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Three successive designs served as the official national flag of the Confederate States of America (the "Confederate States" or the "Confederacy") during its existence from 1861 to 1865.
Since the end of the American Civil War, private and official use of the Confederacy's flags, and of flags with derivative designs, has continued under philosophical, political, cultural, and racial controversy in the United States. These include flags displayed in states; cities, towns and counties; schools, colleges and universities; private organizations and associations; and by individuals.
The state flag of Mississippi features the Confederate army's battle flag in the canton, or upper left corner, the only current U.S. state flag to do so. The state flag of Georgia is very similar to the first national flag of the Confederacy, the "Stars and Bars"; a prior design incorporating the Confederate battle flag was in use from 1956 until 2001.
The first official national flag of the Confederacy, often called the Stars and Bars, was flown from March 4, 1861, to May 1, 1863. It was designed by German/Prussianartist Nicola Marschall in Marion, Alabama, and resembled the flag of the Austrian Empire (later Austria-Hungary, now the Republic of Austria), with which Marschall would have been familiar. The "Stars and Bars" flag was adopted March 4, 1861, in the first temporary national capital of Montgomery, Alabama, and raised over the dome of that first Confederate capitol. Marschall also designed the Confederate army uniform.
One of the first acts of theProvisional Confederate Congress was to create the Committee on the Flag and Seal, chaired by William Porcher Miles, a congressman and Fire-Eater from South Carolina. The committee asked the public to submit thoughts and ideas on the topic and was, as historian John M. Coski puts it, "overwhelmed by requests not to abandon the 'old flag' of the United States." Miles had already designed a flag that later became known as the Confederate Battle Flag, and he favored his flag over the "Stars and Bars" proposal. But given the popular support for a flag similar to the U.S. flag ("the Stars and Stripes" – originally established and designed in June 1777 during the Revolutionary War), the "Stars and Bars" design was approved by the committee.
When the American Civil War broke out, the "Stars and Bars" caused confusion on the battlefield at theFirst Battle of Bull Run because of its similarity to the U.S. flag, especially when it was hanging limp, down on the flagstaff. The "Stars and Bars" was also criticized on ideological grounds for its resemblance to the U.S. flag. Many Confederates disliked the Stars and Bars, seeing it as symbolic of a centralized federal power the Confederate states were seceding from in order to preserve the institution of slavery. As early as April 1861, a month after the flag's adoption, some were already criticizing the flag, calling it a "servile imitation" and a "detested parody" of the U.S. flag. In January 1862, George William Bagby, writing for the Southern Literary Messenger, wrote that many Confederates disliked the flag. "Every body wants a new Confederate flag," Bagby wrote, also stating that "The present one is universally hated. It resembles the Yankee flag and that is enough to make it unutterably detestable." The editor of the Charleston Mercury expressed a similar view, stating that "It seems to be generally agreed that the 'Stars and Bars' will never do for us. They resemble too closely the dishonored 'Flag of Yankee Doodle' … we imagine that the 'Battle Flag' will become the Southern Flag by popular acclaim." In addition, William T. Thompson, the editor of the Savannah-based Daily Morning News also objected to the flag, due to its aesthetic similarity to the U.S. flag, which some Confederates negatively associated with emancipation and abolitionism. Thompson stated in April 1863 that he disliked the adopted flag "on account of its resemblance to that of the abolition despotism against which we are fighting."
Over the course of the flag's use by the Confederacy, additional stars were added to the flag's canton, eventually bringing the total number of stars on the flag to thirteen. This reflected the Confederacy's claims of having admitted Kentucky and Missouri into the Confederacy. Although they were represented in the Confederate Congress for the duration of its meetings, and had shadow governments made up of deposed former state politicians, neither state was ever fully controlled or administered by the Confederacy. The first showing of the 13-star flag was outside the Ben Johnson House in Bardstown, Kentucky; the 13-star design was also in use as the Confederate navy's battle ensign.
