The Southern Cross–The Story of the Confederacy’s First Battle Flag

Tuesday, October 22, 2013
The Civil War
by Richard G. Williams

WASHINGTON — Born as a symbol of rebellion, the Confederate battle flag retains much of that symbolism to this very day. What is even more intriguing is the fact that the very commissioning of the original Confederate battle flag was itself, an act of rebellion. This little-known part of the flag’s story is told in a fascinating new documentary written and produced by historian Kent Masterson Brown.

Many Civil War enthusiasts are familiar with the work of Kent Masterson Brown. Brown is not only a respected historian, but a seasoned attorney and a graduate of Washington and Lee University’s School of Law. He has authored numerous books on the War Between the States, as well as other works of history. Brown is also involved in producing history related documentaries through his film company, Witnessing History.

His latest project, The Southern Cross – The Story of the Confederacy’s First Battle Flag, chronicles the birth and creation of the Confederate Battle flag. Brown himself narrates the documentary and the film opens with Brown giving a brief history of the first secession flags and some background on what motivated the various designs, as well as who was responsible for those designs.

Brown then discusses the efforts of South Carolina Congressman William Porcher Miles to have the Southern Cross—or the Cross of St. Andrews—the “Saltire” (the diagonal cross X) used in the basic design for the Confederacy’s official flag. Miles was a member of the Confederacy’s provisional Congress and he objected to the design of the South’s original flag, the Stars & Bars. He wasn’t the only one. Many Southerners thought the flag looked too much like the Union flag. But Miles’s objections went deeper. Brown points out that Miles was chairman of the flag committee and held the opinion that the federal flag was, “the emblem of a tyrannical government.”

Brown shares some interesting historical background about the Saltire, including the fact that it was “the oldest emblem of sovereignty in the western world” and that the Romans used the symbol as a boundary emblem in Britain—even years before the Scots began using it in 832 A.D.

The film also discusses some background in regards to the practical motivation for the flag’s design. There were numerous reports of confusion and mistaken identity on the battlefield; not only between the Union flag and the Confederacy’s first battle flag—the Stars and Bars—but also between the various regimental and state flags being flown. As Brown notes, “The need for a common battle flag for Confederate combat units became apparent” and one that was “different from the Stars and Bars.”

But by August of 1861, Miles’s efforts in the Confederate Congress to have that body approve an official battle flag had been unsuccessful.  So Miles wrote Confederate General P.T. Beauregard about his idea for a more appropriate design and his lack of progress in Congress. Brown points out that Miles’s design intentionally avoided an “ecclesiastical” or Latin cross due to its more recognizable and direct connection to Christianity as “most did not want a religious emblem on a field where men were killing one another.” Of course, that concern was not shared by all as a number of regimental flags—both Union and Confederate—made very deliberate references to Christianity.

Beauregard took things into his own hands, bypassing a “do-nothing” Confederate Congress, and made a direct appeal to Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston. After meeting with other Confederate commanders both men agreed and decided, on their own, to bypass not only Congressional approval, but the Confederate War Department’s approval as well and to issue battle flags to their specific design orders as “a military necessity.” Johnston immediately requested one-hundred and twenty flags.

Mary Lyon Jones of Richmond, Virginia was given the honor of stitching the very first Saint Andrew’s Cross Confederate battle flag—thirty inches square—which would serve as a prototype. After Johnston and Beauregard gave their immediate approval, production began on the rest of the flags already requested. Groups of ladies then gathered in the home of Mary Jones. Hundreds of Southern ladies would participate in this production effort.Finally, on November 28th, 1861, several regiments of the Confederate Army of the Potomac were given the newly designed flags in a formal ceremony. General Beauregard then issued General Order number 75:

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.

From this point in the video, Brown tells the story of what happened to Mary Lyon Jones’s original Confederate battle flag—following it from battle to battle and ultimately, to its final resting place.

The video employs the panning of period photographs, artwork and historical documents and intertwines battle reenactments to create a captivating and interesting forty-eight minute history of this iconic banner. With numerous surprises and little-known facts, this documentary keeps the viewer interested and engaged.

For a concise war-era history of the first Confederate Battle Flag, without all the politically correct gyrations most often associated with any discussion of that flag, the Southern Cross is a must see and belongs in every Civil War student’s library..

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