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William Thompson, the Confederate Cause, and the White Man’s Flag

There several different stories concerning William T. Thompson and his supposed role in creating or designing the Confederate Flag. Most declare that he was the “creator of the Confederate Flag.”  Some, with a touch more accuracy, claim that he was the “designer of a Confederate Flag.”  However, they fail to mention or depict the actual flag he designed.

An example of one of the memes described.
An example of one of the memes described.

According to the memes, Thompson wrote: “As a people we are fighting to maintain the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race.” Also: “As a national emblem, it [the Confederate flag] is significant of our higher cause, the cause of a superior race.” More wordy memes contain references to it being “the white man’s flag.”

With so many stories, rumors and memes floating around concerning William Thompson’s involvement with the Confederate Flag, it’s a good idea to do some fact checking.

Catching Up with William Thompson

Though William Tappan Thompson was born in Ohio, he moved to Georgia in his early 20s. He became a lawyer, a writer, and a newspaper editor, which is where he was found when the war broke out. The Savannah Daily Morning News was his, and he ran it from 1850 until his death in 1882. During the war years, he vigorously championed the Confederate cause, closing shop only when Sherman’s armies came through in 1864. 1Hugh Ruppersburg, ed., The New Georgia Encyclopedia Companion to Georgia Literature (University of Georgia Press, 2007) 400-402.

First National Flag flying over Fort Sumter.
First National Flag flying over Fort Sumter.

In March of 1861, Thompson was present in Montgomery when the provisional Confederate government selected the First National Flag, the “Stars and Bars,” and seal. There, being friends with the chair of the flag committee, Thompson had the opportunity to see the various flag submissions. 2George Henry Prebel, History of the Flag of the United States of America (Boston: A. Williams and Company, 1880) 508-509. Preble references a letter received by Thompson himself, written on December 25, 1871. here.

The First National Flag bore too strong a resemblance to the colors of the United States. This caused quite an issue on the battlefield. Because of this, the Confederate Battle Flag was adopted in late 1861. By early 1862 it had effectively replaced the National Flag on the field of battle.

The Flag Against “the Abolition Despotism”

Still in search of a better National Flag, the Confederate Congress again took up the debate. While some officers, like General P.G.T. Beauregard, wished for the Battle Flag to be adopted as the National Flag, most in Congress were not keen on the idea. 3John M. Coski, The Confederate Battle Flag (Harvard University Press, 2005) 16.

In an April 23, 1863 editorial, Thompson, who had the ear of the flag committee, explained that it was difficult for the Confederate congress to find a replacement for the First National Flag “to which all object on account of its resemblance to that of the abolition despotism against which we are fighting.” He made reference to the confusion upon he battlefield, which was how the Battle Flag came to be adopted for the army in August of 1861. So loved was this banner, Thompson continued, that it “has so grown in favor with the army as to be universally substituted in the field for the stars and bars [First National Flag].”

Though the Battle Flag was treated by all as the de facto Confederate Flag, it was never the actual official government flag. Thompson argued that part of the Battle Flag’s beauty was in its shape – square. “Extended to the proper dimensions [for a National Flag], the symmetry of its design would be destroyed,” he argued, “and, having no reverse (no union down), it cannot be used as a signal-flag of distress.”

He detailed that in selecting a flag using only the colors of liberty – red, white and blue – “and yet to avoid too great resemblance to the flag of some other nation, is the difficulty to be overcome.”

Thompson then related his proposal for a new National flag:

“Our idea is simply to combine the present battle-flag with a pure white standard sheet; our Southern Cross, blue on a red field, to take the place on the white flag that is occupied by the blue union in the old United States flag, or the St. George’s cross in the British flag.”

The Second National Flag.
The Second National Flag.

Heaven-ordained White Supremacy

Immediately following is when he explained the reasoning and symbolism:

“As a people, we are fighting to maintain the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race; a white flag would thus be emblematical of our cause.”

Of course, a nearly all-white flag could be mistaken for a flag of truce. This was addressed by Thompson. He countered that “the red field and blue cross [the depiction of the Battle Flag in the canton] would be a prominent feature of the flag, and from its position at the top against the staff could not be hidden by the folds of the flag. In the smoke of battle, or at sea against the blue sky, the white would stand as vividly as either the stars or stripes of abolitiondome, the tricolor of France, or the red flag of England.” 4William Tappan Thompson, Savannah Daily Morning News, April 23, 1863. As printed in History of the Flag of the United States of America (Boston: A. Williams and Company, 1880) 525-526. Here.

Thompson understood the Confederate Cause. Like Vice-President Alexander Stephens explained two years before: “its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon 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.” 5Alexander 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.

The Flag of Fort Sumter, by Conrad Wise Chapman depicts Thompson's Second National Flag.
The Flag of Fort Sumter, by Conrad Wise Chapman depicts Thompson’s Second National Flag.

The White Man’s Flag

Thompson’s proposal was taken up by the Confederate committee in Richmond. Less than a week later, he learned that the Senate had approved a new flag, but not the one he designed. The House had not yet adopted it, and threatened to make a few changes. To nudge them toward his own flag, Thompson published another editorial on April 28th. There was still some confusing debate over stripes of blue and white, including an inexplicably diagonal one. More than anything, Thompson wished to simplify things back to his original intent.

