Last modified: 2010-10-16 by rick wyatt
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This article on the history of Confederate battle flags of the St. Andrews cross pattern was written for the exhibition at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia. Many thanks to Greg Biggs for sharing it.
Based on research by Howard Madaus, Devereaux Cannon, Ken Legendre, Alan Summrall, Richard Rollins, Greg Biggs, and a host of other flag enthusiasts.
One of the most prevailing myths in America today is that the Confederate Army fought under only one pattern of battle flag - called "The" battle flag. This flag, a red field with diagonally crossed blue bars and 13 white stars, has been hoisted upon America's imagination as the only pattern of flag that ever flew over Confederate soldiers while in combat.
A simple examination of surviving Confederate flags will prove that this is historically incorrect. Confederate units served under a myriad of battle flags, some of which do not resemble the more famous "battle flag", as well as all three Confederate national flags. But there was an attempt to create a single battle flag for all Confederate troops to follow.
Three men are behind the most famous of Confederate battle flags; William Porcher Miles, a congressman from South Carolina; Gen. Joseph E. Johnston; and Gen. Pierre G.T. Beauregard. The latter two men were the ones who perpetuated the design throughout areas of the South as they were transferred to those respective areas. It was indeed the intentions of these two generals to standardize the battle flags for Confederate troops. Upon reaching certain commands, however, they met with resistance from other Confederate officers that had already created, on their own, distinctive battle flags for their respective forces. These usually occurred on the corps level, but some divisions and brigades also chose battle flags to follow. As such, the attempts of Johnston and Beauregard were often rebuffed. It would not be until 1864 that the two generals would come closest to realizing their dreams of a single pattern battle flag - and even then they would not be 100 per cent successful!
But why create a special battle flag? What was the purpose behind these colors and what is a battle flag?
Battle flags are, basically, any flag that a combat unit chooses to follow into battle. It could be, and often was, the flag of the nation the troops defended. Sometimes, as in the case of the British Army, these were flags created for regiments that incorporated the national flag as well as distinctive regimental colors and symbols. The U.S. Army copied the British system somewhat, issuing national colors (which were the Stars and Stripes after 1834, and then for only the artillery; the infantry received them in 1841 and the cavalry temporarily in 1862, but not officially until 1895!) and special regimental colors to all regiments. The Confederate Army did things a little differently.
The first battle flags that Confederate units followed were locally made company level flags, often of unique design. As regiments were formed from these independent companies (10 companies to a regiment), the new command often had 10 flags available to use. This created an identification problem as other friendly units would not be aware of the flags a specific regiment would use - and in some cases a regiment used all ten flags in battle (for example - the 15th Mississippi Infantry at Mill Springs, where they lost 7 of their ten flags, 1 captured in combat and the others probably taken from their camps).
Some states issued flags to their units as battle flags. Some of these were officially adopted by legislative action while others were flags based on older militia colors. Only Virginia and North Carolina fully equipped their troops with state flags. Other states ceased doing so in the early phases of the war or did not even attempt to do so.
When the Confederate States of America formed a provisional government in February, 1861, one of the first items on the agenda was the creation of a new national flag. Submissions poured in from all over the South (as well as some from up North) for the new national standard Congressman William Porcher Miles, the chair of the Flags Committee, even submitted his own design for consideration. Based on the sovereignty flag of South Carolina that flew over that state's secession convention, his flag was a red, rectangular field with diagonally crossed blue bars edged in white with 7 stars on the bars (for the then number of seceded states). The proposal was rejected as the stars were asymmetrical, one congressman calling it "a pair of suspenders."
The winning design was made by Nicola Marschall of Alabama, and was consciously based on the flag of the United States. Called the "Stars and Bars", the Confederate First National flag featured red, white and red horizontal bars and a blue canton with the number of seceded states represented by white stars. Adopted by the Congress on March 4, 1861, the first example was hoisted over the capitol dome in Montgomery, Alabama.
