The Confederate Battle Flag

America's Most Embattled Emblem

by John M. Coski

Hardcover, 401 pages, Harvard Univ Pr, List Price: $29.95 | purchase

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Title
The Confederate Battle Flag
Subtitle
America's Most Embattled Emblem
Author
John M. Coski

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Book Summary

A comprehensive history of the Confederate flag that transcends conventional partisanship reveals the flag's origins and pursues its conflicting meanings.

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Excerpt: The Confederate Battle Flag

The Confederate Battle Flag

America's Most Embattled Emblem


THE BELKNAP PRESS OF HARVARD UNIVERSITY PRESS

Copyright © 2005 John M. Coski
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-674-01722-6

Contents

I: CONFEDERATE FLAG1. "Emblem of a Separate and Independent Nation"................................22. "The War-Torn Cross".........................................................283. "Unfurl the Old Flag"........................................................454. "A Harmless and Rather Amusing Gesture"......................................78II: REBEL FLAG5. "The Shadow of States' Rights"...............................................986. "Keep Your Eyes on Those Confederate Flags"..................................1107. "Symbol of the White Race and White Supremacy"...............................1328. "The Perverted Banner".......................................................161III: FLAG WARS9. "Vindication of the Cause"...................................................18410. "The Bitterest Battleground"................................................20211. "If They Talk about Diversity, They're Gonna Get It"........................21712. "What We Stood For, Will Stand For, and Will Fight For".....................23613. "You Can't Erase History"...................................................272Epilogue: The Second American Flag..............................................292Abbreviations...................................................................308Notes...........................................................................311Acknowledgments.................................................................376Illustration Credits............................................................379Index...........................................................................381

Chapter One

"Emblem of a Separate and Independent Nation"

The search for symbols of an independent Confederate nation began before the formation of the Confederacy itself. The leaders of the states that seceded from the Union in 1860 and 1861 believed that they were legitimately repossessing the sovereignty that their states had delegated conditionally upon joining the Union. When they formed the Confederate States of America in February 1861, southern statesmen made the conditional nature of union explicit in their new Constitution. The trappings of sovereignty were especially important to men who staked so much on constitutional theory, so it was not surprising that the states of the new Confederacy adopted seals and flags expressing their identities as sovereign entities.

The most popular symbols in the heady first months of secession were the palmetto tree-a symbol of secessionist pioneer South Carolina-and the so-called Bonnie Blue Flag. Immortalized in southern lore by a song composed in early 1861 by Harry Macarthy, the Bonnie Blue Flag was simply a blue flag bearing a single white star. In early 1861, several southern states incorporated the Bonnie Blue into their new state flags, and a few military units adopted it as their battle flag. The flag most symbolic of southern separatism and martial spirit in early 1861, the Bonnie Blue, however, never achieved prominence as a symbol of the Confederate nation.

Among its first acts, the Provisional Congress of the new Confederacy on February 9, 1861, appointed a Committee on the Flag and Seal chaired by William Porcher Miles of South Carolina. The committee solicited ideas from citizens and officials alike and received hundreds of design suggestions. Many of them the committee dismissed as "elaborate, complicated, or fantastical." Many others, much to the dismay of William Miles, urged the adoption of a flag that preserved "the principal features" of the Stars and Stripes. The committee was "overwhelmed with memorials not to abandon the 'old flag,'" Miles complained to a sympathetic correspondent. One Confederate sympathizer living in Washington, D.C., urged Miles to "Let the Yankees keep their ridiculous tune of 'Yankee Doodle,' but by all that is sacred, do not let them monopolize the stars and stripes." A woman in Savannah, Georgia, submitted a design along with some unsolicited advice. "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," wrote M. E. Huger. "Besides, it is a flag well known & respected, & does not represent to the world our oppressions & wrongs-but-the independance [sic] & prosperity of a great country."

Miles scorned such thinking. He told the committee that he had always regarded the Stars and Stripes as a flag of "tyranny" and was, he later claimed, "terribly abused for doing so." In his March 4, 1861, committee report, Miles explained his opposition to the Stars and Stripes, but, in deference to the majority, struck a conciliatory pose:

Whatever attachment may be felt, from association, for the "Stars and Stripes" (an attachment which your committee may be permitted to say they do not all share), it is manifest that in inaugurating a new government we can "Emblem of a Separate and Independent Nation" not with any propriety, or without encountering very obvious practical difficulties, retain the flag of the Government from which we have withdrawn. There is no propriety in retaining the ensign of a government which, in the opinion of the States composing this Confederacy, had become so oppressive and injurious to their interests as to require their separation from it. It is idle to talk of "keeping" the flag of the United States when we have voluntarily seceded from them.

