Confederate flag: The story behind the evolving symbol

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ATHENS, Ala. (WHNT) - "I've been studying the Civil War longer than I can remember," confides Sean Busick.

He's an associate history professor at Athens State University.

Over time, Busick has researched seemingly every angle of the struggle between the Union and the Confederacy.

But now, tomes of scholarly discussion seem to simplify to one symbol -- the Confederate battle flag.

He tells the story of how the flag came to be. Early in the Civil War, troops had trouble distinguishing between the flag of the United States of America and the flag of the Confederate States of America. In the fog of war, it led to a number of friendly fire incidents. The Confederate battle flag was created to remedy that.

Even after the war, Busick notes the flag has always stirred conflict, "Early on, it was very controversial." Busick says in the Reconstruction Era, the flag basically meant "giving the finger to the north."

He notes that the Ku Klux Klan picked it up as an early symbol, but not solely to represent any racial viewpoint, "They were as upset with northern troops still in the south during reconstruction as they were with African-Americans."

But as veterans of the war died off, Busick argues the anti-northern sentiments faded from the flag's implications, "It loses that while retaining the racial connotations."

Busick says our understanding of the flag today begins after that shift, "For most Americans all we know about the flag is the way we see it used currently and recently."

Some simplify the Confederate battle flag to be a symbol of heritage. Others simplify it to be a symbol of racial hatred.

And that disagreement unmasks the flag for what it always has been -- a symbol of a deep division in our country.