Confederate Flag Sewn by Constance Cary

Confederate Battle Flag

The Confederate battle flag, initially authorized for units of the Confederate armed forces during the American Civil War (1861–1865), has become one of the most recognized, misunderstood, and controversial symbols in American history. Originally designed as a Confederate national flag by William Porcher Miles of South Carolina, it was rejected by the Confederate Congress but subsequently adopted by the Confederate army, which needed a banner that was easily distinguishable from the United States flag. The battle flag transformed into a national symbol as the Army of Northern Virginia, with which it was closely associated, also became an important symbol. It even was incorporated into the Confederacy's Second and Third National flags. Following the war, proponents of the Lost Cause used the battle flag to represent Southern valor and honor, although it also was implicitly connected to white supremacy. In the mid-twentieth century, the battle flag simultaneously became ubiquitous in American culture while, partly through the efforts of the Ku Klux Klan, becoming increasingly tied to racial violence and intimidation. African Americans conflated the battle flag to opposition to the civil rights movement, while neo-Confederates argued that its meaning had to do with states' rights and southern identity, not racial hatred. The political and social lines of dispute over the flag remain much the same at the beginning of the twenty-first century. MORE...

 

Origin

On February 9, 1861, the Confederate Congress, then meeting in Montgomery, Alabama, established the Committee on the Flag and Seal. Chaired by William Porcher Miles, a former U.S. congressman from South Carolina, the committee considered various designs for a national flag and weighed the advantages of modeling the banner after the Stars and Stripes of the United States. Some thought such a move would be good politics. "Although I have not much more veneration than you for the stars & stripes, there are many who have, whose feelings, or fancies have a right to be respected," one Southerner wrote to Miles. The chairman disagreed and argued that the United States flag represented "tyranny."

Even in the superheated political atmosphere of secession, Miles's view was not in the majority, and on March 4 the Confederacy adopted its First National Flag. (It was a symbolic date on which to unveil a new national symbol: March 4 was the day of U.S. president Abraham Lincoln's inauguration.) The First National, which came to be known as the Stars and Bars, was rectangular with three horizontal bars alternating red, white, and red. In the upper left was a portion of blue and a circle of white stars representing each Confederate state—at first seven, then eleven, and finally thirteen (the last two were a gesture to the secessionist factions of Missouri and Kentucky).

A few weeks later, on April 30, the Virginia Convention of 1861 adopted a new state flag modeled on a different Confederate symbol: the Bonnie Blue Flag. Featuring a single white star on a field of blue, the Bonnie Blue Flag had flown over the short-lived Republic of West Florida, whose territory was eventually divided into the Deep South states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. The flag had flown over Mississippi's capitol when the state seceded in January 1861, and a song, written in its honor, was soon popular across the South. Virginia's flag, meanwhile, featured the commonwealth's seal in a white circle against a blue background.

When the Confederate Army of the Shenandoah, under Joseph E. Johnston, and the Confederate Army of the Potomac, under Pierre G. T. Beauregard, met Union forces at the First Battle of Manassas on July 21, 1861, their troops flew an assortment of flags, both state and national. (States' rights was a founding principle of the Confederacy and influenced the attachment many units had to their state flags. Some Virginia and North Carolina soldiers refused to fly anything but their state flags.) The Stars and Bars' resemblance to the U.S. flag, combined with similarities between the two sides' uniforms and the general confusion of battle, contributed to an incident at First Manassas in which Confederate forces fired on a Confederate infantry brigade commanded by Jubal A. Early. Shortly after, Johnston and Beauregard resolved to establish a new, sufficiently distinctive flag for their troops, and they consulted one of Beauregard's aides, the same William Miles who had opposed the original flag in the first place.

Miles resurrected what had been his preference for the national flag, a design of his own that featured a blue saltire, or X shape, with a white border and white stars (again, one for each state) on a field of red. The Committee on the Flag and Seal had rejected it the first time, suggesting that it looked "like a pair of suspenders," and now the members rejected it again. Johnston and Beauregard decided to use it anyway, with Beauregard proposing to Johnston two Confederate flags: "a peace or parade flag, and a war flag to be used only on the field of battle." This second flag, the so-called battle flag, would be the one Miles designed, and the two generals and their lieutenants met at Fairfax Court House in September 1861 to work out the details. At Johnston's urging, a square design was adopted, and each branch of the army was assigned a different size: forty-eight inches square for infantry, thirty-six inches square for artillery, and thirty inches square for cavalry.

