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Confederate Battle Flags' Popularization(U.S.)

Last modified: 2014-06-29 by rick wyatt
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Battle flags

It was common practice till long after the Civil War to have a distinct Battle flag. The idea was that the red battle flags were highly visible on the field, and the troops could orient on them. Usually the national flag was also visible, at least on a battalion level.

The Union had also such a thing. Each regiment had its own flag, but there was no standardized format for the regimental flags. Few were red, for obvious reasons. The Irish Brigade had green flags, for instance. Most Union regimental flags were blue, and most Union regiments also carried the national flag.
Sandy, through Josh Fruhlinger, 24 January 1996

The battle flags of the Army of Northern Virginia were square. Beginning in Jan. 1864, the Army of Tennessee was issued a rectangular version of the ANV flag. This issue was used until the end of the war.
Andy Wirch, 4 May 1998

Popularization of the Battle Flag

The popularization of the Battle Flag in the post war years, particularly in the years after 1880, had a more political purpose. When the Confederate Veterans organizations were organized, eventually merging into the United Confederate Veterans in the early 1880s, there was a degree of vocal opposition to such organizations from some sources in the North, who suspected them of being cells preparing for a new war. Unrealistic paranoia, but it made for good print I suppose. The veterans were naturally most fond of their old regimental flags, but their use of the Battle Flag in public and the spreading use of the Battle Flag as a symbol of the South, instead of one of the old national flags was also a way to defuse the "Reb Peril" cries from the North. The battle flag was deliberately chosen as the flag representing the valor of the Southern soldier, rather than one of the political flags, which could be seen as representing the South's political aspiration for independence.

I think that was the intent of both the Second and Third National CS flags - using as the canton the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia. It was intended then to display the valor of the troops of the army that the government in Richmond knew - and saw - best, and that included their distinctive flags. One can wonder what the canton would be like if the capitol of the Confederacy had been in Atlanta and the flags the government would have seen were the 9 or so patterns used by the Army of Tennessee! How good would a Second or Third National flag look with the Hardee or Polk corps battle flags in the canton instead?

As for the post-war adoption by the veterans of the more famous rectangular "battle flag" - Devereaux is correct. However, the rectangular version being used caused problems from within the Southern veterans groups.

I have gone through every volume of the old magazine Confederate Veteran and have noted numerous letters sent in that wondered why the flags used at reunions were rectangular when their own wartime battle flags were square (this being the typical letter of vets of the Army of Northern Virginia), while others wondered about that flag entirely as they never served under it during the war (vets of Polk's, Hardee's Corps and Cleburne's Divisions, as well as units that used First National flags from the beginning to the end of the war - and there were more of those than you think!).

The main reason that the flags came rectangular was that the flag makers of the time knew that American flags had always been rectangular and so made these flags according to what they knew from experience. They knew nothing of the various CS battle flag patterns for example other than the ANV flag - and that was square. I have seen letters to the United Daughters of the Confederacy from flag companies that told them "we will make you square flags, but you need to order hundreds of them in order for us to make the patterns or it won't be worth our while to do it - or we can just keep sending you the rectangular flags!" That is a paraphrasing of one letter from the 1930's! There are others from earlier dates than that.

So - what this led to was an order by UCV commander John Gordon in the early 1900's to set up a panel to investigate the CS flags. This was headed by Dr. Samuel Lewis, who had been a surgeon at the famous Chimborazo Hospital in Richmond during the war.

Lewis cast his net far and wide and wanted very badly to create an accurate flags report to be published and to settle the flags problems once and for all. He worked hand in hand with UCV (United Confederate Veterans) Adj. Gen. Mickle and they wrote each other constantly. Lewis received dozens of letters from Western vets who drew pictures of their own distinctive battle flags so that their flags could be fairly represented in the book.

Lewis handled the ANV flag himself - and in doing so made errors in its dimensions (he approximated the limited issue 4th Bunting version of June, 1864, rather than the far more used 3rd Bunting issued that was made for 2 years!) as well as the three national flags.

His project finally completed, Lewis wrote a manuscript, sent it to Mickle who then shopped it to publishers for prices. The bad news was that the UCV had very little money to publish the book, and the price quotes for the manuscript as written were far too high for the organization to handle.

So - with great chagrin, Lewis scrapped most of the book and created a much smaller flags report that covers the 3 national flags, a "battle flag" (which was square - even though rectangular versions in 12 and 13 stars served dozens and dozens of Western CS regiments!), a naval jack (omitting the first one entirely) and one or two lesser flags. This was finally published in 1907 to be sold at a UCV reunion. 10,000 copies were printed. The price was 25 cents.

The sales were very poor, despite the letters of thanks from libraries all over the nation expressing gratitude for publishing an "official" report of the Southern flags. Mickle and Lewis wrote each other a good bit about the poor sales, and decided that they would have to give most of the books away. Both men were very sad that the UCV and its newer sub-organization, the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) did not step up to the plate and buy this booklet to honor their heritage. Both men, in fact, had quite unkind words for the SCV in this matter!

So that's the story in a nutshell. My basis for this is the 5 boxes of the Samuel Lewis Papers at the Virginia Historical Society which only cover the flags book he sought to make. It does include his original manuscript as well as every letter he wrote to vets and every letter he received from them. He saved everything - which is why it took me two full days of digging to get through the boxes. My stack of xerox copies from these records is a good 5 inches high!

I had originally thought that the Eastern Confederates wanted to shove their battle flag down the throats of the South after the war due to their domination of the writing of Southern history after the war was over. The Lewis papers showed that was not the case at all - but the fact that the book did not turn out like he planned made the Eastern CS battle flag the dominant battle flag pattern in American history today - simply because they did not have the funds to publish what was intended.

Sadly, this myth still creates problems on the flag in America today - both within the SCV and in the minds of the public at large.

It was not until the last 25 years that the real story of all of the CS flags began to get out to the public through the books of Howard Madaus and Devereaux Cannon among others. These books show that the Confederacy used lots of battle flag patterns in the war - each one as sacred to the men under it as another pattern was sacred to its troops. All three CS national flags saw battle flag use as well - in fact the only CS flag pattern that saw combat use from the beginning of the war to the very end was the First National! This is based on flags of this pattern being taken at Lee's surrender as well as in other places of the South in the late war stages.

The 1907 UCV booklet is a nice historical snapshot in time - but it is inaccurate for a couple of its flags. Use it with a grain of salt - use the Madaus and Cannon books for far better accuracy! And my book when it finally comes out!!!!!!!

Greg Biggs and Devereaux Cannon, 2 July 1998