Saturday, June 27, 2015

A History of the Flags Of the Confederacy

The sight of the Confederate flag flying on the grounds of the State Capitol in Columbia, South Carolina became too much for a lot of folks who found the flag to be a sign of racism and disloyalty to the Union - so much, in fact, that it's been disappearing from public spaces and license plates all over the South in the aftermath of what happened in Charleston, and former flag supporter Nikki Haley, the governor of South Carolina, has even decided that, in Columbia, the flag also has to go.
Good riddance.  Anyone who flies this flag . . .
. . . hasn't kept up with the news.  The news being that, well, the war for Confederate independence is over, and the South lost.
Also, anyone who flies this flag to express their Southern pride is actually flying the wrong flag.  This is the Confederate battle flag, not the Confederate national flag.
Wait - actually, this is a Confederate battle flag.  Several battle flags were used by the Confederacy during the Civil War, two of which were the now-familiar variations of this design, known as the Southern Cross - colloquially named  after the star constellation in the Southern Hemisphere.  This rectangular flag was used by the Army of Tennessee, while another version - square, with a darker shade of red - was used by the Army of Northern Virginia (below).  From the Union lines, General Ulysees S. Grant, who fought in both the Western and Eastern theaters, would have recognized either one.

So what was the national flag of the would-be nation called the Confederate States of America?  Well, the South took awhile to settle on one.  When the seven slave states of the lower South first left the Union, they were de facto countries onto themselves, just like the now-former Soviet republics.  When South Carolina took the first step and seceded in 1860, one politician scoffed, "South Carolina is too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum."  (The quote comes not from a Northerner but actually comes from a South Carolinian, James Petigru, who was opposed to secession.)  The seven states soon formed the Confederacy, and they quickly adopted a new flag that looked a lot like the U.S. flag.
The Stars and Bars, basically a ripoff of the Union Stars and Stripes, was designed by Nicola Marschall, a German immigrant who settled in New Orleans.  He (Nicola Marschall was a man) was supposedly inspired by the flag of Austria, which has two red bars with a white bar in between.  The seven stars in the blue field in the upper-left-hand corner, or canton, represent the original seven Confederate States.

The revised version above, designed after more states left the Union for the Confederacy, features thirteen stars, representing the eleven Confederate States (adding Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee), plus rival state governments in Kentucky and Missouri that sent delegates to the Confederate Congress in Richmond.  
The Stars and Bars proved to look too much like the Stars and Stripes - particularly on the battlefield, where it caused great confusion among the soldiers on both sides at the First Battle of Bull Run in Virginia.  Hence the battle flags.  The Southern Cross also had thirteen stars for the same reasons as the revised Stars and Bars.
Eventually, a new national flag was proposed.  Savannah journalist William Tappan Thompson designed what became the second national flag of the Confederate States.  

The flag incorporated the Army of Northern Virginia's variation of the Southern Cross in the canton, with the rest of the flag as a white field.  This flag is even more racist than the Southern Cross; Thompson said that the white field was meant to represent Caucasian supremacy, and that the Confederacy was fighting not just for independence but also to preserve "the cause of a superior race, and a higher civilization contending against ignorance, infidelity, and barbarism."  This flag was officially adopted in 1863.
There was just one problem.  On wind-free days when it hung limp, it could resemble a flag of truce, with only the white field showing.  

And so, a red bar was added to correct that situation.  The red bar was included at the behest of Major Arthur L. Rogers, who made the point of the truce-flag issue.  The red bar, he said, symbolized the ethnic origins of most white Southerners of the time, as red was used in the British Union Jack and, in deference to Louisiana, in the flag of France.
This flag was adopted as the Confederate national flag on March 4, 1865, the same day Abraham Lincoln was re-inaugurated as President of the United States in Washington.  A little over a month later, it wouldn't be the flag of any nation, would-be or otherwise.    
The flags of the Confederacy disappeared almost immediately after the Civil War ended, with even Robert E. Lee saying they were best left in the past.  The Southern Cross only came back in vogue in Dixie to protest civil rights legislation.  Oh, some folks may fly the flag out of pride in their Southern heritage, with no intention to offend anyone, but mostly it's a symbol of racism. Which is why I'm glad to see the Southern Cross go south (as in "to fall in value, deteriorate, or fail").  There are better ways to show pride in Southern heritage than flying the Confederate battle flag.  (Do folks in New England express pride in their heritage by flying whatever flag might have been proposed when the New England states threatened to secede over the War of 1812 at the 1814 Hartford Convention?  Of course not; they eat baked scrod and go sailing instead.)   I used to make an exception for Confederate flags waved at Lynyrd Skynyrd concerts, but even that doesn't make sense to me anymore.  The Confederate battle flag belongs in a museum.  The only Southern Cross visible in the sky should be the stars over New Zealand.
And while I'm glad that the Confederate battle flag is finally being consigned to the dustbin of history, I'm very upset that it took the deaths of nine innocent people to bring that about. :-(   

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