Monday, November 28, 2011

The New Confederate Battle Flag

Wherein the most famous (infamous?) non-official symbol in America gets its start

Today's post actually started back in July. July 21, the date of the Battle of Manassas. Though it didn't really start then either, if we're being completely thorough.

But on July 21, in a commonly recited story, General (then Brig. General) G.T. Beauregard could not tell whether the Stars and Stripes of the United States or the Stars and Bars of the Confederate States fluttered from the flagstaff of the brigade marching from Manassas Junction towards Henry Hill, set to come up behind his barely holding line. Historian Douglas Southall Freeman describes the situation colorfully:
As Beauregard looked anxiously to the southwest he saw a marching column. At its head was its flag. Eagerly he turned his glass on the standard: Was it the flag of the Union or of the South? For all his effort he could not tell. Now a courier brought him a dispatch from the signal corps. A large force, approaching from the very quarter to which Beauregard was looking, was believed to be Patterson's Federals. Beauregard's heart sank. Once again he focused his glass on the approaching column. There was an anxious heart-thumping delay. Then a breeze swept across the hill and set the summer leaves to rustling. It struck the column, it stirred the bunting, it spread the colors--Confederate. The needed brigade had arrived to save the day! It was Early's.

Other similar accounts make the brigade Kirby Smith's arriving from the valley by train, but it's a similar story. In the smoke and confusion of battle, it was hard to tell the U.S. flag and the Confederate flag apart, especially when they weren't unfurled. The Confederacy's first national flag deliberately mimicked the design of the original U.S. flag, which makes sense when you remember that the leaders of the Confederacy regularly claimed they were going back to the original intent of the Founders, which had been turned away from because of abolitionists from the North. But what made a symbolic point in the capital became a practical liability on the battlefield.

The Stars and Bars (November 1861)
Like all things Confederate, the creation of the Stars and Bars is packed full of controversy. After the war a Prussian artist and immigrant to Alabama, Nicola Marschall, claimed to have designed the flag and based it on flags popular in Germany (Marschall also claimed to design the Confederate dress uniform, a bold claim considering that few Southern soldiers ever actually acquired one). The records are destroyed, so the veracity of the claim is impossible to tell, but it was clear that Congressman William Porcher Miles disliked it.

Miles was a Congressman from South Carolina in the Confederate Congress, and he had represented the same district in the U.S. Congress from 1857 until secession in December 1860. He had also been an elected delegate to both the South Carolina Secession Convention the Confederate Constitutional Convention. He was a true "fire eater" (one of the radical pro-secession politicians), but one that even made his fellow secessionists nervous with his rhetoric. Miles had been asked to chair the Committee on the Flag and Seal in March 1861 (when there were only seven Confederate states) and had fought hard for a radically different flag. But he had been overruled by the other members of the Committee, who favored something more like the original U.S. flag, and was not too happy about it.

Nonetheless, the national flag was approved in March and stars were added in May as more States joined, just as in the original American flag. Through the dust of July 21, Beauregard would be squinting for a flag with two red bars and one white, with eleven stars set in blue in the corner (in flag terminology, the canton, or, even more accurately, the upper hoist canton). After the battle Beauregard and his superior General Joe Johnston found that the Louisianan hadn't been the only person to have problems. Nearly every officer had a story about a confused flag, many times ending with firing on other Confederate troops or Union troops advancing unchallenged.

Johnston and Beauregard set off on different courses to try to solve the problem. Johnston, in his post-war memoirs, recounted his solution to the similarity:
I attempted to get rid of this inconvenience by procuring for each regiment its State colors. In this I was unsuccessful, except as to the Virginia regiments. Governor Letcher had the State colors made for each of them, brought them to the army himself, and delivered them with his own hands.
Beauregard decided it was better to just change the national flag entirely. And he knew just the man to help him. Congressman William Porcher Miles also happened to be Colonel William Porcher Miles, an aide-de-camp to General G.T. Beauregard (along with James Chestnut and seemingly the rest of the South Carolina delegation). Miles had been with Beauregard at Fort Sumter and at Manassas, and had played a role in presenting his report on Manassas to the Congress in closed session, which President Jefferson Davis believed was a ploy to undermine him. Now Miles presented on Beauregard's behalf a report to the Military Committee, which he chaired, recommending a new national flag. Miles was not a subtle man and no doubt it was seen as a continuation of his fight from the spring against the old Stars and Stripes (James' wife, Mary, records Miles' intense hatred of the American flag with something of an eye roll).

But (perhaps not surprisingly to those who have been following this blog) Beauregard didn't have as much sway in Richmond as he thought, and the flag report went nowhere (in fact, by coincidence on November 28 the Congress added two more stars to it, for Missouri and Tennessee). In Johnston's telling, he decided instead to create a battle flag for the Army of the Potomac and solicited the army for designs. He said that several were then presented by Beauregard for consideration. Beauregard's biographer, Alfred Roman, skipped over who made the decision and went right to the part where Beauregard presented designs.

But Miles was working behind the scenes the entire time. Miles resubmitted his rejected national flag design to Beauregard to present to Johnston, but they had probably already agreed on the strength of the design shortly after Manassas (if not before) given the South Carolinian's passion for his design. It featured a blue St. Andrew's Cross on a red field, with stars for each of the States, the design most of us today erroneously refer to as the "Stars and Bars" (the name of the first national flag, remember above?).

The battle flag approved by Johnston
Beauregard presented it to Johnston and Jefferson Davis in their tense September strategy meeting at Fairfax Court-House, along with three other designs. Johnston selected Miles' design, but asked that it be made square instead of rectangular, explained by Roman as making the flag more portable or by some historians as conserving processed cotton thread. Either way, the quartermaster got to work making it, but it took until the end of November for enough to be created to distribute them. By that point, the Army of the Potomac had abandoned Fairfax Court-House for Centreville, and Johnston was in charge of two other commands, too, as head of the Department of Northern Virginia.

Johnston specified that all units in the Valley, Aquia, and the Potomac districts should carry the new flag, but Beauregard's unsanctioned First Corps was the first to receive it. Typically, he made a speech and had his adjutant distribute it in writing to everyone in the army:
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.
It would be several months before the flag was used in an actual battle, by which time Beauregard would be gone from the army, and the army would have a new name--the Army of Northern Virginia. The Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia would lead the Confederacy's only army to have anything close to a winning record, and Miles would eventually win his efforts to change the national flag (twice, as it would turn out, due to another colossal mistake of making the Battle Flag the canton on a white field and confusing everyone into thinking the Southerners flying it were surrendering).

When Johnston took over the western armies in 1864, he would have flags made similar to the Battle Flag (but allowing rectangles this time) in an attempt to standardize that never really took off beyond the two armies he had commanded. But after the war, the United Confederate Veterans and its successor organization, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, would use the Battle Flag as their copyrighted logo, associating the flag more closely with the Confederacy than any of the three national flags. A rectangular version inspired by this (even more rectangular than the Army of Tennessee's) is the "Rebel Flag" that we mistakenly call the Stars and Bars today, and has been at the root of so much controversy over the meaning of the American South's Confederate past.

And it all started 150 years ago, today. Or maybe one of those other days it started.

Print Sources:
  • Freeman, 78.

No comments:

Post a Comment