"It must be admitted, however," Miles added, "that something was conceded by the committee to what seemed so strong and earnest a desire to retain at least a suggestion of the old 'Stars and Stripes.'"

Indeed, the design recommended by the committee and approved by the Provisional Congress became known as the Stars and Bars and was ultimately renounced for resembling too closely the Stars and Stripes. The new flag consisted of three horizontal stripes, alternating red and white, with a union (or canton) of blue emblazoned with a circle of white stars corresponding to the number of states in the Confederacy. Red, white, and blue-the colors of the Stars and Stripes-were, Miles wrote, "the true republican colors," representing in heraldry the virtues of valor, purity, and truth, respectively.

While the Stars and Bars later proved unpopular with many opinion makers in the South and impractical on the battlefield, the flag was the object of popular enthusiasm in the months following its adoption. As the new nation's first official standard, the Stars and Bars was celebrated in song and poetry. Harry Macarthy, author of the "Bonnie Blue Flag," also published "Our Flag and Its Origins," also known as "Origin of the Stars and Bars." Echoing the sentiments of those citizens who implored William Miles to adopt the Stars and Bars, Macarthy's lyrics lamented the abandonment of the old Union and its symbols:

But alas! For the flag of my youth I have sighed and dropped my last tear For the North has forgotten her truth, And would tread on the rights we hold dear; They envied the South her bright stars, Her glory, her honor, her fame, So we unfurl'd the Stars and Bars and the CONFEDERATE FLAG is its name.

William Miles's disappointment with the Stars and Bars went beyond his strong ideological objections to the Stars and Stripes. He had hoped that the Confederacy would adopt his own design for a national flag-the pattern that later generations mistakenly and ironically insisted on calling the Stars and Bars. The design that Miles championed was apparently inspired by one of the flags used at the South Carolina secession convention in December 1860. That flag featured a blue St. George's (or upright) cross on a red field. Emblazoned on the cross were fifteen white stars representing the slaveholding states, and on the red field were two symbols of South Carolina: the palmetto tree and the crescent. Charles Moise, a self-described "southerner of Jewish persuasion," wrote Miles and other members of the South Carolina delegation asking that "the symbol of a particular religion" not be made the symbol of the nation.

In adapting his flag to take these criticisms into account, Miles removed the palmetto tree and crescent and substituted a diagonal cross for the St. George's cross. Recalling (and sketching) his proposal a few months later, Miles explained that the diagonal cross was preferable because "it avoided the religious objection about the cross (from the Jews & many Protestant sects), because it did not stand out so conspicuously as if the cross had been placed upright thus." The diagonal cross was, Miles argued, "more Heraldric [sic] than Ecclesiastical, it being the 'saltire' of Heraldry, and significant of strength and progress (from the Latin salto, to leap)."

Although Miles diplomatically described the cross as the saltire, a heraldic device (and an act of the Confederate Congress later described it as a "saltier"), his contemporaries and subsequent generations have tended to identify it as a cross, specifically as a St. Andrew's cross-a familiar symbol in Western culture. The X-shaped cross derived its name from the first-century Christian martyr who did not believe himself worthy to die on the same kind of cross as Jesus Christ. Crucified in 69 a.d., Andrew's remains were transported to the Scottish coast in the fourth century. He later became the patron saint of Scotland and his cross the symbol of Scotland. The St. Andrew's cross was incorporated into the new British flag in 1606 when King James VI of Scotland became King James I of England.

While medieval tournaments, the novels of Sir Walter Scott, and other expressions of romanticized Scottish culture permeated the antebellum South, the St. Andrew's cross enjoyed no special place in southern iconography. If Miles had not been eager to conciliate southern Jews, the traditional Latin (or St. George's), cross would have adorned his flag. Whatever Miles's concern for avoiding "conspicuous" religious symbolism, the Confederacy was an overtly religious state with appeals to God in the Preamble of its Constitution and a penchant for Christian symbols in its flags. Despite serving as committee chairman, Miles was unable to impose his pet design upon the committee. His critics supposedly scoffed that the diagonal cross looked "like a pair of suspenders." Miles's faith in this motif was eventually vindicated, of course, but vindication came via the circuitous route of the Confederate army.