Now that the Confederacy had a flag, many military units on both regimental and company levels, quickly adopted it for use as a battle flag. Using this pattern, the earliest battles of the war, like Rich Mountain, Bethel, Scary Creek, Phillipi and finally First Manassas would be fought. Confederate troops, in many cases, also still used state flags as well as their special company level colors. With the smoke of battle often obscuring the field this made identification between friend and foe very difficult. In some cases the Stars and Bars so resembled the U.S. flag that troops fired on friendly units killing and wounding fellow soldiers.
As such, Confederate army and corps level officers all over the South began thinking about creating distinctive battle flags that were completely different from those of the Union Army, which would help make unit identification a lot easier. The first of these - and the most famous - was created in September, 1861 in Virginia.
Gathering at the headquarters of the Army of the Potomac (later renamed the Army of Northern Virginia) were generals Joseph Johnston, Pierre Beauregard, Gustavus Smith and Congressman William Miles, then an aide on Beauregard's staff. The conversations turned around the idea of creating a special "battle flag", to be used, in the words of Gen. Beauregard, "only in battle" for their army. Miles offered the design with the St. Andrews cross he had submitted for consideration as a national flag. The competition was a design from Louisiana with a St. George's cross (horizontal/vertical). With the number of states that had seceded now reaching eleven (and with Confederate recognition of Missouri as well), 12 stars were now available for use on a flag. Thus, it looked a lot better than it had in February when only seven stars were added. Miles design was adopted by the council. One source states that Gen Beauregard at first suggested the colors be a blue field with a red cross, but Miles countered that this was contrary to the laws of heraldry.
At a meeting in late August or early September, 1861, army quartermaster William L. Cabell found himself in Gen. Beaurgard's office along with Gen. Johnston discussing the flag. According to his account in the Southern Historical Society Papers, Cabell states that, "Gen. Johnston's flag was in the shape of an ellipse...Gen. Beauregard's was rectangular." His account is geometrically flawed and he probably meant that the flags were rectangular and square respectively. Johnston's letter to Beauregard in 1872 states, "All of them were oblong. I selected the one you offered but changed the shape to square...," and in his own narrative of 1874, "I modified it only by making the shape square instead of oblong..." Gen. Johnston's alteration in the shape probably came at Cabell's behest since making it in a square would save scarce silk as well as ease manufacture. Beauregard suggested that a color exterior border be added for decorative reasons, but this also served to thicken the outer edges of the flags and prevent fraying. The flag was supposed to come in three sizes - 48 inches square for infantry units, 36 inches square for artillery units and 30 inches square for cavalry - but as the war progressed this was not always followed. In fact no artillery sized silk flags have been discovered, so it seems the plan may not have been followed when it came to making the flags.
The design having been approved, three prototype flags were made by Constance, Hetty and Jennie Cary, ladies of high society in Richmond. These were made from red silk for the fields and blue silk for the crosses. Constance, writing after the war, stated that finding suitable material was difficult and that a lining had to be sewn to one of the flags for strength. The story of using their dresses is just a myth. The exterior borders were sewn on fringe and the stars were painted on by a male friend. The flags were then presented to Generals Earl Van Dorn, Joseph Johnston and Pierre Beauregard respectively beginning in October and ending in December when Beauregard received his banner.
The generals ordered 120 silk battle flags for issue to the army. Quartermaster Colin M. Selph bought the entire silk supply of Richmond for making the flags (and the only red-like colors available in bulk were either pink or rose, hence these flags being of lighter shades). The flag making was contracted to some Richmond sewing circles. In lieu of gold fringe a silk yellow border was used instead as well as a blue hoist sleeve for the flag pole.
