared to capital-H istory as in "this is capital D dangerous". A TV show from a mere 40 years ago is merely lower-case-h history. Aug 7 '21 at 4:46
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The argument I've heard given at various rallies/events with a prominent amount of CSA battle flags is that the flag represents the "good parts" of the CSA, meaning the values related to state's rights and their battlefield prowess. "Heritage not hate" if you will. The various national CSA flags represent the CSA in totality, including the preservation of slavery and treason against the United States. So the lack of the various CSA national flags "proves" that the bearers are not racist or for the actual overthrow of the United States. I can't say I find that argument particularly credible, but it's the line the battle flag wavers I've met throw out.

On a similar note, some people in the "heritage not hate" crowd have switched to the Bonnie Blue Flag. The reason being that (to them) it symbolizes much the same thing as the CSA Battle Flag while similarly "lacking" the connotations of the various CSA National flags, but with the added bonus that it doesn't "look racist" to the average American. Having a CSA battle flag bumper sticker might get your car keyed in many places, but since the Bonnie Blue Flag is less recognized, displaying it gets people less flack.

I apologize on the lack of sourcing in this answer. It comes from spending 30+ years as a Civil War buff and observing dozens of political/protest events in the US South. So directly observed but I think a step beyond merely anecdotal.

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    FWIW, while I'm one of the most rigorous about enforcing sourcing, I recognize and support an exception where the source is "personal experience". That is, IMHO, a valid historical source.
    – MCW
    Aug 6 '21 at 12:03
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    It is probably worth mentioning what people say today, but one should realize that's literally going to be post-hoc justification, not a root reason for how we got here. Its primarily interesting on a socio-psycological level, not historically. It doesn't change the historical fact that the whole shebang was ultimately about slavery, and everyone either knows that or should know that.
    – T.E.D.
    Aug 6 '21 at 14:09
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    Considering that the CSA lost the war, their battlefield prowess seems less impressive than that of the USA (and in either case, military might doesn't seem like much of a value in itself). And the states right in question is the right to slavery. So I'm not sure those are values that represent the good parts of the CSA. Not that I don't believe that some who fly the battle flag don't put forward that argument, but it does seem specious and self-serving, intended to whitewash their desire to support a racist system.
    – tim
    Aug 6 '21 at 14:56
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    "their battlefield prowess seems less impressive than that of the USA " - not really, no. The North won the war due to better economy and industrial output. The confederates did achieve impressive successes in many battles even outnumbered, they had skilled troops and brilliant commanders, they just coduldn't win a long war of attrition. About slavery, sure it played an important role, but history is more complicated than that, in wars there are often many factors. And the average Joe didn't fight primarily with the desire "for slavery", because the wealthy had slaves, not the average Joe.
    – vsz
    Aug 6 '21 at 21:40
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    @vsz: I suspect that a lot of "average Joes" weren't so much seeking to fight against the United States, but rather trying to prevent the Union Army from destroying everything in its path, and I see nothing dishonorable about such a goal.
    – supercat
    Aug 6 '21 at 22:23
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The flag that’s currently being flown as “the Confederate Battle Flag” is based on a flag used by the Army of Tennessee beginning in January 1864. There was also a similar naval flag.

Army of Tennessee Battle Flag

This was based on a battle flag used by Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia from March 1861, because the official Confederate Flag at the time was too-easily confused for the United States Flag. William Miles’ design had previously been rejected by the The Committee on the Flag and Seal for looking “like a pair of suspenders,” but was chosen as a battle flag by General Pierre Beauregard anyway. This was square rather than rectangular. It had one star for each state of the Confederacy. Other Confederate generals during the war chose different battle flags, but the one became used by armies in the east and was the best-known.

Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia

In May, 1863, the Confederacy adopted the “Stainless Banner” as its new national flag, with the square battle flag as the union on a white field.

Stainless banner

There was a third version of the flag, adding a red bar on the right, but it was barely-used, since Lee surrendered only a few weeks later.

