The Confederate Flag: Origins and Controversy

On Sunday, July 21st, 1861, Confederate and Union forces met near Manassas Junction, Virginia, along Bull Run Creek in the first major land battle of the American Civil War. The battle was less a conflict of two opposing armies, and more of a gunfight between two armed mobs. Despite some initial success, the Union army was routed after severe fighting on Henry House Hill, where the heroics of Thomas Jonathan Jackson and the 1st Virginia Brigade earned the men the nickname “Stonewall.” But the battle did lead to confusion, and changes were made. Here, we shall look at one of the changes made, and how it led to the creation of a flag that is the source of much debate in our modern world.

One of the reasons that the Battle of First Manassas/Bull Run was so confusing was that neither side had standardized their uniforms and flags. At this first major engagement of the war, both armies were marching into battle with a variety of different uniform styles, mainly because the men wore the uniform of the militia groups they had been a part of before the war. Blue, gray, red and green uniforms. The Morgan Rifles, a Confederate company, marched into battle wearing uniforms similar to that of the Continental Army of the American Revolution.

But not only were the uniforms not standardized by either army. The battle flags that regiments carried into battle were also not standardized. Many Confederate units marched into battle carrying the First National Flag, also called the “Stars and Bars.” This flag had two large red bars at the top and bottom, and a large white stripe in the center, with a blue field of seven stars in the top left corner. The flag did closely resemble that of the United States Flag, and if the wind was not catching it, then it could be mistaken for the Union Banner. This happened at the Battle of First Manassas, when Rickett’s Battery did not fire on a group of men marching toward them, seeing that they had blue uniforms, and their flag was red, white and blue. But the men marching toward them were Colonel Cummings’ 33rd Virginia Regiment, a part of “Stonewall” Jackson’s first brigade. They did not realize this until it was too late, and the 33rd fired a volley and charged into them.

Of course, the reverse was also true. If a Union flag was not fluttering on the breeze, it would be easy to mistake them for Confederates as well. Due to this confusion during the Bull Run debacle, and realizing that the war would not last ninety days like they thought, both sides sought to standardize their uniforms and flags. From that came uniforms of Union Blue and Confederate Gray, though most Confederates would continue to wear a hodge podge of different uniforms and colors. But one thing that was born out of this need for standardization was a new Confederate flag that was first used starting in December of 1861: The Confederate Battle Flag, or the Red, White and Red as it is often called.

Now it is here that some clarification is needed. Although the Battle Flag became a part of the Confederate Second and Third National Flags, the main banner itself was never used as a symbol of the Confederate Government. The battle flag was exactly that: a battle flag! It was carried by the common Confederate soldier. Although some may have supported slavery, and some may have wished to be slaveowners, the majority of soldiers fighting in Gray during the American Civil War were not fighting for the preservation of slavery, but for what they viewed as an invasion of their homeland. The defense of “home and hearth” was the main reason that 85% or more of the soldiers in the Confederacy were fighting in the war.

Sadly, after the war was over, an evil, vile and despicable group of idiots, the Ku Klux Klan, took the banner of the common soldier, and made it a symbol of their hate-filled cause. Because of this, the flag is now seen as a symbol of hatred and racism. Many call for the banner to be removed from all aspects of life. Ulysses Grant Dietz, a descendant of Union General Ulysses S. Grant, calls for the flag to be banned, saying that it is “like the Nazi flag” to him. Others, mostly but not all white, call for the flag to be kept flying.

While I am sympathetic to those who are troubled by the Battle Flag of the Confederacy, I do offer this piece of advice. While the issue of slavery was the cause of the split between North and South, and the institution did exist for the four years the C.S.A. existed, one must remember that slavery existed for over eighty years under the United States of America. Should we ban our glorious banner because slavery existed under it as well? I am not defending the institution of slavery, but merely making a point. And again, most of the southerners fighting in the ranks might not have cared one way or the other about slavery, but were not fighting for its perservation, but for the defense of their homes.

These are my views on the Confederate Battle Flag, and what it represents. We may disagree on this, and that it alright. I would rather have people debate the issue of the flag, and for some to be allowed to fly it, rather than we get rid of it altogether. To totally remove this bannner would be to ignore an important aspect of our history, where the issue of slavery divided the nation, but men from North and South did not go into the maelstrom of war to either preserve or destroy slavery at first, but to defend their home and country.

Sincerely,

Steven Hancock, Civil War Diary

Regimental Flag of the 49th North Carolina Infantry, under which my ancestor, Elijah W. Marlow, fought from 1862-1864. This flag was captured in the Battle of The Crater, 30 July, 1864.

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