During the solicitation for a second Confederate national flag, there were many different types of designs that were proposed, nearly all making use of the battle flag, which by 1863 had become well-known and popular among those living in the Confederacy. The new design was specified by the Confederate Congress to be a white field "with the union (now used as the battle flag) to be a square of two-thirds the width of the flag, having the ground red; thereupon a broad saltire of blue, bordered with white, and emblazoned with mullets or five-pointed stars, corresponding in number to that of the Confederate States."
The flag is also known as the Stainless Banner, and the matter of the person behind its design remains a point of contention. On April 23rd, 1863, the Savannah Morning News editor William Tappan Thompson, with assistance from William Ross Postell, a Confederate blockade runner, published an editorial championing a design featuring the battle flag on a white background he referred to later as "The White Man's Flag." In explaining the white background, Thompson wrote, "As a people we are fighting to maintain the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race; a white flag would thus be emblematical of our cause." In a letter dated April 24th, 1863, a design similar to Thompson's was proposed by General P. G. T. Beauregard, "whose earlier penchant for practicality had established the precedent for visual distinctiveness on the battlefield, proposed that 'a good design for the national flag would be the present battle-flag as Union Jack, and the rest all white or all blue....The final version of the second national flag, adopted May 1, 1863, did just this: it set the St. Andrew's Cross of stars in the Union Jack with the rest of the civilian banner entirely white."
The Confederate Congress debated whether the white field should have a blue stripe and whether it should be bordered in red. William Miles delivered a speech supporting the simple white design that was eventually approved. He argued that the battle flag must be used, but for a national flag it was necessary to emblazon it, but as simply as possible, with a plain white field. When Thompson received word the Congress had adopted the design with a blue stripe, he published an editorial on April 28th in opposition, writing that "the blue bar running up the centre of the white field and joining with the right lower arm of the blue cross, is in bad taste, and utterly destructive of the symmetry and harmony of the design."
Regardless of who truly originated the design of the Stainless Banner, whether by heeding Thompson's editorials or Beauregard's letter, the Stainless Banner was officially adopted by the Confederate Congress on May 1st, 1863. The flags that were actually produced by the Richmond Clothing Depot used the 1.5:1 ratio adopted for the Confederate navy's battle ensign, rather than the official 2:1 ratio.
Initial reaction to the second national flag was favorable, but over time it became criticized for being "too white." The Columbia-based Daily South Carolinian observed that it was essentially a battle flag upon a flag of truce and might send a mixed message. Military officers also voiced complaints about the flag being too white, for various reasons, such as the danger of being mistaken for a flag of truce, especially on naval ships, and that it was too easily soiled. Due to the flag's resemblance to one of truce, some Confederates cut off the white portion of the flag, leaving only the canton.
The third national flag (also called the "Blood Stained Banner") was adopted March 4, 1865. The red vertical bar was proposed by Major Arthur L. Rogers, who argued that the pure white field of the Second National flag could be mistaken as a flag of truce: when hanging limp in no wind, the flag's "Southern Cross" canton could accidentally stay hidden, so the flag could mistakenly appear all white.
Rogers lobbied successfully to have this alteration introduced in the Confederate Senate. He defended his redesign as having "...as little as possible of the Yankee blue," and described it as symbolizing the primary origins of the people of the Confederacy, with the saltire of theScottish flag and the red bar from the flag of France.
The Flag Act of 1865, passed by the Confederate congress near the very end of the War, describes the flag in the following language:
The Congress of the Confederate States of America do enact, That the flag of the Confederate States shall be as follows: The width two-thirds of its length, with the union (now used as the battle flag) to be in width three-fifths of the width of the flag, and so proportioned as to leave the length of the field on the side of the union twice the width of the field below it; to have the ground red and a broad blue saltirethereon, bordered with white and emblazoned with mullets or five pointed stars, corresponding in number to that of the Confederate States; the field to be white, except the outer half from the union to be a red bar extending the width of the flag.
Despite the passage of the Flag Act of 1865, very few of these third national flags were actually manufactured and put into use in the field, with many Confederates never seeing the flag. Moreover, the ones made by the Richmond Clothing Depot used the square canton of the second national flag rather than the slightly rectangular one that was specified by the law