While the holiday of Veterans Day on November 11 doesn’t really cover the veterans of the American Civil War, I thought that this postcard fit in with the mood of post-Election Day 2016. I’ve long been interested in flags, and proudly owned a “Confederate flag” — the rectangular battle banner of the Southern Cross Army of Tennessee — as a youngster living in the Nashville area back in the mid-1970’s. As a Southerner, I was amazed over last year’s controversy over such symbols of history that eventually caused online retailers like Amazon.com and eBay to cease allowing sales of Confederate flags.
Eventually comprising eleven states that succeeded from the United States, the Confederate States of America existed from early 1861 until the conclusion of the Civil War in April 1865. During that time, there were three successive designs that served as official national flags. The first of these, often called the “Stars and Bars”, was flown from March 4, 1861, to May 1, 1863. It was designed by German/Prussian artist Nicola Marschall in Marion, Alabama, and resembled the flag of the Austrian Empire (later Austria-Hungary, now the Republic of Austria), with which Marschall would have been familiar. The “Stars and Bars” flag was adopted March 4, 1861, in the first temporary national capital of Montgomery, Alabama, and raised over the dome of that first Confederate capitol. Marschall also designed the Confederate army uniform.
One of the first acts of the Provisional Confederate Congress was to create the “Committee on the Flag and Seal”, chaired by William Porcher Miles of South Carolina. The committee asked the public to submit thoughts and ideas on the topic and was, as historian John M. Coski puts it, “overwhelmed by requests not to abandon the ‘old flag’ of the United States.” Miles had already designed a flag that would later become known as the Confederate “Battle Flag”, and he favored his flag over the “Stars and Bars” proposal. But given the popular support for a flag similar to the U.S. flag (“the Stars and Stripes” — originally established and designed in June 1777 during the Revolutionary War), the “Stars and Bars” design was approved by the committee.
When the American Civil War broke out, the “Stars and Bars” caused confusion on the battlefield at the First Battle of Bull Run because of its similarity to the U.S. flag, especially when it was hanging limp, down on the flagstaff. The “Stars and Bars” was also criticized on ideological grounds for its resemblance to the U.S. flag. Many Confederates disliked the Stars and Bars, seeing it as symbolic of a centralized federal power the Confederate states were seceding from in order to preserve the institution of slavery. As early as April 1861, a month after the flag’s adoption, some were already criticizing the flag, calling it a “servile imitation” and a “detested parody” of the U.S. flag.
In January 1862, George William Bagby, writing for the Southern Literary Messenger, wrote that many Confederates disliked the flag. “Every body wants a new Confederate flag,” Bagby wrote, also stating that “The present one is universally hated. It resembles the Yankee flag and that is enough to make it unutterably detestable.” The editor of the Charleston Mercury expressed a similar view, stating that “It seems to be generally agreed that the ‘Stars and Bars’ will never do for us. They resemble too closely the dishonored ‘Flag of Yankee Doodle’ … we imagine that the ‘Battle Flag’ will become the Southern Flag by popular acclaim.” In addition, William T. Thompson, the editor of the Savannah-based Daily Morning News also objected to the flag, due to its aesthetic similarity to the U.S. flag, which some Confederates negatively associated with emancipation and abolitionism. Thompson stated in April 1863 that he disliked the adopted flag “on account of its resemblance to that of the abolition despotism against which we are fighting.”
Over the course of the flag’s use by the Confederacy, additional stars were added to the flag’s canton, eventually bringing the total number of stars on the flag to thirteen. This reflected the Confederacy’s claims of having admitted Kentucky and Missouri into the Confederacy. Although they were represented in the Confederate Congress, neither state was ever fully controlled or administered by the Confederacy. The first showing of the 13-star flag was outside the Ben Johnson House in Bardstown, Kentucky; the 13-star design was also in use as the Confederate navy’s battle ensign.
During the solicitation for a second Confederate national flag, there were many different types of designs that were proposed, nearly all making use of the battle flag, which by 1863 had become well-known and popular among those living in the Confederacy. The new design was specified by the Confederate Congress to be a white field “with the union (now used as the battle flag) to be a square of two-thirds the width of the flag, having the ground red; thereupon a broad saltire of blue, bordered with white, and emblazoned with mullets or five-pointed stars, corresponding in number to that of the Confederate States.” The nickname of “The Stainless Banner” referred to the pure white field which took up a large part of the flag’s design. The Confederate Congress debated whether the white field should have a blue stripe and whether it should be bordered in red.
