Glenn W. LaFantasie: The Confederacy Comes to Kentucky

Roundup: Historians' Take

Glenn W. LaFantasie is the Richard Frockt Family Professor of Civil War History at Western Kentucky University. He is working on a book about Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant.

The Civil War has not ended. Despite the surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee at Appomattox in April 1865, the war and its legacies still provoke political controversy.

Last week, for example, the Kentucky division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), a fraternal organization composed of descendants of soldiers who fought for the South during the Civil War and that attempts to promote a Southern interpretation of the war, proposed that the state issue vanity license plates bearing the images of the Confederate battle flag and Jefferson Davis, a son of Kentucky who served as the Confederacy’s only president.

The proposal has aroused a storm of protest in the state, particularly by African-Americans and black organizations such as the NAACP. An SCV spokesman, quoted by MSNBC, said that "the idea with the plate is that everything with the SCV is to honor Confederate soldiers, heritage and history, and the SCV and get this in front of the public" (presumably this quote is verbatim). But the Louisville Courier-Journal reported that Raoul Cunningham, president of the Louisville branch of the NAACP, said the Confederate flag "is offensive. It is an emblem that is mostly associated with the Confederacy and slavery. It is offensive to African Americans." Cunningham vowed to launch a legal challenge to the license plate, but the state’s Transportation Cabinet revealed that the SCV has yet to file an application for the plate.

Probably the SCV should not waste its time trying to do so. Although the SCV has successfully persuaded nine former Confederate states (there are 11 such states in all) to issue commemorative license plates, Kentucky will probably resist the group’s effort, even if the SCV does getting around to submitting a formal application.

For one thing, Kentucky never joined the Confederacy, even though it was a slave state. During the Civil War, more Kentuckians served in Union regiments than Confederate ones, despite the deep divisions that made the conflict truly a war of brother against brother in the state. Despite its fondness for slavery as a labor source and as a means for racially controlling blacks, Kentucky remained staunchly Unionist during the war years. Suffering from an acute case of wishful thinking, Confederate authorities added a star to the rebel battle flag (the red flag with the St. Andrew’s cross, which most people incorrectly identify as the Confederate national flag) for Kentucky, but the star did not make Kentuckians give up their loyalty to the Union or persuade them to throw in their lot with the South.

Yet, the SCV campaign for a Confederate license plate might make some headway among some present-day Kentuckians, if only because historians have long argued that the state and its people began to express vigorously pro-Southern and pro-Confederate sympathies ever since Lee's surrender. Kentucky, like so many other states located south of the Mason-Dixon Line or south of the Ohio River (or red states in the Midwest and West), basks today in a warm nostalgia for all things Southern, particularly if those things date from the antebellum period, when presumably white Southerners sat on their verandas drinking mint juleps and listening to contented slaves serenading them....

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