21 January 2014

Ancestry of the Confederate Battle Flag (3)


George Washington's legacy: a constellation

When George Washington assumed command of the Continental Army, he designed a personal standard. The original flag is preserved, and features an array of thirteen 6-pointed stars, facing in all directions, on a blue field.

Washington's Commander-in-Chief Flag, 1775
Clearly, each star represented one of the seceding colonies. In European heraldry, political or geographical units had been represented by stars before; such was the case in 17th century Wallis, Switzerland. (See here.) 

On June 14, 1777,  the Marine Committee of Continental Congress resolved That the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation. The configuration or individual shape of the stars was not fixed though, and there have been multiple designs and forms. Below is one example.

Flag of the USA, June 1777
The members of the Marine Committee were more explicit than Washington in calling his configuration of stars a new constellation. The blue background of the canton, originally the daylight sky above Scotland, was now definitely a starred night sky. It is traditionally interpreted as the firmament of nations, though no contemporary source appears to use that expression.

Washington, a slave-holding Virginian, was so esteemed by his seceding fellow-southerners, that he's the central element in the Great Seal of their Confederacy. His catching idea of a new constellation, integrated in the flag of the United States, was copied in the multiple confederate flag designs that used stars to represent the seceded states in their new constellation. The Confederacy even found in the night sky of the deep south of Texas and Florida a constellation to cherish: Crux in Latin, the Southern Cross. Here is how it was seen low in the sky of Miami, in confederate Florida, on April 30, 1861, 22:10. (Courtesy Sky View Café)

 The segments outlining the constellations are, of course, purely conventional—as are the constellations themselves. The Southern Cross is a very small constellation, with Acrux or Alpha Crucis as its brightest star. With three other bright stars, it forms a neat cross, with a fifth bright star unfortunately spoiling the symmetry. 

The symbolism of the Southern Cross would have been evident to every seceding southerner. In the lower latitudes and throughout the southern hemisphere, it replaces the northern Polar Star: an infallible celestial guide, it points to the south pole—away from the North. Moreover, being undeniably a cross, it stood for Christian values, including slavery (endorsed by the bible, let's not forget it). It quickly became part of confederate poems and songs (here a fine example). In a stylized form, it also turned up in flags. Since the days of the confederacy, there have been several modern nations proudly displaying the Southern Cross in their flag, and it is invariably shown in its natural position: standing upright, as it appears on the horizon of Miami above. The confederates were not the first rebels to use the Southern Cross for an emblem. Six years earlier, it had been the war flag of the 'Eureka Rebellion' at Ballarat, Australia. (More about the event here.) On this flag, which is preserved, the five bright stars of the Southern Cross are arranged symmetrically upon a white cross. 

Southern Cross flag of the Eureka Rebellion, 1854

(continued here)