The Civil War Connections Blog

The Flags of our Forefathers

Hey there folks, and welcome back to the good ol’ blog. Today’s tidbit about me is: I need a bit over 8 hours of sleep a night, so it’s frustrating that NBC televises the  biggest gold medal victories between 11 and 12. You make it very hard to enjoy the Olympics while staying well-rested, NBC!


As the 2012 Olympics continue to unfold, one can’t help but notice all the flags. Each nation has their own flag to represent them, and for those of us who follow the events online, sometimes the flag is the only icon we see. During the American Civil War, flags were just as important as they are nowadays. Each regiment, ship and battery had its own national flag, which represented not just their country but their ideals and heritage as well. The Union flag did not remove any stars when the southern states seceded, a symbolic gesture that said that those states were still part of the country. Both sides decorated their flags with the names of the battles they’d been in, and many units had a state flag in addition to their national one.

From the 17th VA Co. D Fairfax Rifles website,

L to R: Union flag with battles inscribed, Confederate battle flag with battles inscribed, Virginia state flag.


The thing is, many people think that the Confederate flag shown above was the Confederate national flag. It wasn’t. That flag, famous for representing Confederate military forces in battle, was actually just the Battle Flag. Normally, a nation would just carry its national flag into battle, where it would also serve as a battle flag. The Union’s national flag and battle flag were the same thing, as were the British and French flags. So why didn’t the Confederates just use their national flag as their battle flag? Why go to all that trouble and make a separate battle flag? Well, the answer is because the Confederate national flag looked like this:

Are you sure that’s the Confederate flag? Through powder smoke and from a distance, it kind of looks like the Union flag. Or maybe Texas. From The Mariners’ Museum collection.


Yea. That’s waaay too close to the Union flag to be easily identifiable at long range. During the first big battle of the Civil War, the battle of 1st Bull Run / 1st Manassas, both Union and Confederate forces were confused by the similar designs of the two national flags. After the battle, the Confederate military realized it needed a different, more distinct flag to fly in battle. They looked at some of the possible designs for their national flag that had been rejected, and found a much more distinctive St. Andrew’s cross pattern which they immediately adopted as their battle flag. As for the Confederates national flag, well, it got changed about halfway through the Civil War from that first national design into this:

It’s pretty much a small battle flag in the corner of a giant white field. From The Mariners’ Museum collection.


This second national flag was adopted right before Gettysburg, and would remain as the Confederate’s official flag until right before the war ended. Despite the distinctiveness of the new national flag, the Confederate military continued using the battle flag for most of their units. This was due, in part, for the tendency of the second national flag to look like a white flag of surrender in low wind conditions. The Confederate congress felt the need to change the national flag yet again, so with just a few weeks left before Richmond fell they changed the flag by adding a big vertical red bar to its end, creating the very short lived third national flag. Apparently, they considered making a small cosmetic change to their not-frequently-used flag to be more important than the fact that the war was pretty much lost and their capitol was about to be abandoned. Here’s what they changed it to, even though by this point in the war they may as well not have bothered.

“Our people are starving and Richmond’s about to fall, so lets spend our time adding an awkward red bar to the end of our flag! What a wonderful idea!” – The Confederate congress.


Well, that about does it for today folks. You’ve just seen all the primary flags for the Union and the Confederates. However, there were a lot more flags used in the Civil War: signal flags, modified flags, pennants, banners… the list could go on. Perhaps next time we can explore the other types of flags seen in the Civil War, but until then, have a good one and be sure to get plenty of sleep!