The Confederate battle flag is, as John Coski of the Museum of the Confederacy titled his book on the subject, “America’s most embattled emblem.” Recent polls show that Americans are split down the middle on the flag: half view it as a symbol of heritage, half as a symbol of hatred (and an overwhelming majority are against tearing it down from public places). For all the outraged opinions, however, the true story of the Confederate flag – how it came to be and what it meant to those who made it and bore it – does not fit the narrative.
The first “Confederate” flags appeared in South Carolina in the months leading up to her secession convention. These early flags typically featured the Carolinian palmetto and crescent moon on blue or white fields. One such flag, which appeared in Columbia as the convention assembled, included an open Bible with the words, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in time of trouble; therefore we will not fear; though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the sea. The Lord of Hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our refuge.” When the convention relocated to Charleston, a banner featuring John C. Calhoun holding the broken tablets of “Truth, Justice, and the Constitution,” with the caption, “Behold Its Fate,” hung just down the street from the hall. Another Charleston banner depicted all the seals of the Southern States rising above a pile of the Northern States’ seals, with the caption, “Built From The Ruins.” When South Carolina declared her independence from the Union, a new flag for the newly sovereign commonwealth was needed. The Charleston Mercury described one of these sovereignty flags: “The flag is a red field, expressive of defiance, traversed by the blue cross of Carolina, with the lone star at the intersection. The inner and upper quarter of the field bears the word ‘ready’ surmounted by the palmetto.” The Charleston Daily Courier described another: “When the first gun, ‘Old Secession,’ announced the secession of the State, they flung to the breeze the beautiful flag which now floats over their gymnasium. It is a red field, quartered with a blue cross on which is a lone star (others will be added as States come into the Southern Constellation). On the upper quarter is the Palmetto, on the lower a savage-looking tiger head.” The flag which South Carolina officially adopted, however, was a blue field with a white palmetto in the centre and a white crescent in the upper-left corner, just like South Carolina’s flag to this day.
As more States seceded from the Union, sovereignty flags began cropping up everywhere. At the Alabama Secession Convention, the flag which hung in the hall featured lady liberty dressed in red holding a sword and shield with the caption, “Independent Now and Forever.” Most States’ sovereignty flags, however, were modeled after the U.S. flag, the “Stars and Stripes,” as Southerners believed that they were the ones truly loyal to the foundational principles of American freedom. Indeed, just as the Montgomery Convention, where the seceded States met to unite in a new Southern Confederacy, adopted a Constitution which was modeled after the U.S. Constitution – though it more strictly limited the power of the central government – it also adopted a national flag which was similar to the Stars and Stripes, “the Stars and Bars.” The Stars and Bars was a flag of two red stripes, a centre white stripe, and a blue field with a circle of stars (one for each Confederate State). Letitia Tyler, the granddaughter of U.S. President John Tyler (now a Confederate Congressman) was given the honour of raising the flag for the first time. Harry Macarthy, the author of “The Bonnie Blue Flag,” composed “The Origin of the Stars and Bars,” a song which mourned the fall of the old Union and the Stars and Stripes while cheering the rise of a new Confederacy and the Stars and Bars. The idea of a “Southern Cross,” however, stemming from South Carolina’s early sovereignty flags, which were also considered in Montgomery, remained popular with the people.
William P. Miles, Confederate Congressman from South Carolina and Chairman of the House Military Committee, was the first to envision what would eventually become the Confederate flag. Miles regarded the Stars and Stripes as a symbol of “tyranny” and believed that the Confederacy should have a new flag. He designed a red flag with a blue “saltire,” or “St. Andrew’s Cross,” lined with white stars. Red, white, and blue were “the true republican colors,” explained Miles, respectively representing valour, purity, and truth. The saltire, according to Miles, was “significant of strength and progress.” In fact, the saltire is the oldest symbol of sovereignty in Western Civilisation, first used by the Romans in Britain to mark the limits of their territory. Miles also found the Latin Cross of the sovereignty flags to be too “ecclesiastical,” potentially offending Christians against religious imagery in war as well as alienating the Confederacy’s sizable Jewish population; the saltire, by contrast, was “heraldric.” The House Military Committee rejected Miles’ Southern Cross as a Confederate battle flag, but at the Battle of First Manassas, it became clear that the Stars and Bars, when draped, was easily mistaken for the Stars and Stripes. This confusion led to some embarrassing incidents of friendly fire and nearly cost the Confederates the victory. As a result, the military became aware of the need for a new battle flag.
General P.G.T. Beauregard liked Miles’ idea of a Southern Cross for the Confederate battle flag, and convinced his superior, General Joseph E. Johnston, to avoid the bureaucracy of the War Department and create new battle flags themselves. Johnston ordered his chief quartermaster, Maj. William L. Cabell, to deliver 120 battle flags for each regiment. “My recollection is that it was an army affair,” Johnston explained after the war, “and when questioned on the subject, I have always said so.”
Cabell put his aide, Lt. Colin McRae Selph, an officer familiar with the environs of Northern Virginia, in charge of the new flags. After purchasing the red, white, and blue silk, Lt. Selph approached Mary Henry Lyon Jones, probably having met her acquaintance in one of Richmond’s ladies’ hospitals, established to tend to wounded Federals and Confederates. Mary sewed a prototype of the battle flag, which General Johnston promptly approved. Selph returned to Mary and requested her to rally all the ladies she knew to sew the needed 120 flags.
