The First National Flag of the Confederacy
or Stars and Bars

When Jefferson Davis was sworn into office as the President of the provisional government of the new Confederate States of America on 18 February 1861 in Montgomery, Alabama, the flag that floated over the scene was that of the state of Alabama. The states which had so recently left the almost hundred-year old United States to form their own government had no flag to represent their new nation.

The first flag used to represent the seceding southern states as a whole had a blue field with a single white five-pointed star in its center. This flag was first displayed during the Convention of the People in Mississippi, 9 January 1861, as the flag of the Republic of Mississippi, which had been in existence for only one month. The flag was described in a widely popular song, The Bonnie Blue Flag, which was written by Harry Macarthy and first sung in New Orleans a short time later. Texans en route to join the Army of Northern Virginia sang the song in that city in September 1861. Although this design was used by several southern states and became a southern symbol, it was never officially adopted by the Confederacy as a whole.

Some military units also carried this flag; one was carried by the 8th Texas Cavalry with its unit designation "Terry’s Texas Rangers" in yellow above the star.

On 9 February the new country’s Provisional Congress appointed six of their members to a committee to select a new flag from among the dozens of proposals which had been submitted to the Congress. In less than a month, in early March, the committee had four proposed sample flags hung on the walls of Congress.

According to the final report of the committee to Congress, the search was a difficult one. The committee, they wrote, had ‘given this subject due consideration, and carefully inspected all the designs and models submitted to them. The number of these has been immense, but they all may be divided into two great classes.

FIRST: Those which copy and preserve the principal features of the United States flag, with slight and unimportant modifications.

SECOND: Those which are very elaborate, complicated, or fantastical. The objection to the first class is, that none of them at any considerable distance could readily be distinguished from the one which-they imitate. Whatever attachment may be felt from association for the "Stars and Stripes" (an attachment which your committee may be permitted to say they do not all share), it is manifest that in inaugurating a new government we can not with any propriety, or without encountering very obvious practical difficulties, retain the flag of the Government from which we have withdrawn. There is no propriety in retaining the ensign of a government which, in the opinion of the States comprising this Confederacy, had become so oppressive and injurious to their interests as to require their separation from it. It is idle to talk of "keeping" the flag of the United States when we have voluntarily seceded from them. It is superfluous to dwell upon the practical difficulties which would flow from the fact of two distinct and probably hostile governments, both employing the same or very similar flags. It would be a political and military solecism. It would lead to perpetual disputes. As to "the glories of the old flag," we must bear in mind that the battles of the Revolution, about which our fondest and proudest memories cluster, were not fought beneath its folds. And although in more recent times-in the war of 1812 and in the war with Mexico-the South did win her fair share of glory, and shed her full measure of blood under its guidance and in its defense, we think the impartial page of history will preserve and commemorate the fact more imperishably than a mere piece of stripped bunting.

The Committee, in examining the representation of the flags of all countries, found that Liberia and the Sandwich Islands had flags so similar to that of the United States that it seemed to them an additional, if not itself a conclusive, reason why we should not "keep," copy, or imitate it…. It must be admitted, however, that something was conceded by the committee to what seemed so strong and earnest a desire to retain at least a suggestion of the old "Stars and Stripes." So much for the mass of models and designs more or less copied from, or assimilated to, the United States flag.

With reference to the second class of designs those of an elaborate and complicated character (but many of them showing considerable artistic skill and taste)-the committee will merely remark, that however pretty they may be, when made by the cunning skill of a fair lady’s fingers in silk, satin, and embroidery, they are not appropriate as flags. A flag should be simple, readily made, and above all, capable of being made of bunting. It should be different from the flag of any other country, place or people. It should be significant. It should be readily distinguishable at a distance. The colors should be well contrasted and durable, and, lastly and not the least important point, it should be effective and handsome.

The committee humbly think that the flag which they submit combines these requisites. It is very easy to make. It is entirely different from any national flag. The three colors of which it is composed – red, white, and blue-are the true republican colors. In heraldry they are emblematic of the three great virtues-of valor, purity, and truth. Naval men assure us that it can be recognized and distinguished at a great distance. The colors contrast admirably and are lasting. In effect and appearance it must speak for itself.

The first hung on the chamber’s walls, although not the committee’s final choice, eventually became the symbol of the Confederacy as the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia as well as other Confederate military organizations. It featured a blue St. Andrew’s Cross, or ‘saltire’ (or "saltive" – the former is the older spelling), edged or "fimbrated" in white, on a red field, with a white star representing each state on the saltire. It had been designed by Congressman W. Porcher Miles of South Carolina, the committee chairman.

The second flag was a close copy of the US "stars and stripes" national flag, save that the stripes were made of red and blue, while the canton or ‘union’ remained blue with a white star for each state.

The third rectangular flag was described as "a red field with a blue ring or circle in the center."

The fourth flag was that which was finally chosen and is now known as the "First National Flag" of the Confederacy. On 4 March, after giving members a chance to examine the four leading candidates, the committee recommended in its final report ‘that the flag of the Confederate States of America shall consist of a red field with a white space extending horizontally through the center and equal in width to one third of the width of the flag, and red spaces above and below to the same width as the white, the union blue extending down through the white space and stopping at the lower red space, in the center of the union a circle of white stars corresponding in number with the States of the Confederacy.

