Emblematic of our Cause: Origins of the Confederate Battle Flag
The Confederate Flag has been a point of contention in recent years. Some claim it’s a symbol of racism. Or a symbol of Anti-Americanism as it represents the secession from the Union. Others claim it is a symbol of Southern heritage and pride. I’m not going to argue in favor of one side or the other, since this is a history blog. But I am going to explore its origins. Even among its most vehement defenders, the history of the Battle Flag seems to be an area of only vague understanding.
For those of you that haven’t had Middle School History in a while, the American Civil War was fought from 1861-1865. After the election of abolitionist Abraham Lincoln, pro-slavery states seceded from the United States. These states were all what we now consider Southern states. Their economies relied heavily on slave labor. These states withdrew from the United States to form their own country. They feared Abraham Lincoln would abolish slavery. Seven states initially formed the Confederate States of America, later growing to eleven states. The states that remained loyal to the United States were called the Union.
The Civil War raged for four years, killing approximately 750,000 people. The conflict ended when General Robert E. Lee of the Confederacy surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant of the Union. This caused a domino effect of surrenders among Confederate generals. Slavery was abolished at the end of the conflict.
The Real Stars and Bars
Upon seceding, one of the first things the Confederacy needed to do to was to establish their legitimacy as a new nation. The best way to do so was to create their own flag. They formed the Committee on the Flag and Seal, headed by William Porcher Miles. Miles was the designer of the Confederate Battle Flag. This would later become the inspiration of the modern Confederate Flag. However, his design was rejected in favor of the “Stars and Bars,” designed by Nicola Marshall. The apparent reasoning behind this choice was its similarity to the United States flag. The secessionists still wanted to keep their history from the Revolutionary War and wanted to keep the flag they saw as theirs. Many people contacted the Committee to advocate for a flag that kept true to the original American Flag.
The original design contained seven stars representing the first seven states to secede. These states were: South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. Later, Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina seceded, making it necessary to design a nine- and eleven-star flag. The final “Stars and Bars” design contained thirteen stars. The eleven states of the Confederacy laid claim to the border states of Kentucky and Missouri. (However, these states never officially seceded. Some government officials independently declared secession, but not through legal venues.)
The Stars and Bars flag was first flown over Montgomery, Alabama in 1861. However, the similar design to the American flag proved to be a considerable detriment on the battlefield. During battle, it became unclear which side was which, since they both looked too similar.
People soon came to hate the flag, which looked far too much like the enemy they were fighting.
The Stainless Banner
Miles’s Confederate flag design was adopted as the Battle Flag of Northern Virginia. It soon grew in popularity that superceded the official national flag. To replace the hated Stars and Bars flag, William Tappan Thompson and William Ross Postell designed the “White Man’s Flag.” It placed the square Battle Flag on a background of white.
This new design was adopted in 1863. However, the public perception, originally positive as it had been for the Stars and Bars design, shifted. The white made it look like a flag of surrender.
The Blood-stained Banner
In 1865, a modification was made to the white flag, adding a red bar on the right-hand side to contrast with the “Yankee blue.” The red bar also paid tribute to the flag of France, from which many people of the Confederacy claimed origin. However, this flag came so late in the war that few were made and few Confederates saw the new flag, let alone came to identify with the flag.
The Confederate Battle Flag
The battle flag as it is known today was originally used by the Army of Northern Virginia. Later it disseminated throughout the South. Many other army regiments and cavalries used variations of the battle flag. It never represented the Confederacy, though it was incorporated into the later flags. The original flag was a cross, not an “x." A self-described “Southerner of Jewish persuasion” requested that a cross not be used to represent the entirety of the Confederacy. Miles, the designer, changed it to an “x.”
The flag itself was the most popular design of the Confederacy, even though it was never used as the Confederate flag. Its modern appearance began when the United Confederate Veterans adopted the battle flag as its original emblem. Sons of Confederate Veterans later adopted the flag.
The popularity of the flag surged with Civil War nostalgia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (discussed in more detail at the blog post here) and Gone with the Wind played a role in the popularity of Southern nostalgia. The American Civil War was rebranded from a treasonous response to abolition, to a noble and heroic struggle against insurmountable odds. Proponents claimed it was a war to keep the Southern way of life, not to keep the superiority of whites. This movement was called the Lost Cause of the Confederacy.
Supporters of this movement had to ignore significant amounts of evidence, including words from the states’ own constitutions, declarations of secession, and the Confederate constitution itself.
False stories of “happy slaves” and “kind masters” were shared to change perceptions of the villainous South. The war was even renamed “the War Between the States” (a term rarely used during the War). And later “the War of Northern Aggression” in the 1950s to explicitly declare that the North initiated the conflict (an untrue assertion that has been refuted many times over.)
Its Use Today
Currently, very few Americans have a positive view of the Confederate flag. When polled in 2015, 13% of Americans had a positive reaction, 28% a negative reaction, and 56% had no reaction (the other 2% didn't respond). It is used by right-wing activists in the United States and in Europe. It is particularly popular in Germany as the Nazi flag is illegal. It is used as a substitute for the Nazi flag. In the U.S., particularly in the South, proponents claim it is representative of Southern heritage, parroting the revisionist language that came out in the mid-20th century.