“While we consider the flag which has been adopted by the Senate as a very decided improvement of the old United States flag,” wrote Thompson, “we still think the battle-flag on a pure white field would be more appropriate and handsome. Such a flag would be a suitable emblem of our young confederacy, and, sustained by the brave hearts and strong arms of the South, it would soon take rank among the proudest ensigns of the nations, and be hailed by the civilized world as THE WHITE MAN’S FLAG.” 6William Tappan Thompson, Savannah Daily Morning News, April 28, 1863. As printed in History of the Flag of the United States of America (Boston: A. Williams and Company, 1880) 527. The ALL CAPS emphasis was Thompson’s. Here.

It was on May 1st that the Confederate Congress approved Thompson’s design, with President Jefferson Davis signing it into being that same day. 7Coski, 17. A few days passed before Thompson learned that the Confederate government had approved his design. On May the 4th, he wrote a celebratory piece in his paper praising the government for having “the good taste to adopt for the flag of the confederacy the battle-flag on a plain white field, in lieu of the blue and white bars proposed by the Senate.”

The Cause of a Superior Race

It is here where, for the third time, that Thompson fell back upon the meaning of his flag:

Another meme - this one incorrectly calling Thompson the "creator of the Confederate Battleflag."
Another meme – this one incorrectly calling Thompson the “creator of the Confederate Battleflag.”

“As a national emblem, it is significant of our higher cause, – the cause of a superior race, and a higher civilization contending against ignorance, infidelity, and barbarism. Another merit in the new flag is, that it bears no resemblance to the now infamous banner of the Yankee vandals.” 8William Tappan Thompson, Savannah Daily Morning News, May 4, 1863. As printed in History of the Flag of the United States of America (Boston: A. Williams and Company, 1880) 528. Here.

The flag met with almost immediate scorn for looking too much like a flag of truce. Still, it took the Confederate congress until early 1865 to add “a red bar, extending the width of the flag.” This act transformed the “Stainless Banner” into the “Blood-stained Banner.” 9Army and Navy Journal, Feb. 11, 1865. As printed in History of the Flag of the United States of America (Boston: A. Williams and Company, 1880) 531.

If Thompson had opinions concerning this change, they are not recorded. Following the war, he returned to his newspaper. His accounts in 1863, as well as his remembrance in 1871, are the only sources for the thought that went into his design for the Stainless Banner.

Thompson did not design the Confederate Battle Flag, as many of the memes and stories imply. However, he not only designed, but sold the idea of the Second National Flag. He did so by playing upon the prevailing sentiments of white supremacy. According to Thompson, these ideals were specific to the Confederacy. Additionally, he thrice made reference to his design looking nothing like the United States Flag. Twice he scorned the “abolition despotism” and “abolitiondome.” These ideals, he felt, were symbolized by the United States Flag – “infamous banner of the Yankee vandals.”

Sometimes, various memes cram all three white supremacist statements together as the same quote. Though out of context, it hardly changes Thompson’s symbolism. He gave no other reasons for the white field apart from that it was symbolic of the “the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race….”

However, to use Thompson’s racist quotes as arguments against the Confederate Battle Flag itself is inaccurate. Thompson had nothing at all to do with that particular flag (apart from using it in his own design). That small Battle Flag in the banner’s canton represented the army. The white field – the entire remainder of the flag – symbolized the Confederate cause of white supremacy.

Third National Flag.
Third 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.

5 thoughts on “William Thompson, the Confederate Cause, and the White Man’s Flag

  1. As you say- “An evidence based exploration of the Civil War”

    “Charleston, S.C., April 24, 1863.

    To Hon. C. J. Villere [Confederate House of Representatives]:

    Why change our battle flag, consecrated by the best blood of our country on so many battle fields? A good design for the national flag would be the present battle flag as a Union Jack, and the rest all white or all blue.

    G. T. Beauregard.”

    Charleston Mercury, May 7, 1863

    ***

    “Richmond, Saturday, May 2 ….Gen Beauregard suggested the flag just adopted, or else a field of blue in place of the white.”

    Charleston Mercury (Richmond correspondence), May 5, 1863

    ***

    And what does the white field represent?

    Confederate House of Representatives, May 1, 1863-

    Alexander Boteler (VA)- “The white in the flag signified purity and truth, and the border should be red, to embalm the recollection of those brave men who had shed their blood on the borders of the country in its defence.”

    Peter W. Gray (TX)- “Mr. Gray, of Texas, hoped the House would adopt the flag adopted by the Senate, with the blue bar stricken out. Then we would have the battle flag, of glorious memories, and a white field, signifying purity, truth and freedom. He was opposed to the adoption of a border of blood.”

    Richmond Whig, May 5, 1863

    Both Boteler and Gray were on the House Flag and Seal Committee.

    1. White in a flag traditionally represents purity. However, Thompson, the designer of the flag, insisted upon it also representing white supremacy. That others didn’t also put forward this idea takes nothing away from Thompson’s original intent in creating the flag.

  2. There’s no evidence he submitted a design or even contacted a member of the Confederate Congress with his idea – and until you have that it’s a bogus story.

    All you do have is Thompson promoting an idea for a flag in his newspaper. No one in Congress involved with the flag mentions Thompson.

    1. Thompson designed the flag and submitted it to Congress. He then published his editorials, which were also carried in the Richmond papers. The Confederate Congress then adopted his design after almost adopting one that he specifically mentioned disliking. This seems pretty cut and dry. I’m not saying that Congress approved it because it was designed with white supremacy in mind, but they did approve Thompson’s flag which was indeed designed to symbolize white supremacy.

      Thompson was both the first to come up with the design, as well as the first to give its meaning.

      That Congress didn’t mention him by name only matters if they mentioned other flag designers by name. Did they?

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