Starting in late November, 1861, the new battle flags were then presented to the Confederate units at Centreville and into December for other units in nearby parts of Northern Virginia. The flags were presented to each regiment by Gens. Beauregard and Johnston, as well as other army officers, in elaborate parade ground affairs. The Richmond Whig newspaper article of December 2, 1861, tells of the presentation at Centreville on November 28:
"The exercises were opened by Adjutant General Jordan, who, in a brief but eloquent address, charged the men to preserve from dishonor the flags committed to their keeping. The officers then dismounted and the colonels of the different regiments coming forward to the center, Gen. Beauregard, in a few remarks, presented each with a banner, and was eloquently responded to. The regiments then came to 'present', and received their flags with deafening cheers."So was issued the first of the battle flags for what would become the famous Army of Northern Virginia. Despite the creation of this (and other) battle flags, the First National flag would not fall from use in battle. Examples of it being used for the rest of the war by Confederate units, including Lee's army, are numerous.
"We have employed in this depot about 60 cutters and trimmers and 2000 women to make the clothing, mostly wives and daughters of absent soldiers in the field and the poor of our city....We average 2500 garments daily."The depot building itself was not large enough to house such a large labor force, so the women would come to the depot and pick up the uniforms and flags in kits, take them home to sew together and then return finished products to the depot and receive their payments. The cutters Ferguson mentions took in the bulk cloth supplies and cut them into flags and uniforms kits for the ladies to take home. A highly productive operation, the Richmond Depot patterned itself on the old U.S. Army depot near Philadelphia in terms of outsourcing their production. These were the forerunners of the modern assembly lines of today.
As stated earlier, it was the intent of Gens. Beauregard and Johnston to have the flag they adopted in Virginia become the standard for all Confederate armies. First to attempt to spread the Southern Cross to other forces was Gen. Beauregard. In February, 1862, he was sent West to assist Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston in Department Number 2 in Tennessee. Upon arrival, the Creole began showing his flag brought from Virginia and, as number two commander of forces in that theater, began issuing orders for that flag's adoption by troops of his command. He was quite chagrined to find, however,
that several of the armies of the area had already adopted their own distinctive battle flags - and for the same reasons that the Army of Northern Virginia adopted theirs. A such, the eastern flag was initially rebuffed.
As what would become the Army of the Mississippi gathered in Corinth, Mississippi after the fall of Forts Henry and Donelson, Beauregard soon got his chance to have his flag adopted by Western troops. Arriving from Pensacola and Mobile under the command of Gen.Braxton Bragg, what would be known as Bragg's Corps came north without a distinctive battle flag. As such, Beauregard had these troops adopt the square Southern Cross from the East.
These new flags were made by private contractor H. Cassidy in New Orleans. Cassidy was a sailmaker by trade and had made some flags for the Louisiana State Army as well as some forts and gunboats in the New Orleans area. In February and March, 1862, Cassidy manufactured 123 flags for the Western army and Bragg's Corps. The invoice in the National Archives dated March 29 shows varying sizes for these flags, basing his order on the edict of Beauregard that the flags were to be square and of three sizes depending on branch of service.
Cassidy, therefore, made his flags in an almost square configuration, and, as with the ANV flags, then making them larger or smaller for branch of service. Later, he produced rectangular flags of this pattern for the army. Keeping with Beauregard's preference, these flags were bordered in either pink or yellow silk and the stars were 6 pointed, which is heraldicly correct, as opposed to the Americanization of 5 pointed stars. Cassidy probably used Beauregard's personal flag, or the silk ANV flag for the 5th Company, New Orleans Washington Artillery, as his guide for the star count, for all of his flags only had 12 stars on them.
The flags were delivered to the army just prior to the Battle of Shiloh in April. A parade of the 4 main flags used by the Army of the Mississippi was done while the army marched from Corinth to the battle by staff officers to familiarize the troops with the flags. With Bragg's Corps only having 36 organic units, however, that means that the rest of the flags went into army quartermaster stores. The army, after Shiloh and upon its arrival for reorganization at Tupelo, Mississippi, quickly expanded with many new regiments being issued these flags from stocks on hand, even in they were in a different corps. These flags would continue to be issued for the remainder of 1862, with some examples serving in the Western Theater until the end of the war.