A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Was the "Confederate flag" only the flag of the Confederate navy?

December 27, 2001

Dear Straight Dope:

Not too long ago a coworker was chastised for wearing a lapel pin of what I thought was the Confederate battle flag, you know, the Stars and Bars, that which was flying proudly and shamefully atop capitals across the south. As we got to chatting about what an idiot this guy was, someone mentioned that there never was a "Confederate flag" and that what we recognize as the Confederate flag was actually the flag of the Confederate navy, and every regiment or whatever had its own flag. Granted, this doesn't make Todd any less of an ass, but what gives, aside from morons using it now to represent either southern pride, a long gone way of life, slavery, segregation or what have you?

Your co-worker has things a little mixed up, but he (or she) has a point. The most commonly used Confederate battle flag (it was never formally adopted) was the Stars and Bars, as you say. But the battle flag wasn't the rectangular banner we're used to today--it was square. The rectangular version was used by the Confederate navy and saw only limited service with the army. What's more, the battle flag wasn't the Confederate national flag. Here's what Living History Online has to say on the subject (www.livinghistoryonline.com/CSAflags.htm). 

Designed by Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard mainly as battle colors for cavalry, infantry, and artillery units, this flag was generally square in shape and was often given a blue, yellow, or white border. Eventually, the battle flag became the canton (upper corner) of the second and third Confederate national flags. 

Seems the Confederates needed not only more men and supplies, but a Betsy Ross as well. The first Confederate national flag featured a canton (upper left corner) of blue with seven stars, and red and white stripes over the rest. You guessed it, this was often mistaken for the flag of the North, so southern troops often were shooting at themselves. The next flag wasn't much better. It had the Stars and Bars in the canton, and the rest of the flag was white. The units that carried it weren't mistaken for Yankees--they were mistaken for surrendering troops. The third flag had the Stars and Bars canton and a mostly white field with a red vertical stripe at the far right end. Sadly, this flag was adopted in 1865, just before the surrender. Let this be a lesson in product development to all you junior ad execs out there--don't skimp on the research and listen to reports from the field.

Now, back to the battle flag. Here's what the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia has to say about it (www.cviog.uga.edu/Projects/gainfo/battlefl.htm): 

As proposed by Beauregard and Johnston, the Confederate Battle Flag was of square design. Attesting to this fact, most of the surviving battle flags at the Georgia Capitol are square in format. However, some rectangle battle flags were used in various Confederate commands. For example, after assuming command of the Confederate Army of Tennessee, Gen. Joseph Johnston in the spring of 1864 directed that uniform rectangle battle flags be issued to regiments in his command. Infantry versions of these flags averaged 36 x 52 inches in size. These flags were similar in dimensions to the Confederate Naval Jack adopted in May 1863.

Even though the actual Confederate Battle Flag was overwhelmingly square in dimensions, flag companies in the late 19th century began producing souvenir versions in rectangle format--presumably to match the format used for the U.S. flag. By the turn of the century, commercial reproductions of the Confederate Battle Flag apparently could only be purchased in rectangle format.

At the turn of the century, a Confederate veterans' association began complaining that latter-day versions of the battle flag misrepresented its appearance and attempted to set the record straight in reports and publications. Your co-worker may have heard a late echo of that old controversy.  Luckily you seem to be in agreement on the main point--while southern troops fought bravely, the cause their flag represented wasn't one to be proud of. 

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