Initial reaction to the second national flag was favorable, but over time it became criticized for being “too white”. The Columbia-based Daily South Carolinian observed that it was essentially a battle flag upon a flag of truce and might send a mixed message. Military officers also voiced complaints about the flag being too white, for various reasons, such as the danger of being mistaken for a flag of truce, especially on naval ships, and that it was too easily soiled. Due to the flag’s resemblance to one of truce, some Confederates cut off the white portion of the flag, leaving only the canton. Despite these complaints, the second national flag was applauded by some for its design invoking Confederate ideology. The American humorist George William Bagby praised the flag, referring to the saltire in the flag’s canton as the “Southern Cross”, as did others at the time, and stating that it embodied “the destiny of the Southern master and his African slave”, expressing the desire that some Confederates held of spreading slavery into Latin America.
The third national flag (also called the “Blood Stained Banner”) was adopted March 4, 1865. The red vertical bar was proposed by Major Arthur L. Rogers, who argued that the pure white field of the Second National flag could be mistaken as a flag of truce: when hanging limp in no wind, the flag’s “Southern Cross” canton could accidentally stay hidden, so the flag could mistakenly appear all white. Rogers lobbied successfully to have this alteration introduced in the Confederate Senate. He defended his redesign as having “as little as possible of the Yankee blue”, and described it as symbolizing the primary origins of the people of the Confederacy, with the saltire of the Scottish flag and the red bar from the flag of France.
Despite the passage of the Flag Act of 1865, very few of these third national flags were actually manufactured and put into use in the field, with many Confederates never seeing the flag. Moreover, the ones made by the Richmond Clothing Depot used the square canton of the second national flag rather than the slightly rectangular one that was specified by the law.
The “Bonnie Blue Flag” was used as an unofficial flag during the early months of 1861. It was flying above the Confederate batteries that first opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, South Carolina, beginning the Civil War on April 12, 1861.
The Army of Northern Virginia battle flag was square, of various sizes for the different branches of the service: 52 inches (130 cm) square for the infantry, 38 inches (97 cm) for the artillery, and 32 inches (81 cm) for the cavalry. Its design was derived from the previous Naval Jack of the Confederacy, which was rectangular. It was used in battle beginning in December 1861 until the fall of the Confederacy. The blue on the saltire in the battle flag was navy blue, as opposed to the much lighter blue of the Naval Jack. This flag was used by the soldiers of the Army as the de facto official flag was too similar to the Union’s flag. To avoid confusion on the battlefield, this flag was used consistently by almost the entire army. The flag’s stars represented the number of states in the Confederacy. The distance between the stars decreased as the number of states increased, reaching thirteen when the secessionist factions of Kentucky and Missouri joined in late 1861.
The fledgling Confederate States Navy adopted and used several types of flags, banners, and pennants aboard all CSN ships: jacks battle ensigns, and small boat ensigns, as well as commissioning pennants, designating flags, and signal flags. The First Confederate Navy jacks, in use from 1861 to 1863, consisted of a circle of seven to fifteen five-pointed white stars against a field of “medium blue.” It was flown forward aboard all Confederate warships while they were anchored in port. One seven-star jack still exists today (found aboard the captured ironclad CSS Atlanta) that is actually “dark blue” in color.
Despite never having historically represented the Confederate States of America as a country, nor officially recognized as one of its national flags, the rectangular Second Confederate Navy Jack and the Battle Flag of Northern Virginia are now flag types commonly referred to as “the Confederate Flag”. They both have become a widely recognized symbol of the Southern United States. It is also known as the “rebel flag”, “Dixie flag”, and “Southern cross” and is often incorrectly referred to as the “Stars and Bars”. The actual “Stars and Bars” is the first national flag, which used an entirely different design. A similar flag was used during the war by the Army of Tennessee under General Joseph E. Johnston, also known as the Southern Cross Army. The self-declared Confederate exclave of Town Line, New York, lacking a genuine Confederate flag, flew a version of this flag prior to its 1946 vote to ceremonially rejoin the Union.
