It is one of the most distinctive symbols of the Civil War: the Confederate battle flag. It didn’t exist before the war, so how did it come to be? An article by Carlton McCarthy, originally published in 1880 in the Southern Historical Society Papers, discusses the flag’s beginnings.
Origin of the Confederate Battle Flag.
By Carlton McCarthy
[The facts concerning the origin of the battle flag contained in this article are derived from a speech by General Beauregard before a special meeting of Louisiana Division Army Northern Virginia, Association, December 6, 1878.—C. McC.]
This banner, the witness and inspiration of many victories, which was proudly borne on every field from Manassas to Appomattox, was conceived on the field of battle—lived on the field of battle—and on the last fatal field ceased to have place or meaning in the world.
But the men who followed it, and the world which watched its proud advance or defiant stand, see in it still the unstained banner of a brave and generous people, whose deeds have outlived their country, and whose final defeat but added luster to their grandest victories.
It was not the flag of the Confederacy, but simply the banner—the battle flag—of the Confederate soldier. As such it should not share in the condemnation which our cause received, or suffer from its downfall. The whole world can unite in a chorus of praise to the gallantry of the men who followed where this banner led.
It was at the battle of Manassas, about 4 o’clock of the afternoon of the 21st of July, 1861, when the fate of the Confedracy seemed trembling in the balance, that General [P. G. T.] Beauregard, looking across the Warrenton turnpike, which passed through the valley between the position of the Confederates and the elevations beyond occupied by the Federal line, saw a body of troops moving towards his left and the Federal right. He was greatly concerned to know, but could not decide, what troops they were—whether Federal or Confederate. The similarity of uniform and of the colors carried by the opposing armies, and the clouds of dust, made it almost impossible to decide.
Shortly before this time General Beauregard had received from the signal officer, Captain [E. Porter] Alexander, a dispatch saying that from the signal station in the rear he had sighted the colors of this column, drooping and covered with the dust of journeyings, but could not tell whether they were the stars and stripes or the stars and bars. He thought, however, that they were probably [Maj. Gen. Robert] Patterson’s troops arriving on the field and reinforcing the enemy.
General Beauregard was momentarily expecting help from the right, and the uncertainty and anxiety of this hour amounted to anguish. Still the column pressed on. Calling a staff officer, General Beauregard instructed him to go at once to [Brig.] General [Joseph E.] Johnston, at the Lewis House, and say that the enemy were receiving heavy reinforcements, that the troops on the plateau were very much scattered, and that he would be compelled to retire to the Lewis House and there reform—hoping that the troops ordered up from the right would arrive in time to enable him to establish and hold the new line.
Meanwhile, the unknown troops were pressing on. The day was sultry, and only at long intervals was there the slightest breeze. The colors of the mysterious column hung drooping on the staff. General Beauregard tried again and again to decide what colors they carried. He used his glass repeatedly, and handing it to others begged them to look, hoping that their eyes might be keener than his.
General Beauregard was in a state of great anxiety, but finally determined to hold his ground, relying on the promised help from the right, knowing that if it arrived in time victory might be secured, but feeling also that if the mysterious column should be Federal troops the day was lost.
Suddenly a puff of wind spread the colors to the breeze. It was the Confederate flag—the stars and bars! It was [Col. Jubal] Early with the Twenty-fourth Virginia, the Seventh Louisiana, and the Thirteenth Mississippi. The column had by this time reached the extreme right of the Federal lines. The moment the flag was recognized Beauregard turned to his staff right and left, saying, “See that the day is ours!” and ordered an immediate advance. In the meantime Early’s brigade deployed into line and charged the enemy’s right—[Col. Arnold] Elzey, also, dashed upon the field—and in one hour not an enemy was to be seen south of Bull Run.
While on this field and suffering this terrible anxiety, General Beauregard determined that the Confederate soldier must have a flag so distinct from that of the enemy that no doubt should ever again endanger his cause on the field of battle.
Soon after the battle he entered into correspondence with Colonel William Porcher Miles, who had served on his staff during this day, with a view to securing his aid in the matter, and proposing a blue field, red bars, crossed, and gold stars.
They discussed the matter at length. Colonel Miles thought it was contrary to the law of heraldry that the ground should be blue, the bars red, and the stars gold. He proposed that the ground should be red, the bars, blue, and the stars white.
General Beauregard approved the change, and discussed the matter freely with General Johnston. Meanwhile it became known that the design for a flag was under discussion, and many designs were sent in. One came from Mississippi; one from J. B. Walton and E. C. Hancock, which coincided with the design of Colonel Miles. The matter was freely discussed at head-quarters, till, finally, when he arrived at Fairfax Courthouse, General Beauregard caused his draughtsman (a German) to make drawings of all the various designs which had been submitted. With these designs before them the officers at head-quarters agreed on the famous old banner—the red field, the blue cross, and the white stars. The flag was then submitted to the War Department, and was approved.
The first flags sent to the army were presented to the troops by General Beauregard in person, he then expressing the hope and confidence that it would become the emblem of honor and victory.
The first three flags received were made from “ladies dresses” by the Misses [Hetty, Jennie, and Constance] Carey [Cary], of Baltimore and Alexandria, at their residences and the residences of friends, as soon as they could get a description of the design adopted. One of the Misses Carey sent the flag she made to General Beauregard. Her sister sent hers to General [Earl] Van Dorn, who was then at Fairfax Courthouse. Miss Constance Carey, of Alexandria, sent hers to General Joseph E. Johnston.
General Beauregard sent the flag he received at once to New Orleans for safe keeping. After the fall of New Orleans, Mrs. Beauregard sent the flag by a Spanish man-of-war, then lying in the river opposite New Orleans, to Cuba, where it remained till the close of the war, when it was returned to General Beauregard, who presented it for safe keeping to the Washington Artillery, of New Orleans.
This article is penned to accomplish, if possible, two things: first, to preserve the little history connected with the origin of the flag; and, second, to place the battle flag in a place of security, as it were, separated from all the political significance which attaches to the Confederate flag, and depending for its future place solely upon the deeds of the armies which bore it amid hardships untold to many victories.