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The Politically Correct Origins of the Confederate Battle Flag

A 12-star variant of the First National Flag.
A 12-star variant of the First National Flag.

The design for the Confederacy’s First National Flag simply wasn’t working. As legend tells, General Joseph E. Johnston was on the field of Manassas in 1861, and could hardly tell the difference between his new nation’s flag and his old. His army, thought the General, needed its own flag. Thus, in all its glory, the need for the Confederate Battle Flag was born. 1Alfred Roman, The Military Operations of General Beauregard (New York: Harper & Brothers, Franklin Square, 1884) 171.

Except, that’s not quite how it happened. Like most things of a political nature, it required some finesse, a bit of accident, and some political sensitivity.

Finding the Perfect Flag

Months before the battle of Manassas, when the only shots fired were upon Fort Sumter, designs for a national flag for the Confederacy were accepted in Montgomery, Alabama, the capital of the fledgling nation. The suggested flags “arrived in numbers sufficient to fill a big packing box,” recalled Felix Gregory De Fontaine in 1896. 2De Fontaine went by the psuedonym “Personne”. His letters are collected in Army Letters of Personne, 1861-1865, published in 1896.

It was up to William Porcher Miles, chairman of the Committee on Flags, to sift through the hundreds candidates. Miles was able to divide the submissions into two fairly uninteresting categories. First, there were those which looked almost identical to the United States flag, and second were those which were “very elaborate, complicated and fantastical.” 3Felix Gregory De Fontaine, Army Letters of ‘Personne’ (Columbia, South Carlina, 1896) 8-10.

The St. George's Cross design, used by General Pope's Division.
The St. George’s Cross design, used by General Polk’s Division.

At first, Miles selected one that split the difference. It wasn’t anything like the old flag, except in colors, but neither was it unwieldy in its ridiculousness. Four were submitted to congress, with the Battle Flag design being Miles’ preference.

“This was my favorite,” lamented Miles to General Beauregard. He urged it upon the congress to select it. 4William Porcher Miles to P.G.T. Beauregard, August 27, 1861. As published in The Stars and Stripes by Peleg Dennis Harrison (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1908) 339. It was based upon the flag of Sovereignty of South Carolina. That flag, however, had a St. George cross in blue. This was a more traditional, Christian cross, studded then with white stars to represent the states of the Confederacy. The cross was outlined in white and was all on a field of red. It was raised in Columbia even before secession. 5Peleg Dennis Harrison The Stars and Stripes (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1908) 313.

The Confederate Need for Political Correctness

This may have caught Miles’ eye, but a letter from Charles Moise, changed his mind. Moise was Jewish and objected to the state using an overtly religious symbol upon the flag. Miles understood this, and was additionally aware that certain Christian denominations also objected to such a use. So instead of purposely offending the minority, Miles simply swapped out the St. George’s Cross with what he called “the saltier.” Others described it as the St. Andrew’s Cross, though Miles didn’t seem to connect the two until later. 6John M. Coski, The Confederate Battle Flag, America’s Most Embattled Emblem (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005) 5-6. This isn’t quite proof that the Battle Flag was not purposely based upon the Scottish St. Andrew’s Cross Flag, but it should be close enough to stop people from disseminating that unsubstantiated rumor.

“It avoided the religious objection about the cross (from the Jews and many Protestant sects),” Miles explained to Beauregard in August of 1861, “because it did not stand out so conspicuously as if the cross had been placed upright thus.” 7William Porcher Miles to P.G.T. Beauregard, August 27, 1861. As published in The Stars and Stripes by Peleg Dennis Harrison (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1908) 339-340.

Confederate Battle Flag as produced by JEB Stuart's wife.
Confederate Battle Flag as produced by JEB Stuart’s wife.

This curious bit of political correctness is actually understandable. Why start out offending a good number of people, when you can instead simply not offend anyone and still get your flag?

Though it made the final four, the saltier design (which would later be accepted as the Battle Flag) was not selected. Between March and August of 1861, a few similar designs were bandied about. When Beauregard and Johnston tried to figure out which ensign to use for the army, several such flags made an appearance. Other designers, such as Col. J.B. Walton and Edward Hancock, claimed to be the flag’s original designer, but to the end, Miles maintained that his was the first. Finally, in November of 1861, the Confederate Battle Flag, based upon Mile’s saltier design, was delivered to the army. Miles’ original design was, like almost all flags, rectangular and oblong. The Battle Flag was instead made square “for greater lightness and portability.” 8William Porcher Miles to P.G.T. Beauregard, May 14, 1872. As published in The Stars and Stripes by Peleg Dennis Harrison (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1908) 342-343.

Choosing the Flag Again

But what irony it is that the Confederate Battle flag was selected to represent the white South by the mid-1900s segregations. This flag, so carefully selected because it would not offend Jewish Southerners and white Protestants, was used by white supremacists in both the government and society, to threaten and intimidate black Southerners. 9As detailed here.

These white supremacists felt that the Cornerstone of the Confederacy, as enunciated by Alexander Stephens, was still the Cornerstone of their society. They, like Stephens, still held that “the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.” 10Alexander Stephens, “Cornerstone Speech,” Savannah Republican, as reprinted in Henry Cleveland, Alexander H. Stephens, in Public and Private: With Letters and Speeches, before, during, and since the War (National Publishing Company, 1886), 717-729.

They chose not to take up one of the three National Flags of the Confederacy, but instead the flag of battle. There were, of course, many reasons for this, including that most Confederate memorial organizations used this flag. But it could not have been lost on them that this was not a flag of peace, but a flag of war. It was the same flag that was used to actively wage war to preserve white supremacy and perpetuate slavery. The racists of the 1900s were not peacefully asking black Southerners to keep in their place. Rather, they were demanding, they were threatening, murdering, and lynching black people, gutting the black community – all while flying the battle flag of their grandfathers.

Politically Correct: Capt. Harry Doolittle, 2d Iowa Inf. standing on the First National Flag.
Capt. Harry Doolittle, 2d Iowa Inf. standing on the First National Flag.

References   [ + ]

Eric
Eric has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, he wrote the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, he decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.

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