The Confederate quartermaster ordered a model of the flag made and then contracted Constance Cary and her cousins Hetty and Jennie Cary—members of a refugee family from Baltimore then living in Richmond—to produce silk prototypes. (Constance Cary's flag went to Confederate general Earl Van Dorn, Hetty Cary's to Johnston, and Jennie Cary's to Beauregard.) An additional 120 silk flags were sewn for the quartermaster by seventy-five Richmond women and issued to Beauregard's and Johnston's armies in October and November, with a formal presentation at Centreville, Virginia, on November 28, 1861. The silk flags were quickly replaced by those made of wool bunting, which was better suited for the field. Beauregard and Van Dorn were eventually transferred to the Western Theater, but their attempts to introduce the flag into the Confederate armies there were less successful. Still, by the end of the war, when Johnston and then another veteran of the East, John Bell Hood, were leading the defense of Atlanta and the Carolinas, the Confederate battle flag had become more common.

Symbolism During the War

The Confederate battle flag was never adopted as a national flag, although over the course of the war it was incorporated into two such banners. The Second National Flag was adopted on May 1, 1863. Rectangular with a white field and a canton containing the battle flag, it was designed to look substantially different from the Stars and Stripes. (Public opinion had shifted since 1861. Matthew Fontaine Maury called the Stars and Bars a "servile imitation" of the Stars and Stripes.) However, the "Stainless Banner," as the new flag was called, introduced another problem. In the rare instance where it was used on the battlefield, it looked too much like a flag of truce, so on March 4, 1865, a vertical red strip along the fly edge was added, making it the "Blood-Stained Banner."

In the meantime, the battle flag slowly transformed into an important national symbol independent of the national flags. For a time it was referred to as "Beauregard's flag," and when Beauregard's and Johnston's armies combined into a new Army of Northern Virginia in March 1862, it became closely associated with that force and its longtime commander, Robert E. Lee. As the Army of Northern Virginia became an important national symbol, so did the battle flag. Confederate nationhood was not independent of Lee's army and its success—as suggested by Johnston's distinction between peace and war flags—but, in fact, dependent upon it.

Still, even as it became an important national symbol, the various meanings contained by the battle flag were complicated and sometimes ironic. Miles's original design was inspired by a South Carolina secession flag, which featured a blue St. George's cross, populated by fifteen white stars, on a field of red. In the upper left were a white crescent and a white palmetto. However, a Confederate Jew complained that the cross invested the flag with inappropriate religious symbolism, and Miles replaced it with what in heraldic terms is known as a saltire. Ironically, the X-shaped saltire is identical to a St. Andrew's cross, named for the Christian martyr and patron saint of Scotland. In that way, a flag that was intended to be secular took on powerful religious associations for some. Meanwhile, a flag not originally intended to be a national symbol has come to powerfully represent, more than any of the national flags, the Confederate nation and its varied and sometimes volatile associations, including slavery. Finally, during the twentieth century, the battle flag was often mistakenly referred to as the Stars and Bars, linking it to the First National Flag, whose design Miles had found so objectionable. A flag that has come to symbolize Confederate independence is often called by the name of a flag designed to emphasize the Confederacy's connection to the United States.

Post-War Symbolism and Controversy

By the end of the Civil War, the battle flag had become imbued with a religious and patriotic meaning hinted at in Union general and Gettysburg hero Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain's description of "flags made sacred by heroic service and sacrifice of noble manhood," flags—in this instance at Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House—that were "battle-torn and smoke-dimmed, draped in sorrow, but some of them blazoned with a crimson deeper than their red, touching the stars." Following the war, organizations such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the United Confederate Veterans cultivated this idea of the battle flag as an important symbol of the Confederacy and integrated it into their Lost Cause view of the war. The Lost Cause portrayed the South as heroic—particularly its generals and its white women—while downplaying the role of slavery in causing and justifying the war. For some, this view served to reconcile North and South by acknowledging Union victory while glorifying what Ellen Glasgow, in her novel The Battle-Ground (1902), described as "the daily sacrifice, the very poverty and cold and hunger [that were] bound up and made one with the tattered flag … "

In emphasizing the positive aspects of the South and especially the antebellum social order, the Lost Cause—and with it the battle flag—also came to represent white supremacy for many. As far back as 1863, when the mostly white Second National Flag was adopted, a newspaper in Savannah, Georgia, praised it as "emblematical" of the Confederacy's fight "to maintain the Heaven ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race." Such a literal reading of that flag's design was rare, and no equivalent reading of the battle flag's design has been made. But between the 1890s and the 1930s, similar meanings were nevertheless gathered up into its folds, along with many others, such as patriotism, valor, and states' rights.

