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The Real Story of the Confederate Battle Flag

confederate battle flag reunion confederates soldiers
Confederate Veterans Reunion, Huntsville, Feb 1928

This is not the story of the confederate flag, that would be the First National Confederate Flag. This is that flag designed by Robert E Lee that the less informed call the above but its the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia.


     Near Appomattox, the 12th of April, 1865:  

     “….the men face inward towards us across the road, twelve feet away…each captain taking pains for the good appearance of his company….  They fix bayonets, stack arms; then, hesitatingly, remove cartridge-boxes and lay them down. Lastly, reluctantly, with agony of expression, they tenderly fold their flags, battle-worn and torn, blood-stained, heart-holding colors, and lay them down; some frenziedly rushing from the ranks, kneeling over them, clinging to them, pressing them to their lips with burning tears.”

     Those are the words of Union Major General Chamberlain, who was front and center at that moment, tasked to receive Confederate arms after Appomattox.  In his description, we can see some of the passion felt by Southern troops for their battle flags, those “heart-holding colors.” 

It is interesting that Johnston was the one that determined the square shape of the original flag, but for the Army of Tennessee he adopted an elongated one.

     Today we have cast off certain unjust values of the past, but there were virtues in the men who followed this flag – and those who fought against it.  For instance, General Chamberlain also wrote the following words, concerning the morning after the surrender:  

“We awoke next morning to find the Confederates peering down into our faces, and involuntarily reached for our arms, but once the recollections of the previous day’s stirring events came crowding back to mind, all fear fled, and the boys in blue were soon commingling freely with the boys in gray, exchanging compliments, pipes, tobacco, knives and souvenirs.” 

What is a Battle Flag?  

What is a Battle Flag?  

   Flags played a major role in guiding troop movements.  They identified groups of men as friend or foe, and, critically, helped commanders know what was going on.  

   A battle flag represented the ideals of the men who followed it into the fire and hell of combat. Memories of struggle, loss, and glory were sealed into the very fabric of a unit’s flag.  We Americans are rightly proud of our Stars and Stripes, and the sight of it flying can make us stand tall.  But few of us revere the early flags of the United States in the same way so many Southerners today honor the Southern Cross of the Confederacy.  It can still represent the tough, persistent and sometimes rebellious character of the Southern man and woman.  Here are the words of the Rev. McKim, in a speech given to the United Confederate Veterans at their 1904 reunion in Nashville, Tennessee:

“This is now for us an indissoluble Union of indestructible States. We are loyal to that starry banner…And yet, to-day, while that banner of the Union floats over us, we bring the offering of our love and loyalty to the memory of the flag of the Southern Confederacy!”

  These words still ring true for many.  Most have cast off certain values of the nineteenth century, but there are timeless virtues embodied in the men and women of the South, and for many of them the Battle Flag is a symbol of that spirit.  Let’s look at its origins.

Background:  The First National Flag of the Confederacy

   South Carolina seceded from the Union in December, 1860, becoming a sovereign republic.  Six other states swiftly followed, all now independent.  But a federation of states was in their blood, and they were facing an angry government in Washington.  So it was that on February 4th, 1861, delegates met in Montgomery, Alabama, to form the Confederate States of America.  

   The new nation needed a flag, and Confederate Congressman William Porcher Miles was appointed Chairman of the flag committee.  Designs poured in from all over, including the North.  

   Miles had his own idea for a flag.  It included a cross with stars representing the Confederate states.  Miles was from South Carolina, and his flag was very similar to a flag used by South Carolina’s secession convention of December 1860.  That Sovereignty Flag had 15 stars, representing the slave states (including Delaware), and one of our reproductions can be seen here.

     Removing the South Carolina symbols of the crescent moon and Palmetto tree, you can see how this becomes a possible model for Miles’ proposal.  Some thought the upright cross was too close to a religious symbol, so Miles changed it to a diagonal cross, creating the pattern so famous todayHis design was rejected, one other congressman calling it “a pair of suspenders.”  

