Confederate Flag

 

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Confederate Flags

Confederate Flags: Battle Flag of Northern Virginia (Left), and the First Confederate National Flag (Right)

With the controversy abounding over the Confederate Flag, we thought it would be appropriate to include this brief history on the origin and evolution of the flag. 

With the formation of the Confederate States of America in early 1861, one of the first orders of business was to create a flag for the new nation. The Committee on the Flag and Seal was formed, and given this task. There were basically two schools of thought in creating the flag. One was to create something that looked very similar to the existing United States flag. The second school of thought was to create a flag very different than the existing United States flag. At the time, there was still feelings of allegiance to the original US flag, and popular opinion was lining up in support of a flag that was similar to the familiar United States flag.  Such a flag was created and proposed. This flag is pictured at right.

Confederate National Flag

Confederate National Flag

The proposed flag resembled the United States flag, but replaced the "stripes" with 3 "bars". The flag had 7 stars, one for each state that was part of the confederacy at the time. This flag was dubbed the "Stars and Bars". The United States flag had been known as the "Stars and Stripes". This flag had replaced the stripes with bars, so it was logical to call it the "Stars and Bars". Note that today people often refer to the Confederate battle flag (pictured at the top of the page, on the left of the photograph) as the "Stars and Bars". Strictly speaking, this is not a correct description of the Confederate battle flag.

Those who preferred a very different flag from that of the United States proposed several different flags, one of which resembled what would later become the Confederate battle flag.

Stars and BarsIn March of 1861, those who supported a flag similar to that of the United States prevailed, and the "Stars and Bars" became the official National flag of the Confederacy. The flag's first official use was at the inauguration of Jefferson Davis on March 4, 1861.

As more states joined the Confederacy, more stars were added to the flag. Eventually the Stars and Bars had a total of 13 stars. The thirteen states represented were: South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee, Missouri, and Kentucky. Note that Missouri and Kentucky never officially seceded, but were slave states, and did have some confederate state governments, although they were in exile for the most part.

With this matter resolved, the participants proceeded with the prosecution of the War. While there were several smaller skirmishes in early 1861, the first major battle of the year, and the war for that matter, was the Battle of Bull Run, which was fought on July 21, 1861. There were over 4,800 men killed or wounded on the two sides.

At the Battle of Bull Run, there were a number of Confederate regiments that used the Confederate national flag as their battle flag. While having a National flag that looks similar  to the old United States flag might have been comforting to the people of the newly formed Confederacy, it turned out to be a bad idea in battle. In battle, the purpose of a flag is to help identify who is who. Who is on your side, and who is on the other side. From this perspective, having two sides fight under flags that are similar in appearance is a very bad idea. It actually did cause some degree of confusion at the Battle of Bull Run.

The confusion caused by the similarity in the flags was of great concern to Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard. He suggested that the Confederate national flag be changed to something completely different, to avoid confusion in battle in the future. This idea was rejected by the Confederate government. Beauregard then suggested that there should be two flags. One, the National flag, and the second one being a battle flag, with the battle flag being completely different from the United States flag.

Beauregard was successful in having a separate battle flag created. The one chosen was actually similar to one of the flags that had earlier been proposed to be the National flag. The battle flag would be a blue X on a red field. As a battle flag, the flag would be square. The flag had 13 stars, for the thirteen states in the Confederacy. This flag was first used in battle in December 1861. Being a new flag, different from the United States flag, it gained widespread acceptance and allegiance among the Confederate soldiers, and population in general. The flag is referred to as the Confederate battle flag, and as the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia.

It should be noted, however, that there were many different confederate battle flags used at different times, and by different regiments in the war.

The National flag of the confederacy is almost forgotten today, and the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia has become the symbol most associated with the confederacy, and it remains a controversial, and divisive symbol to this day.

Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia

Battle Flag for the Army of Northern Virginia

The battle flag of the confederacy was typically square. The flag as displayed today, is typically rectangular in shape, with proportions similar to other national and state flags. A question arises as to whether the flag was always square at the time of the Civil War.

I have looked through a number of original illustrations from the war, and have found several of examples of what appears to be rectangular battle flags in use by the Confederacy. Since these are drawings, not photographs, it is not completely conclusive, as the artist might have not accurately captured the proportions on the flags. At right is the cover of the September 17, 1864 edition of Harper's Weekly. The illustration shows a fallen confederate soldier, and a union soldier taking the Confederate battle flag from him. To me, it looks as if this flag is in fact rectangular in shape.

In the background, there is another confederate flag flying, which also appears to be rectangular in shape. This flag is smaller, and the shape is less conclusive than the larger flag.

The next illustration also shows Confederate Troop under a rectangular version of the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia.  This illustration appears to fairly conclusively show a rectangular battle flag.  The image is from the September, 27, 1862 edition of Harper's Weekly. The troops pictured are the First Rebel Cavalry of Virginia. It can also be seen that the flag has fringe on the edges, which was a common attribute of Battle Flags of the day.

Confedertate Flag History

Historic Picture of Confederate Flag in Harper's Weekly

Confederate Battle Flag

The "Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia" Over Rebel Forces

Unfortunately, I have been unable to find any period photographs with the battle flag shown. If you are aware of any, I would be eager to see them.

As battle flags were powerful military symbols, great significance was placed on the capture of an enemy flag. This would often lead to great pomp and ceremony.

The image at right shows a group of various captured Confederate  flags being presented to the war department by none other than General George Armstrong Custer. This vintage illustration includes both the "Stars and Bars", and the various battle flags. The image is from the  the cover page of the November 12, 1864 edition of Harper's Weekly. Illustrations such as this one helped to show a weary Northern population that the Union Army was achieving success in the war, and helped to maintain support for the war. The illustration also helps establish one of the trademarks of George Custer . . . self promotion. Although a relatively inconsequential general in the Civil War, he appeared on the cover of Harper's Weekly twice in the Civil War.

Rebel Flags

General George Armstrong Custer Presenting Captured Confederate Flags to War Department

Additional Illustrations of the Confederate Flag

Beauregard's Arkansas Troops Under the "Stars and Bars"

The "Stars and Bars" Over a Rebel Camp

Picture Confederate Flag

Captured Rebel Flags in US Capitol

Confederate Flag

Original Confederate National Flag which Flew over Atlanta During the Siege of Atlanta.  From the Confederate Memorial Hall

The Stars and Bars Flying over Alexandria Virginia

 

Photographs of Confederate Flags

Rebel Flag

Rebel Flag

Confederate Flags

Confederate Flags

Confederate Flags Flying

Confederate Flags Flying over Southern Home

Battle Flag of Army of Northern Virginia

Battle Flag of Army of Northern Virginia

Also See History of the American Flag and Texas Flags

 

 

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