The “Van Dorn battle flag” was also carried by Confederate troops fighting in the Trans-Mississippi and Western theaters of war. It has a red field depicting a white crescent moon in the canton and thirteen white stars; and trimmed with gold cord. In February, 1862, Confederate general Earl Van Dorn ordered that all units under his command use this flag as their regimental colors. The 4th Missouri and 15th Arkansas Infantry Regiments carried this flag into battle, as well as some of Van Dorn’s old units in the Army of Mississippi and East Louisiana.
About 200 Choctaw braves enlisted in the Confederate service early in 1863, under the command of Major Pearce, and soon afterward found themselves in a disastrous engagement with Union soldiers at Tangipahoe. They flew a distinct banner which features the native weapons of the Choctaw tribe. Many of the Indians and several of the white officers were captured at the battle and some of the Indians were taken North and put on exhibition. This put an end to the battalion as a formal organization, but some of the Choctaws later became dismounted scouts in Spann’s Battalion of Independent Scouts.
Cherokee Confederate troops (part of the Indian cavalry), carried battle flags adapted from the first Confederate national flag; most notably, the Cherokee Braves Flag. One was captured at the Battle of Locust Grove. It displayed the original Stars and Bars, with the addition of five red stars in the center of the white stars. These red stars represented the Five Civilized Tribes, who were aligned with the Confederacy. The center red star represented the Cherokee Nation. This flag was first presented to Chief John Ross by Commissioner Albert Pike in 1861, and in 1862 became the first national flag ever carried by Cherokee troops in combat under the command of Colonel Stand Watie, a Cherokee Indian himself. It also began a military career that eventual allowed Watie to became one of only two native Americans on either side to ever become a general. His light calvary command participated in 27 major engagements and numerous smaller skirmishes. Most of their activities utilized guerrilla warfare tactics and Watie’s men launched raids throughout the northern-held Indian Territory, Kansas and Missouri. He is credited with tying down thousands of Union troops. Watie was promoted to brigadier general in 1864. On June 23, 1865, he became the last Confederate general to surrender at the end of the war. This flag still exists and is part of a collection of Confederate flags located at the Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield Visitors Center located near Springfield, Missouri.
The earliest western Confederate battle flag was flown in Hardee’s Corps of the Army of Tennessee. It had been designed by General Simon B. Buckner and first issued to his troops in January of 1862, who were part of the Army of Central Kentucky based in Bowling Green. It first saw action at F0rt Donelson near the Tennessee–Kentucky border on the Cumberland River, where some of Buckner’s Division had been transferred. What remained of the army after this transfer became General William J. Hardee’s Corps, which retained the flag. The simple design of a blue field and a white center became known as Hardee’s Battle Flag. Each unit’s flag was soon inscribed with names of battles they fought in. Later versions had white borders all around. Because of the large number of Tennessee regiments using this flag design it is sometimes referred to as the “Tennessee Moon” flag.
The First Corps, Army of Tennessee was a military unit within the Army of Tennessee, officially created in November 1862 and continued in existence until its surrender in April 1865 in North Carolina. It was also variously known as Polk’s Corps, Hardee’s Corps, and Cheatham’s Corps. The units comprising the First Corps were drawn from the organization of Department No. 2 (or the Western Department) of the Confederate States, which held responsibility for defending the area between the Tennessee River and the Mississippi River. It contained soldiers previously from the Army of Mississippi, the predecessor of the Army of Tennessee.
The first version of the famous Polk Battle Flag (13 stars) was designed by Major-General Leonidas Polk for use by his “1st Grand Division” (corps) of the Army of the Mississippi. Polk had seen how Confederate troops using the Stars and Bars could, because of its similarity to the Stars and Stripes, become confused on the battlefield, and decided to design his own that would not be mistaken for the Union flag. This flag saw action from Shiloh through the final surrender of the Army of Tennessee. The red St. George’s cross was the symbol of the Episcopal Church. Polk was the Bishop of Louisiana. The 16th Tennessee Volunteer Infantry fought at most of the major battles of the Army of Tennessee including Corinth, Mumfordsville, Perryville, Murfreesboro, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, Missionary Ridge, Franklin, and Nashville. They surrendered to Union forces at Bennett Farm, which today is the City of Durham in Durham County, North Carolina. They used a second version of the Polk Battle Flag, issued in the summer of 1862, which had a cross edged with white and only 11 stars. The Polk Battle Flag continued in service through 1863.