First National Confederate Flag with 9 stars ../../../Volumes/NO%20NAME/Confederate%20PHOTOS/

   There was a lot of popular support for a flag resembling the U.S. “Stars and Stripes,” so the First National Flag of the Confederacy was based on Old Glory.  Here you can see a surviving example of a 7-star First National.  The design proposed by Miles didn’t disappear from history, though.  Miles put on a uniform and went into the field, becoming an aide to General Beauregard, where our story continues.

Battle of First Manassas (Bull Run)

The first major battle of the Civil War

   The morning dawned bright on July 21st, 1861, but by afternoon Confederate General Beauregard had reason to be worried.  Fighting had raged from first daylight, after General McDowell’s Union army attacked across a small Virginia stream known as Bull Run (a run is a small stream or brook). The battle had gone back and forth all day, but more Confederate troops had rushed from not far away, and given the Southern army the advantage. Victory seemed certain.  

   Then, Beauregard saw a heavy column of troops more than a mile away, maneuvering to his left. In his own words:

   “At their head waved a flag which I could not distinguish. Even by a strong glass I was unable to determine whether it was the United States flag or the Confederate flag. At this moment I received a dispatch from Capt Alexander, in charge of the signal station, warning me to look out for the left; that a large column was approaching in that direction, and that it was supposed to be Gen. Patterson’s command coming to reinforce McDowell. At this moment, I must confess, my heart failed me.”

   The general knew that his men, worn and exhausted from hours of fighting, would not be able to hold against an attack by fresh troops:

   “I came, reluctantly, to the conclusion that after all our efforts, we should at last be compelled to yield to the enemy the hard fought and bloody field.”

   Beauregard told one of his officers to go to the rear and inform Gen. Joseph E. Johnston to prepare reserves to support a retreat. As the officer began to leave, Beauregard had second thoughts and told him to wait so he could make sure these were Union troops advancing on them:

   “I took the glass and again examined the flag. … A sudden gust of wind shook out its folds, and I recognized the stars and bars of the Confederate banner.”

   While Beauregard’s moment of uncertainty about that one flag was pivotal, confusion about flags was widespread on both sides.   Both Union and Confederate troops were plagued by this problem, and a solution was needed.                                                       Beauregard

The Confederate Battle Flag is Born

   General Beauregard was determined that the difficulties at Manassas would not happen again.  One of his military aides was William Porcher Miles, the same man who had opposed the design of the First National Flag in the first place.  Beauregard spoke with Miles about the need for a distinctive flag for battle, and found out about Miles’ design.   An historic meeting took place not long after, and we have letters written later by some of the officers at the meeting.  Here is an excerpt from an 1872 letter from General Johnston to General Beauregard:

Many designs, drawn by members of the army, were offered – most by you…. I selected one of those you offered, but changed the shape to square, and fixed the size:  colors of infantry to be four feet, of artillery three, and standards (for cavalry) to be two and a half.” 

   Once the design had been worked out prototypes were made by three ladies of Richmond, Constance Cary and her cousins, Hetty and Jennie Cary.  Constance later wrote:

   “During the autumn of ‘61, to my cousins, Hetty and Jennie, and to me was entrusted the making of the first three battle flags of the Confederacy. They were jaunty squares of scarlet crossed with dark blue edged in white, the cross bearing stars to indicate the number of the seceded states. We set our best stitches upon them, edged with golden fringes, and, when they were finished, dispatched one to General Joseph Johnston, another to General Pierre Beauregard, and the last to General Earl Van Dorn. The banners were made from red silk for the fields and blue silk for the crosses.”

   Used only as headquarters flags and never in battle, these prototypes have survived.  Here you can see the Jennie Cary flag as it is today.Jennie%20Cary%20Flag

   Constance said, “It is generally stated by historians that these flags were constructed from our own dresses, but it is certain we possessed no wearing apparel in the flamboyant hues of poppy red and vivid dark blue required.”  Women of the South rarely wore red – this was, after all, the Victorian era, and vibrant colors would have been inappropriate on a proper lady.    

