24 January 2014

Ancestry of the Confederate Battle Flag (4)


Charleston, South Carolina, December 20, 1860.

In 1860, a convention of the people of South Carolina (Columbia, December 17 - Charleston, December 20) decided to secede from the Union. In the revolutionary climate of the day, new flags and banners of various designs were all over Charleston and Columbia. As the symbol of State sovereignty the convention adopted the flag that became known as the South Carolina Sovereignty Flag.

South Carolina Sovereignty Flag, 1860

The crescent and palmetto tree were traditional elements of South Carolinian flags, but the field of the new flag was red instead of blue. Several other new flags, too, had a revolutionary red field or a red star. Interestingly, Chester County had a Sovereignty Flag, preserved till today, with the colours red and blue reversed, which set the crescent and palmetto in their traditional blue field.

Chester County Sovereignty Flag

Evidently, the fifteen stars represent the "slave states", and the larger central star is the sovereign State of South Carolina. No name of a designer is known, but George William Bagby, editor of the Southern Literary Messenger based in Richmond, Virginia, surely was very early and very eloquent in proposing the Southern Cross with fifteen stars, Christian interpretation included. In an editorial letter dated "Dec. —, 1860" he writes
Let us by all means have this glorious Confederacy. Let us achieve a Revolution worthy of our patriot fathers. Let us throw off a tyranny infinitely more hideous than that of George the Third. Let us tear from the national flag the fifteen stars which the despots of the North have attempted to sully with the imputation of barbarism. Let us give these stars a double brilliance by forming them into a cross—the Southern Cross—emblem of that pure and holy religion which has been reviled, trampled and spit upon in the interest of Abolitionism. Under this sacred banner, under this Southern Cross, which symbolizes the holiness of our cause, and points the way our march of empire tends—under this sublime banner, let us fight for our honour, for our rights, for our homes; let us fight for our wives, our children, and our aged sires, whom the mercenary hordes of the North would fain deliver over to the sword of the invader and the pike of the negro insurrectionist. (Messenger, vol. 32, January 1861, pp. 75-76, full text here or here.)
The South Carolina Sovereignty Flag differs from Bagby's description only in its references to that particular state.

Montgomery, Alabama, February 9, 1861.

In February 1861, the Confederate Provisional Congress gathered in Montgomery, Alabama, to draft a new Constitution. At the same time, it wanted to adopt a new National Symbol for the Confederacy, which gave rise to an informal flag competition. Some 120 designs were submitted, a few dozens featuring a cross of some kind (Bonner p.22). The debates on the flag designs were open to the public, and much comments were made in the press and in countless individual letters. On February 9, Christopher Gustavus Memminger, later cabinet member, presented to the convention the following design "sent by the young ladies of Charleston, S.C." It had seven stars, six for the States already represented in this Congress, and the seventh for Texas, whose deputies we hope will soon be on their way to join us.

These were his words while presenting the flag.
Mr. President, the idea of union, no doubt, was suggested to the imagination of the young ladies by the beauteous constellation of the Southern Cross, which the great Creator has placed in the southern heavens, by way of compensation for the glorious constellation at the north pole. The imagination of the young ladies was, no doubt, inspired by the genius of Dante and the scientific skill of Humboldt. But, sir, I have no doubt that there was another idea associated with it in the minds of the young ladies,—a religious one,—and although we have not seen in the heavens the 'In hoc signo vinces,' written upon the laburnum of Constantine, yet the same sign has been manifested to us upon the tablets of the earth; for we all know that it has been by the aid of revealed religion that we have achieved over fanatism the victory which we this day witness; and it is becoming, on this occasion, that the debt of the South to the cross should be thus recognized. (Preble p.502)
The ideas and the words could have been Bagby's, with the number of stars reduced from fifteen to six-and-counting. While an ever varying number implies an ever varying flag, the smaller number of stars has the advantage of stronger resembling the real constellation Southern Cross, which is traditionally represented with only five.

Along with the flag above, Memminger presented a similar one, "a commission from a gentleman of taste and skill in the city of Charleston", with the cross "upon a different ground" and with fifteen stars. This sounds very much like Chester County Sovereignty Flag, again without the references to South Carolina.

Montgomery, Alabama, March 4, 1861.

