In Depth: The Local History and Modern Legacy of the Confederate Flag

by Gabe Bullard on April 27, 2011

146 years after it ended, the Civil War’s effects on race, politics, culture and economics in the south are clear. But there’s one tangible remnant of the old south that’s readily and proudly displayed on cars, clothing and, in some areas, over government buildings.

The Confederate Battle Flag has been at the center of board education debates and murder trials in Kentucky in the last 20 years. But the commonwealth’s history with the flag goes back much further.

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One of the most notable Civil War veterans in Louisville’s Cave Hill Cemetery isn’t buried near the graves of hundreds of Confederate and Union soldiers. Instead, Nicola Marschall is buried on a hill a few hundred yards away, with no obvious Civil War imagery, except a plaque explaining who he was.

“He was called the Artist of the Confederacy,” says cemetery employee Chris Rowan.

Rowan often sends history-minded visitors to Marschall’s grave. Marschall was a Prussian immigrant who moved to Louisville in the 1870s to find work as a painter. But by that time, his place in history was established.

“He designed one of the first flags of the Confederacy, what they call the stars and bars, and of course painted the portrait of Jefferson Davis. He was actually in the Confederate Army where he was stationed in Mobile Bay, where he used his artistic talent to draw fortifications and maps and such,” says Rowan.

The controversial rebel flag—the one with a blue X over a red background—wasn’t Marschall’s creation. His design is similar to the US flag of the era, but with just three stripes. It was the Confederacy’s official flag until 1863, when a banner that incorporated the battle flag took its place.

Like Marschall, the battle flag has taken root in Kentucky. It’s so popular here that one man makes a living selling the banner.

“I have a little store in Berea called This and That’s Variety Store, eBay seller, I have a site, myredneckgifts.com…I sell a lot of rebel flag bikinis and a lot of rebel flag comforters and sheet sets,” says Erik Schoemer.

Schoemer says he’s sold flag-adorned goods to people of all races, nationalities and geographies.

“I call them misplaced southerners,” he says. “I’ve had some people tell me in parts of Europe it means they like country music. In Russia, I guess some of the bikers use it. I don’t really know their reason for it. In Australia, it’s pretty much they like the country music.”

“You cannot rewrite history,” says Louisville NAACP President Raoul Cunningham. “The flag is what it was and it is still a symbol of aggression, oppression…”

No matter how much time passes and no matter who flies the rebel flag or for what purpose, Cunnighan says there’s no escaping what the banner means, or the fact that it was a battle flag.

“Every time I see it, I am very much aware of what it stands for,” he says. “If I see it on someone’s belt buckle, I’m aware of what that symbol stands for.”

Schoemer knows hate groups have adopted the flag, likely drawn by the racial history of the south, from slavery through civil rights. And Schoemer says rebel flag sales increased around the time President Barack Obama took office…a correlation few of the flag’s critics would call a coincidence. But Schoemer says it’s mostly innocent.

“Most people who are just good, red-blooded, hard working Americans who have the beliefs of being opposed to massive, oppressive, growing federal government. A lot of it is people proud of being rednecks,” says Schoemer. “For me [being a redneck] just means somebody who likes the outdoors, guns, trucks and beer and having a good time.”

“I think what’s really going on is enormous numbers of white Americans are very uncomfortable with the change in racial complexion of this country, and Barack Obama’s election very much symbolized that demographic change,” says Mark Potok with the Southern Povery Law Center.

Schoemer says Confederate flag sales have dropped slightly, and now the Gadsden flag, which depicts a snake over the words “Don’t Tread on Me,” is becoming more popular. It’s big with the Tea Party, and Potok says it can send similar messages as the rebel flag, but without bigoted overtones.

“It still represents the idea of a tough rebel, and ‘No one’s going to mess with me,’ but it really leaves out the racial element, and that’s the big difference,” says Potok.

But while Potok says the Gadsden flag isn’t offensive, it’s not completely innocent. It was a popular symbol with the right-wing militia movement in the early 1990s.

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