Within a decade after the end of the war, the United Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy were using the square battle flag in war memorials. The original intent of using the battle flag instead of the Stars-and-Bars or Stainless Banner was to honor the soldiers rather than the politicians. Originally, the UCV tried to promote the square battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia over the rectangular flag of the Army of Tennessee, but the rectangular design, which looked more like a national flag, became more popular.

In the ensuing years, the flag was adopted by the Kappa Alpha Order, a fraternity founded at the university that made Robert E. Lee its president. This began with their organizing war memorials, but the fraternity soon began using it in totally unrelated contexts. It was in the hands of students at southern colleges that the flag appeared at the convention of the States’ Rights Party in July 1948, which ran on a platform of maintaining Jim Crow laws and racial segregation. In November 1948, the UDC put out a statement condemning the use of the battle flag “in certain demonstrations of college groups and some political groups,” and southern states passed laws against what they considered “desecration” of the Confederate battle flag by using it as a decoration on disposable baubles.

Unfortunately, the flag also was adopted by White supremacist groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan. Just as the UDC feared when “the flag fad” began in 1948, many people now associate it more with reactionary politics than with its use from the 1870s to the 1940s almost exclusively in war memorials.

I can attest that it is now also used as a symbol of White southern culture more broadly, in places thousands of miles away from any Civil War battlefield.

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    This is a historicaly correct representation of the history of the battle flag and what (until recently) it represented, but does not answer the question. My assumption is that the 'modern prominence' was caused by the 'protesters' taking a popular, well known, symbol and hoping the popularity would rub off on them. Aug 7 '21 at 9:53
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    In 2013 I traveled though most of the area by car and was surprised how seldom I saw the battle flag. The only places I saw it being sold were in the Gettysburg and Vicksburg Museums: Gettysburg National Museum - Wikipedia Aug 7 '21 at 9:54
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The main motivation for most people's interest in the Confederacy was the South's unexpectedly impressive military competence. The Lee tank, as well as a number of US armaments (help me on this - but not bases!) have an aura of credibility because of Confederate battlefield performance, of which the flag was a large, very visible, facet. What about Jeb Stuart? Beastly system, dashing battles!

Who wants to re-enact the politics of how slave owning plantation masters convinced non slave owning whites to support their system which most certainly did not promote poor white employment? Who wants to argue the ethics of slavery?

To elaborate, since commenters seem to miss my point: most people looking at the confederacy will be looking at battles or military events. In corresponding images, be they from movies, paintings or even contemporary photographs when there are flags or unit markers, those are likely to be the Battle Flag, not the political flags. Because these are depictions of military events.

This is the same phenomena you would have from association of the red star with regards to the USSR. No, it isn't a political insignia, but its frequency in military imagery - again frequently the subject when people look at Soviet history - gives it a lot of association with the USSR. And that despite the hammer and sickle being a rather striking flag in its own right.

Speaking of striking and elegant, that is one thing the confederate flags are not, especially the 3rd variants. While the Battle Flag is rather stylish and distinctive. Besides the 2nd and 3rd variant do incorporate the X-stars, reinforcing it again.

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    I don't see that this even tries to answer the question.
    – RedSonja
    Aug 6 '21 at 10:31
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    I think it would be better to say it directly instead of asking rhetorical questions. This is, after all, a Q&A site. Aug 6 '21 at 18:15
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    This answers why people (who obviously don't want the return of slavery, and many of them aren't even racist) fly the confederate flag regardless. However, it does not answer why this specific flag is used as a choice from many alternatives, and this is the question actually about.
    – vsz
    Aug 6 '21 at 21:52
  • I disagree that it had much to do with military performance, since most people don't really know enough to judge that. The reason most people who admired the Confederacy did so was the same reason they admired the American Revolution: because they were rebels against over-reaching authority. The same people that used the battle flag symbolically were about as likely to use the Gadsen Flag: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gadsden_flag
    – jamesqf
    Aug 7 '21 at 3:36
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    @Italian Philosophers 4 Monica: But what portion of the US public, let alone the public given to flying that flag, actually reads the history books?
    – jamesqf
    Aug 7 '21 at 16:14

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