June 14, 2005
Tony Horwitz writes in his review of John Coski’s The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem that "few emblems in American history have provoked stronger passions than the battle flag of the vanquished Confederacy. To some it symbolizes honor and independence; to others, hatred and slavery." How can a flag that was never officially recognized as the flag of a country, a flag that never flew over a government building or other facility, become one of America’s most divisive symbols. It is the purpose of this brief article to look at the history of the Confederate flag, not to make judgement on what it stands for.
The First National flag, or "Stars and Bars," of the Confederacy flew from 1861 to 1863. When limp, the flag with its alternating red and white bars with a blue field of seven white stars, looks much like the American flag. Due to this similarity, great difficulty arose in distinguishing between the two, especially on the battlefield. Many cases of friendly fire arose. This led to the adoption of the Second National flag, adopted in 1863. However, it’s long white field with the St. Andrew’s Cross in the upper left corner made it appear as a flag of surrender in the midst of battle. This led to the adoption of the Third National flag in March 1865, one month prior to the surrender of General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House. This flag was similar to the Second National, different only in that it included a red stripe on the end of the flag. These were the only flags officially adopted as flags of the Confederacy. So, how did the Battle flag come to be the symbol of the Confederacy?
The Confederate Battle flag was exactly that – a battle flag. It was adopted by General P.G.T. Beauregard as a result of near friendly fire at the Battle of First Manassas. Beauregard, seeing a force moving on his left flank, stared at the flag of this force, but through the smoke of battle, was unable to determine whether it was the "Stars and Stripes" or the "Stars and Bars." Fortunately, Beauregard did not advance on the force as it turned out to be the 7th Louisiana Regiment. It was this incident that led Beauregard to push "then to have [our flag] changed if possible, or to adopt for my command a ‘Battle flag,’ which would be entirely different from any State or Federal flag."
It was Beauregard’s design that became the now familiar battle flag, the flag flown primarily with land troops in battle and also used by cavalry and artillery units. The flag was only used in battle and never flew over government buildings or other facilities, though the design was incorporated into the Second and Third National flags.
So, why has the flag become such a divisive issue in American society today. For almost 85 years between the end of the Civil War and World War II, the "Confederate battle flag was the object of virtually uncontested public reverence in the South and increasing acceptance from the rest of the nation." Not until some Southerners began flying the flag in response to the 1954 landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka did people begin to see the flag as a symbol of hatred as it is seen by some today. Also, hate groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan and neo-nazi’s have adopted the flag as their own. But did those soldiers in 1861 see the flag as a symbol of hate? For many of them, the fact that a foreign power was invading their country and their shorelines were being blockaded (even though they had not seceded and were still a part of the federal union) was the reason they were fighting. Most of them had no regard for slavery, tariffs, or other political issues.
For more information on this most revered and hated symbol, John Coski, historian at the Museum of the Confederacy, has recently published The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem. Also of interest is "The Damned Red Flags of the Rebellion": The Confederate Battle Flag at Gettysburg by Richard Rollins.
© 2005 USA Vanguard