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.
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.
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.
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."
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.