   Once these first flags had passed muster, the army ordered 120 made of silk. The Cary cousins may have sewn “jaunty squares of scarlet,” but the only red-like colors available in quantity in Richmond were either pink or rose.  The first flags issued to the men on the field were made of these lighter shades, not the red we have come to recognize today. 

   Beginning in late November, 1861, the new battle flags were issued.   Colonel Thomas Jordan wrote the order regarding this:

“Headquarters 1st Corps Army of the Potomac,

Near Centreville, Nov. 28th, 1861

“General Orders, No. 75.

  “A new banner is intrusted* to-day, as a battle-flag, to the safe keeping of the Army of the Potomac.  Soldiers: Your mothers, your wives, and your sisters have made it.  Consecrated by their hands, it must lead you to substantial victory, and the complete triumph of our cause. It can never be surrendered, save to your unspeakable dishonor, and with consequences fraught with immeasurable evil.  Under its untarnished folds beat back the invader, and find nationality, everlasting immunity from an atrocious despotism, and honor and renown for yourselves – or death.

   By command of General Beauregard.”

The Battle Flag Spreads

   For a while the new Battle Flag was referred to as “Beauregard’s flag.” When the armies of Beauregard and Johnston combined into a new Army of Northern Virginia (March of 1862), this flag became closely associated with that force and its longtime commander, Robert E. Lee. 

   The early generals of the Army of Northern Virginia were the ones responsible for spreading this design to other areas, as they were transferred to the war’s Western Theater.   These included Beauregard, Johnston, Van Dorn, and Hood. They met with resistance from other Confederate officers that had already created, on their own, distinctive battle flags for their forces.

   An example is when Gen. Joseph E. Johnston took command of the Confederate Army of Tennessee in mid-December of 1863.  One of the first things Johnston ordered was a new battle flag for this army, to boost flagging morale as well as help spread the design he had helped create in Virginia in 1861.  Officially, it had two basic types:  one for infantry and cavalry that averaged 37 by 54 inches overall, and one for artillery that averaged 30 by 41 inches overall.  This rectangular design was preferred by many commanders.  (It is interesting that Johnston was the one that determined the square shape of the original flag, but for the Army of Tennessee he adopted an elongated one.)  Johnson’s%20Army%20of%20Tennessee.jpg

   Beauregard was successful in spreading the Southern Cross to areas of his command.  Transferred to New Orleans, he had troops in this area adopt the square Southern Cross from the East.  A sail-maker by the name of Cassidy fabricated them in an almost square configuration, with six-pointed stars and with the colored border that Beauregard favored. 

   You can observe here that these flags had twelve stars, even though they were made in early 1862, well after Kentucky had been admitted to the Confederacy on 20th November, 1861.  Also note the colored border so favored by Beauregard.  Again we can see that there was no uniform Southern Cross flag:  throughout the South different versions of the original design were adopted.  The shape varied, and not only in Gen. Johnston’s design for the Army of the Tennessee.   Some were the traditional square, as originally created for the Army of Northern Virginia, but many were not.  

   Placement of stars, the sizes of stripes and stars, shades of colors used, materials and methods of fabrication were of great variety.  There were five-pointed stars, six-pointed stars, and even some eight-pointed stars.  The orientation of the stars on the bars was often a matter of whim.  There were commanders who chose to use only 12 stars, even though 13 states had seceded by the end of 1861 (a notable commander to use 12 stars was Lt. General Nathan Bedford Forrest, but his is a story I’ve written about elsewhere).  

   One of the interesting variations was seen in the Trans-Mississippi Department:  the region of Missouri, Arkansas, Texas, Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), and Louisiana west of the Mississippi River).  The flags of the Trans-Mississippi had reversed coloration (blue field with red bars).  This type of flag is today often called the Taylor Battle Flag after General Richard Taylor, whose army employed it in West Louisiana from 1864 to the end of the war. (Taylor was the son of Mexican War hero and US President Zachary Taylor.)  In the photo below you can see what a difference it makes to reverse the colors. 

