NRO has an interesting give and take on the symbolic meaning of the Confederate battle flag. Here is Iraq war veteran David French:
Like many Southern boys, I grew up with two flags hanging in my room — an American flag and a Confederate battle flag. The American flag was enormous, taking up much of one wall. It was the “1776” flag, with 13 stars in a circle in the field of blue. My grandmother bought it for me on the bicentennial, and for years it was a treasured possession. The flag took on a special meaning later in life, when I learned more of a family history that included service with General Washington, suffering at Valley Forge.
The Confederate battle flag was much smaller, and it hung over my bookshelf. We bought it at the Shiloh battlefield in Tennessee, where one of my Confederate ancestors fought and where Albert Sidney Johnston died — the general that many considered the great hope of the Confederate Army in the West. My Confederate forefathers went on to fight at Vicksburg, at the battles of Franklin and Nashville, and in countless skirmishes across Tennessee and Mississippi. I grew up looking at old family pictures, including men who still wore their Confederate uniform for formal portraits — long after the war had ended.
So, family history and martial valor. However...
If the goal of our shared civic experience was the avoidance of pain, then we’d take down that flag. But that’s of course not the goal. Rather, we use history to understand our nation in all its complexity — acknowledging uncomfortable realities and learning difficult truths.
It is telling that the South’s chosen, enduring symbol of the Confederacy wasn’t the flag of the Confederate States of America — the slave state itself — but the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, Robert E. Lee’s army. Lee was the reluctant Confederate, the brilliant commander, the man who called slavery a “moral and political evil,” and the architect — by his example — of much of the reconciliation between North and South. His virtue grew in the retelling — and modern historians still argue about his true character — but the symbolism was clear. If the South was to rebuild, it would rebuild under Lee’s banner.
Since that time, the battle flag has grown to mean many things, including evil things. Flying it as a symbol of white racial supremacy is undeniably vile, and any official use of the flag for that purpose should end, immediately. Flying it over monuments to Confederate war dead is simply history. States should no more remove a Confederate battle flag from a Confederate memorial than they should chisel away the words on the granite or bulldoze the memorials themselves.
Jason Lee Steorts doesn't buy it:
Whether you think it’s all right for South Carolina to fly a Confederate battle flag over a Confederate memorial on its capitol grounds depends on whether you think that the Confederate war dead should be honored. If you do, then you can, as David French does, see the flag as a symbol of their valor and skill while decrying its use by white supremacists.
This strikes me as a whitewash of both the flag and the Confederacy. The Confederacy was a rebellion founded on the incoherent idea that the sovereign authority of the United States might be shucked off at the states’ pleasure, and the Confederacy’s primary reason for being was to preserve racial slavery — that is, to violate natural rights rather than to secure them. That is what Confederate soldiers fought for. Whatever else their battle flag may mean, it has to mean that. It did not become a banner of white supremacy in the mid 20th century when racial segregationists took it up. It was a banner of white supremacy, and of lawlessness, from the beginning.
Reihan Salan reviews the history and comes away suggesting that the use of the flag morphed from honoring the Confederate veterans and dead to resisting the civil rights movement of the 50's and 60's. This is from a study he excerpted:
From the end of the Civil War until the late 1940s, display of the battle flag was mostly limited to Confederate commemorations, Civil War re-enactments, and veterans’ parades. The flag had simply become a tribute to Confederate veterans. It was during that time period, only thirty years after the end of the war and fifty years before the modern civil rights movement, that Mississippi incorporated the battle flag into its own state flag – well before the battle flag took on a different and more politically charged meaning.
In 1948, the battle flag began to take on a different meaning when it appeared at the Dixiecrat convention in Birmingham as a symbol of southern protest and resistance to the federal government – displaying the flag then acquired a more political significance after this convention. Georgia of course, changed its flag in 1956, two years after Brown v. Board of Education was decided. In 1961, George Wallace, the governor of Alabama, raised the Confederate battle flag over the capitol dome in Montgomery to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the Civil War. The next year, South Carolina raised the battle flag over its capitol. In 1963, as part of his continued opposition to integration, Governor Wallace again raised the flag over the capitol dome. Despite the hundredth anniversary of the Civil War, the likely meaning of the battle flag by that time was not the representation of the Confederacy, because the flag had already been used by Dixiecrats and had become recognized as a symbol of protest and resistance. Based on its association with the Dixiecrats, it was at least in part, if not entirely, a symbol of resistance to federally enforced integration. Undoubtedly, too, it acquired a racist aspect from its use by the Ku Klux Klan, whose violent activities increased during this period. However, it is important to remember that in spite of these other uses, there remained displays of the battle flag as homage to the Confederate dead, with no racist overtones.
Well. At the risk of a Godwin's Law violation, I would note that German history is complicated and many Germans fought valiantly and honorably during WWII. But despite its long history of other meanings we don't see Nazi flags at German war cemeteries, and, although tributes to conventional German soldiers are within bounds, the politics of a cemetery which includes the Waffen SS are deeply fraught.
People who wanted to reserve the battle flag for honoring the soldiers of the Civil War should have piped up when that flag was politicized by the leaders of the retrograde South. They're a bit late now.