The Provisional Congress had established a Committee on Flag and Seal, chaired by William Porcher Miles of South Carolina. On March 4, 1861, the day Lincoln was to be inaugurated in the North, the Committee submitted to the Congress a shortlist of four designs to chose from. The flag hoisted later that day was the unfortunate Stars and Bars. Among the three losing finalists was this one, which chairman Miles, in a later letter, called "my design" (Preble p. 516).

Miles, who was knowledgeable in heraldry, had eliminated an heraldic error by adding a white fillet separating red and blue, at the same time making the white colour (one of the "republican" threesome) more conspicuous. Most importantly, he had turned the upright cross into a heraldic saltire. Chairing the Flag Committee, he was aware of the objections that had been raised to the cross. Protestants found it either blasphemy or superstition, and Jews—with 25,000 a significant presence in the Confederacy, some holding important positions— objected to "the attempt to encapsulate religion with government" (Bonner p. 101). Miles integrated all these aspects skilfully and deliberately. In a letter dated August 27, 1861, he writes
The three colors of red, white, and blue were preserved in it. It avoided the religious objection about the cross (from the Jews and many Protestant sects), because it did not stand out so conspicuously as if the cross had been placed up-right (...) It would not do to put a blue cross on a red field. Hence the white, being metal argent, is put on the red, and the blue put on the white. (Preble p. 514)
Unfortunately, a St. Andrew's cross does not allow seven stars to be arranged symmetrically, and this unbalanced impression may have contributed to its being rejected.

Army of the Potomac, September 1861

To avoid further confusion on the battle field, the confederate generals Johnston, Smith and Beauregard decided to adopt a battle flag for their forces. Beauregard:
Many designs were presented, and we gave the preference to the one offered by Col. J. B. Walton, commanding the Washington Artillery, which corresponded closely to one recommended by Col. Miles to Congress as our first National flag. Both were oblong; the field was red; the bars blue, and the stars white; but Col. Walton's had the Latin cross, and Col. Miles's the St. Andrew's, which removed the objection that many of our soldiers might have to fight under the former symbol. Gen. Johnston preferred a square flag, to render it more convenient to carry; and we finally adopted, in September, 1861, the well known 'battle flag' of the Army of the Potomac (as it was first called), to which our soldiers became so devoted.

Its field was red or crimson, its bars were blue, and running diagonally across from one corner to the other, and the stars on them were white or gold, their number being equal to the number of States in the Confederacy; the blue bars were separated from the red field by a small fillet. (Preble p.512)

So Walton's design (below; actual number and arrangement of stars unknown)

Walton's Battle Flag

was, at the last moment, traded for Miles's (below). 

Miles's Battle Flag
Both Beauregard and Johnston say that they had chosen the former, and Walton himself wrote of his design's adoption by the conference of officers, and subsequent modification to correspond with Colonel Miles's draft. (Preble p.515) It looks as if there has been some external pressure, by Miles or others, with respect to the objection that many of our soldiers might have, to fight under the former symbol [the Christian cross].

The asymmetry in Miles's flag had fortunately been lifted, because twelve stars could be added: by that time, there were eleven states in the Confederacy and Missouri had also seceded.

Army of the Potomac, November 28, 1861

Late November, 1861, the new banners were issued to the troops, with the following words by Beauregard.

Headquarters 1st corps army of the Potomac, near Centreville, Nov. 28th, 1861.
General Orders, No. 75.

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.

By command of General Beauregard. 
  Thomas Jordan, A. A.-Genl.

December 10, 1861, Kentucky was admitted as 13th state in the Confederacy, and the battle flag acquired its final form featuring 13 stars.

P.S. The colours and shapes in our illustrations (taken or adapted from the internet) should in no way be regarded as exact. There has never been any "confederate uniformity", and flags varied a lot. Stars, for instance, pointed every way and were often very clumsily arranged. Patriot ladies sewing flags used the materials at hand, and they were not afraid to throw in some of their own imagination. Thus the first three battle flags manufactured had fancy gold leaf instead of white, no doubt because generals prefer golden stars. Beauregard himself describes the stars on his battle flag as white or gold. So much for the republican emblems red-white-blue that Miles had been so careful to preserve!

(continued and concluded here)