Despite its implicit connection to white supremacy, the battle flag was rarely used to promote racial violence prior to World War II (1939–1945), a fact the historian John Coski attributes to southerners' treatment of the symbol as "sacred." Beginning late in the 1930s, however, two things happened more or less at the same time: first, the battle flag became a fixture of pop culture, representing the generic Old South of the film Gone with the Wind (1939); and second, it was adopted by the third incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan. Previously, the Klan had displayed only the United States flag during its marches, but as the organization was pushed by law enforcement out of such Midwestern redoubts as Indiana and back into the South, it garbed itself in more explicitly southern symbolism.

This, in turn, helped to shape the meaning of the battle flag in American political and popular culture during the mid- to late twentieth century. It became a symbol of the States' Rights Democratic Party, nicknamed the Dixiecrats, which ran South Carolina governor Strom Thurmond for U.S. president in 1948. The Dixiecrats explicitly stood for what some considered to be the traditional values of the Confederacy—states' rights and white supremacy—and although they lost the election, their use of the battle flag helped to associate it with those values. According to a newspaper account, Thurmond's supporters in Richmond shouted the rebel yell and displayed what the newspaper mistakenly described as the "Stars and Bars." In the meantime, Richmond store owners reported that sales of the battle flag during the summer and fall of 1948 equaled or surpassed sales of the Stars and Stripes.

Thurmond was but one of many Americans who opposed the goals of the burgeoning civil rights movement. Segregationists found the battle flag to be a convenient symbol in their attempt to resist federal power as represented by such U.S. Supreme Court decisions as Morgan v. Virginia (1946), which desegregated interstate public transportation, and Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954), which desegregated public schools. But from the perspective of African Americans, it also symbolized a history of racially motivated violence, such as lynching.

By the 1950s and 1960s, and despite efforts by the United Daughters of the Confederacy to limit its use, the battle flag was everywhere in the South. It became an unofficial symbol of the University of Mississippi and was especially popular among professional stock car drivers and their fans. It was incorporated into the state flags of Mississippi, in 1894, and Georgia, in 1956. Georgia subsequently redesigned the state flag in 2001, de-emphasizing the battle flag, and in 2003 adopted a flag design that closely mimics the Confederacy's First National Flag. As African Americans entered the political life of the United States again after years of Jim Crow laws in the South, they often opposed the use of the battle flag. The Afro-American, a newspaper published in Baltimore and Richmond, warned its readers that the ubiquitous flags were "an attempt to popularize the South's opposition to Civil Rights," and later compared the symbolism of the battle flag to Nazi propaganda.

During the Civil War Centennial (1961–1965), the flag was widely used not simply in the context of what it meant during the Civil War, but what it meant in the twentieth century. When Virginia governor J. Lindsay Almond proposed that the centennial be used to emphasize "the basic underlying principles in defense of which the war was fought," the politics of the civil rights movement were most explicitly linked with the politics of the Civil War, with the battle flag the symbolic link.

By the twenty-first century, the flag had shed the connotations of sacredness it had held during Reconstruction (1865–1877), as well as its association only with the relatively narrow tenets of the Lost Cause, and instead had come to represent broad regional, political, and racial identities. As such, it has often been highly controversial—as in the arguments over its use in the Georgia state flag—but its meanings not easily parsed.

Time Line

  • November 28, 1861 - Units in the Confederate Army of the Shenandoah and Army of the Potomac, gathered at Centreville, Virginia, are formally presented silk battle flags, designed to replace the Confederate national flag, which is considered to be too similar in design to the United States flag for battlefield use.
  • May 1, 1863 - The Confederate Congress adopts the Second National Flag, or "Stainless Banner," whose design incorporates the battle flag in a canton against a white field.
  • March 4, 1865 - The Confederate Congress adopts the Third National Flag, or "Blood-Stained Banner," which incorporates a single red bar on the fly edge of the previous flag.
  • October 1948 - In Richmond, supporters of the Dixiecrat candidate for U.S. president, Strom Thurmond, shout the rebel yell and display the Confederate battle flag, or what a newspaper account mistakenly refers to as the "Stars and Bars."
Further Reading
Bonner, Robert E. Colors and Blood: Flag Passions of the Confederate South. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2004.
Cannon, Devereaux D., Jr. The Flags of the Confederacy, An Illustrated History. Memphis, Tennessee: St. Luke's Press, 1988.
Coski, John M. The Confederate Battle Flag, America's Most Embattled Emblem. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Clemens, T. G. Confederate Battle Flag. (2014, July 18). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Confederate_Battle_Flag.

  • MLA Citation:

    Clemens, Thomas G. "Confederate Battle Flag." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 18 Jul. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: May 26, 2010 | Last modified: July 18, 2014


Contributed by Thomas G. Clemens, a retired history professor at Hagerstown Community College, in Hagerstown, Maryland. He is also president of Save Historic Antietam Foundation, Inc., and a tour guide at Antietam National Battlefield, both located in Sharpsburg, Maryland.