In addition to Mary, Lt. Selph also approached the Cary girls, who were all something of local celebrities. Constance Fairfax Cary had taken refuge in the Confederate camp after her ancestral estate was chopped down for firewood by the invading Federals. There, Constance met her cousins, Hetty and Jennie Cary, forced to flee from Baltimore when it fell under Federal controul. In fact, their cousin, the editor of the Baltimore Sun and grandson of the author of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” was arrested for criticising Abraham Lincoln. In turn, Jennie set the words of “Maryland, My Maryland,” the pro-Confederate ballad which is now the State anthem, to the tune of “O, Tannenbaum,” and Jennie sang the song from her balcony in the presence of Federal troops. The Cary girls were daughters of the vaunted “First Families of Virginia” – Constance descended from the ninth Lord Fairfax and Hetty and Jennie from the Jeffersons and the Randolphs. Hetty and Jennie were given the honour of drilling the troops and even formed “the Cary Invincibles,” a group of the social elite in the Confederate army.
The ladies of Richmond, organised mainly by churches, set to work sewing immediately. Once the flags were complete, Lt. Selph took them to chemists and artists to have the stars painted. Selph’s orders were to keep the project confidential, but as one lady remarked, “How could General Johnston expect four or five hundred female tongues to be silent on the subject?”
After a month of sewing, the ladies completed the battle flags. On 28 November 1861, the new flags were unveiled before the Confederate army. One by one, General Johnston and General Beauregard presented a battle flag to the colonel of each regiment, who in turn presented the flag to his color guard. Thomas Jordan, Adjutant General of the First Corps, made the following announcement:
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 dishonour 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 honour and renown for yourselves – or death.
The Confederate soldiers loved the ceremony. “It was,” recalled a South Carolinian, “the grandest time we have ever had.” He remembered that “the noise the men made was deafening” and that “I felt at the time that I could whip a whole brigade of the enemy myself.” A Virginian described the flag as “the prettiest one we have.”
In addition to the mass-produced flags for the Confederate regiments, the Cary girls made special flags for their favorite commanders. Hetty chose General Johnston, Jennie chose General Beauregard, and Constance chose General Earl Van Dorn. Along with her flag to Beauregard, Jennie included an admiring note:
I take the liberty of offering the accompanying banner to General Beauregard, soliciting for my handiwork the place of honour upon the battlefield near our renowned and gallant leader. I entrust to him with a fervent prayer that it may wave over victorious plains, and in full confidence that the brilliant success which has crowned his arms throughout our struggle for independence is earnest of future triumphs yet more glorious. In my own home – unhappy Baltimore – a people writhing ‘neath oppression’s heel await in agonised expectancy “the triumph-tread of the peerless Beauregard.” Will he not, then, bear this banner onward and liberate them from a thralldom worse than death?
In his reply, General Beauregard expressed his gratitude and swore that Baltimore would be hers again:
I accept with unfeigned pleasure the beautiful banner you have been kind enough to make for me, accompanied with the request that it should occupy near me the place of honour on the battlefield. It shall be borne by my personal escort; and protected by a just Providence, the sanctity of our cause, and the valour of our troops, it will lead us on from victory to victory until you shall have the proud satisfaction of waving it with your own fair hands as a signal of triumph, from the top of the Washington Monument in your own native city – Baltimore.
General Beauregard kept Jennie’s flag for the rest of his life and had it draped over his coffin at his funeral.
Constance gave her flag to one of General Van Dorn’s staff officers with a note of her own. “Will General Van Dorn honour me,” Constance asked, “by accepting a flag which I have taken great pleasure in making, and now send out with an earnest prayer that the work of my hand may hold its place near him as he goes out to a glorious struggle – and, God willing, may one day wave over the recaptured batteries of my home near the downtrodden Alexandria?” Van Dorn’s reply brimmed with chivalry:
The beautiful flag made by your hands and presented to me with the prayer that it should be borne by my side in the impending struggle for the existence of our country, is an appeal to me as a soldier as alluring as the promises of glory; but when you express the hope, in addition, that it may one day wave over the recaptured city of your nativity, your appeal becomes a supplication so beautiful and holy that I were craven-spirited indeed, not to respond to it with all the ability that God has given me. Be assured, dear young lady, that it shall wave over your home if Heaven smiles upon our cause, and I live, and that there shall be written upon it by the side of your name which it now bears, “Victory, Honour, and Independence.”
In the meantime, I shall hope that you may be as happy as you, who have the soul thus to cheer the soldier on to noble deeds and to victory – should be, and that the flowers want to blossom by your window, may bloom as sweetly for you next May, as they ever did, to welcome you home again.
According to Constance, General Van Dorn’s staff officer told her that when he received her flag, he and his men all drew their swords and swore that they would honour her request, like knights of old.
The true meaning of the Confederate battle flag is not in the various ways which it has been abused over the years. Indeed, the Confederate flag is as innocent of its abuses as are other symbols which have been used for evil, including the U.S. flag, the Cross, and perhaps even the Crescent. The true meaning of the Confederate flag is in the women who made it and the men who bore it into battle. To them, the flag was not a symbol of racial hatred, but of independence and honour. To the descendants of those men and women, that is what it still means and will always mean.