   Several varieties with the reversed colors existed, and one was that of the 3rd Texas Infantry. This flag was made in Cuba, paid for by Confederate expatriates living there who donated it to the regiment. The stars and unit designation were embroidered in silver wire and the fringe was knotted silk. Reversed colors were not limited to the West; we have a surviving example of one sewn for by the ladies of Asheville for the 39th North Carolina Regiment.  

A Note on Confederate Navy Ensigns and Jacks

     An ensign is a national flag flown on a vessel, typically at the stern or main mast.  A jack is a flag flown from a short “jackstaff” at the bow of a vessel.  For some nations, the jack may be the same as the national flag, but for many countries it is different.  For example, the normal USA Navy Jack is what we know as the canton of the American flag, the field of blue displaying the 50 stars.  (Currently, however, US Navy vessels are using the historic 1st Navy Jack as directed by the Secretary of the Navy in 2002, for the period of the “war” on terrorism.) 

     Here you can see the Confederate Navy Jack that began flying in 1861, and used until 1863 when the Confederate 2nd National Flag was adopted.  It is the canton of the Confederate 1st National Flag.  Here you see the 7-star version, but as states were admitted to the Confederacy the number of stars increased, up to 13.

     To the right you can see the Confederate Navy Ensign from 1861 to 1863.  This is the national flag of the Confederacy, the 1st National Flag used until May of 1861, when the Confederate 2nd National Flag was adopted.  

onfederate States Naval Ensign after May 26 1863.svg

To the left is the Confederate 2nd National.  When this flag became the national flag, the Confederate Navy began using its canton as the Navy Jack, elongating it from a square shape as 

you can see to the right. 

onfederate Navy Jack (light blue).svg

   The story of this battle flag could go on, weaving in amongst the other battle flag designs that were flown throughout the war.  As mentioned above, this further story does exist, and can be provided on request.  I will not try your patience any further here, but I want to keep your attention for a few final words in the conclusion below. 


     We met Rev. Harrison McKim at the beginning of this story, and I want to close with more of his words.  we heard from at the beginning of this story.   Randolph Harrison McKim enlisted in 1861, entering as a private in the corps commanded first by General Joseph E. Johnston, and then Stonewall Jackson. He was later commissioned as a first lieutenant, and at the end of the war he was serving as a chaplain of the 2nd Cavalry.   Mckim served 32 years as pastor of the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in Washington, D.C.  He was a member of the Sons of the American Revolution and Society of Colonial Wars, as well as the United Confederate Veterans.  The quotation below is from his book entitled, “A Soldier’s Recollections: 

        We would not do aught (anything) to perpetuate the angry passions of the Civil War, or to foster any feeling of hostility to our fellow citizens of other parts of the Union. But we must forevermore do honor to our heroic dead. We must forevermore cherish the sacred memories of those four terrible but glorious years of unequal strife. We must forevermore consecrate in our hearts our old battle flag of the Southern Cross –not now as a political symbol, but as the consecrated emblem of an heroic epoch. The people that forgets its heroic dead is already dying at the heart and we believe we shall be truer and better citizens of the United States if we are true to our past.mage result for confederate battle flag veterans

If you would like more information on the Confederate Battle Flag, let us know. (Our historian has written a 24-page article on this flag, complete with glossary, and we will send it on request.)  You can call us at (770) 851-4970, or send an email to [email protected]. Our historian has written extensively on the history of flags.  If you are interested in the story of any flag, let us know.  We’ll be happy to send it along, by mail or email.  And don’t hesitate to ask questions.  One person wanted to know what flag was being flown by Alabama at secession.  No one really knew, so Tom dug into the documents of the period.  A few months later he wrote the history of the Alabama Flag of Independence, and folks are flying it again. 

For a while the new Battle Flag was referred to as “Beauregard’s flag.” When the armies of Beauregard and Johnston combined into a new Army of Northern Virginia (March of 1862), this flag became closely associated with that force and its longtime commander, Robert E. Lee.  It is interesting that Johnston was the one that…

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