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."
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.
Symbolism During the War
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.
Post-War Symbolism and Controversy
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.
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.
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.
February 9, 1861 - The Confederate Congress, meeting in Montgomery, Alabama, establishes the Committee on the Flag and Seal. Chaired by William Porcher Miles of South Carolina, it considers various designs for a national flag.
March 4, 1861 - Coinciding with President Abraham Lincoln's inauguration, the Confederacy unveils its First National Flag, or what comes to be known as the Stars and Bars. Its resemblance to the U.S. flag is considered to be politically astute.
April 30, 1861 - After voting to secede from the Union on April 17, the Virginia Convention meeting in Richmond adopts a new state flag, modeled in part on the Bonnie Blue Flag, which has become a symbol of the new Confederate nation.
July 21, 1861 - At the First Battle of Manassas, Confederate troops have trouble distinguishing between their own men and Union troops. This is caused in part by the Confederate national flag's resemblance to the U.S. flag, and provokes Confederate generals Joseph E. Johnston and P. G. T. Beauregard to lobby for a new national flag.
September 1861 - A new flag design having been rejected by the Confederate Congress, Confederate generals meet at Fairfax Court House to discuss adopting a battle flag separate from the Confederate national flag. They agree on a design by William Porcher Miles.
November 28, 1861 - Units in the Confederate Army of the Shenandoah and Army of the Potomac, gathered at Centreville, are formally presented silk battle flags, designed to replace the Confederate national flag, which is considered to be too similar in design to the U.S. 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."
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Clemens, T. G. Confederate Battle Flag. (2016, September 7). 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, 7 Sep. 2016. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: May 26, 2010 | Last modified: September 7, 2016
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.