When the secession of the Deep South states precipitated war between the United States and the Confederate States at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, in April 1861, the Confederacy's survival became dependent on its military forces. Not surprisingly, the symbols of the Confederate army and navy became important to the nation as a whole, especially when approximately three-quarters of the South's white males between 17 and 45 served in those forces. In addition to adopting a new national standard, Confederates demonstrated their patriotism with battle flags presented to their military units.

In the years before the outbreak of war in 1861, local volunteer and militia companies were formed in preparation for what seemed the inevitable conflict. Those units often received from the ladies of their communities silk flags, usually bearing the state seal and a company motto. When the local companies mustered into Confederate service in the spring and summer of 1861, these home-made silk flags entered the service with them. A few were carried throughout the war, but most were packed away and sent home early. Consistent with military tradition, Confederate regiments carried standard-issue battle flags. Regimental flags marked the positions of forces on the battlefield and assisted officers in maneuvering their troops. The flags also served as sources of unit pride and morale. On the battlefield and in the memory of the war, battle flags became the focus of a unit's esprit de corps. Although the practice was not regulated by law or military order, many of the regiments that entered the armies of the Confederacy in the spring of 1861 carried the Stars and Bars as their battle flag.

The outbreak of war and Lincoln's call for 75,000 volunteers to crush the "rebellion" prompted Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina to secede, shifting the military frontiers northward. In Virginia, Brigadier General Pierre Gustav Toutant Beauregard, the Louisiana native who had led Confederate troops opposing Fort Sumter, commanded the troops concentrated at the important railroad junction at Manassas, 25 miles south of Washington, D.C. Beauregard called his nascent force the Army of the Potomac. Further to the west, Brigadier General Joseph Eggleston Johnston commanded a force (the Army of the Shenandoah Valley) at Winchester, facing a Federal garrison at Harpers Ferry. Beauregard, formerly the superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and Johnston, formerly U.S. Army quartermaster general, were two of the five highest-ranking generals in the Confederate army. They were also the men most instrumental in adopting and diffusing the St. Andrew's cross battle flag.

The first major engagement of the Civil War occurred on July 21, 1861, at Manassas (Bull Run) when the Federal army under General Irwin McDowell confronted Beauregard's Army of the Potomac. Mc-Dowell's plan to turn Beauregard's left flank went awry. Johnston's army slipped away unnoticed from Winchester, arrived at Manassas early on the 21st, and turned the tide against the Federals. The inexperience of the troops on both sides, combined with complex maneuvering, made Manassas a very confusing battle for soldiers and commanders.

Adding a further complication was the similarity of uniforms and battle flags. At least one Confederate regiment fired on another Confederate regiment, possibly because it was unable to distinguish between battle flags. Beauregard recalled dramatically that late in the afternoon of the battle, when "victory was already within our grasp," he spied an unidentified force on his left flank. Fearing that it might be Federal reinforcements arriving on the field, he stared at a flag among the troops but could not tell whether it was Confederate or Federal. The force turned out to be Brigadier General Jubal Early's Confederate brigade, and the flag was the Stars and Bars of the 7th Louisiana Infantry.

After the battle, Beauregard "resolved 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." For assistance Beauregard turned to the man who had served as his aide during the summer of 1861: William Porcher Miles. In late August, when Miles was back in Richmond for the last days of the legislative session, he described to Beauregard his "favorite" pattern which he had unsuccessfully urged upon the Congress. Miles told the Committee on the Flag and Seal of the general's complaints and recommended that the flag be changed. As expected, the committee rejected the proposal by a 4-1 vote. General Beauregard proposed to his commander, General Johnston, that the army try something different.

I wrote to [Miles] that we should have two flags-a peace or parade flag, and a war flag to be used only on the field of battle-but congress having adjourned no action will be taken on the matter-How would it do for us to address the War Dept. on the subject for a supply of Regimental or badge flags made of red with two blue bars crossing each other diagonally on which shall be introduced the stars, the edge of the flag to be trimmed all around with white, yellow or gold fringe? We would then on the field of battle know our friends from our Enemies.

The high command of the Virginia army met at Fairfax Court House in September to adopt a new battle flag. Beauregard later remembered that James B. Walton, colonel of the elite Washington Artillery of New Orleans, had submitted a design nearly identical to Miles's, but with a Latin cross instead of the St. Andrew's cross. Beauregard, like Miles, preferred the St. Andrew's cross, since it "removed the objection that many of our soldier[s] might have to fight under the former symbol." Walton subsequently claimed that Edward M.

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