Two men claimed to have designed this flag. The first was Nicola Marschall, a Prussian artist living in Montgomery, Alabama, who also claimed credit for the Confederate Army uniform design. He said that he took the basic form from the Austrian flag which had three horizontal stripes, the top and bottom one of red and the middle one of white. The letter suggesting this design was dated 2 March 1861 and would seem to back his claim. Marschall offered several variations of the canton placement, having it in the center of the white stripe or against the hoist on the white stripe as well as in the traditional union location.

The other person who claimed to have designed the flag was Orren R. Smith, a North Carolinian. His design, he said, came from the Trinity, with the three bars standing for the state with its judiciary, legislative, and executive branches; the church; and the press. They were bound by the blue canton, with the stars in a circle signifying mutual defense.

In 1915 the United Confederate Veterans accepted Smith’s claim, although in 1931 the Alabama Department of Archives and History produced a study done by the state legislature which accepted Marschall’s claim. In fact, both men probably offered similar designs virtually simultaneously, since the fairly plain design was quite similar to that of the United States. Indeed, as seen, the committee noted in its final report that "the mass of models and designs" for flags it received were "more or less copied from or assimilated to, the United States flag".

At any rate, in a hurry to get a flag approved in time for a scheduled flag raising on 4 March, the date United States President Abraham Lincoln was to be sworn into office, Congress approved the committee’s findings, taking its report into the Congressional journal with language unchanged. The result was that the so-called First National Flag was never officially adopted as the flag of the Confederacy by a full Congressional vote in a formal ‘flag act’ or bill. Nevertheless, for fully two years this flag was the one flown over official buildings and by many military units in the field. Indeed, since generally each Confederate regiment or independent battalion or squadron carried only one color, although it was usually referred to as ‘colors’, the First National Flag was the only color carried by such organizations as e.g. Georgia’s Cobb’s Legion.

In one respect the committee’s language was rather vague: it included no proportions of the height on the hoist, or staff, to the length of the fly. Each maker was free to produce a flag of this design that best matched his or her aesthetic tastes. A study of Confederate flags produced by H. Michael Madaus and Robert D. Needham shows that almost a third (30 per cent) of surviving First National Flags are proportioned 2:3 (hoist:fly). However, 21 per cent of these flags have proportions Of 3:5, 13 per cent have proportions Of 5:9, and some ten per cent each have proportions Of 1:2 and 3:4. First National Flags produced west of the Mississippi River appear slightly more than the average proportioned 1:2, a proportion not at all common in English flags.

Equally, although officially the blue canton was to bear a circle of equally sized stars, in fact First National Flags came with a variety of designs, especially as additional states joined the Confederacy. By the third week of May Virginia and Arkansas added two more stars to the original seven. As Of 2 July the canton had 11 stars, following the admission of North Carolina and Tennessee to the Confederacy. Missouri’s addition on 28 November gave the flag 12 stars, while the final number Of 13 was reached on 10 December with Kentucky’s joining the Southern states (even though neither the Missouri nor Kentucky state legislatures formally voted for secession, both were considered by the Confederate Government considered them the 12th and 13th states to enter the Confederacy).

The style of star, i.e. the number of rays, was not spelled out by Congress; however, the five-pointed star as used in the United States flag was the most common style used.

In many cases a single star, often larger than the others, was placed in the center of the circle to represent the local state. This violated the original concept of having each star the same size to indicate the equality of the states in the Confederacy.

Many flags, especially those used by Texas units from the "Lone Star State", had but one star in the canton. Flags with one star in the canton were carried by e.g. the 25th Virginia Infantry (which also had the state name painted in gold Roman letters around the white star); and Co. E, 6th North Carolina Infantry Regiment State Troops, which had its gold star within a gold laurel wreath and the gold Roman words "IN GOD WE TRUST/VICTORY OR DEATH" above and below the star and wreath.

Some stars were placed in an apparently random design; some in rows as in the United States flag; some stars were formed into either a Greek or a St. Andrew’s Cross; and some stars were placed in an arch, the ‘Arch of the Covenant’ which was symbolic of the Bread of Life, the symbol of spiritual nourishment. The latter design was used on Robert E. Lee’s personal headquarters flag.

State seals were often painted onto the canton instead of sewn stars. Co. E, 1st Georgia Infantry Regiment, for example, carried a First National Flag measuring 42 inches on the hoist and 66 inches on the fly with the Georgia state seal painted on the blue canton on the obverse side, and on the reverse seven white stars in a circle with a red scroll above and another below with the gold block words ‘WE YIELD NOT TO/OUR COUNTRY’S FOES’ on the scrolls. Co. E, 1st Maryland Cavalry Regiment had the Maryland state seal painted on the canton of their First National Flag, which is 27 inches on the hoist and 46 inches on the fly.

Materials also varied according to maker. Silk was the preferred material, and many First National Flags made by hometown ladies were of this fabric. The standard carried by Co. K, 3rd Texas Cavalry at Oak Hills, Missouri, and Pea Ridge, Arkansas, was made entirely of silk by the ladies of the company’s home town. However, when the women of Tyler, Texas, made a First National Flag for Co. D, I 5th Texas Infantry, they used cotton on the white bar and stars as well as the canton, but a wool/cotton mixture for the red bars. A First National Flag captured at Pea Ridge from an Arkansas brigade was entirely made of wool flannel, with the words "JEFF.DAVIS" worked in black velvet Roman uncial letters on its obverse.

One of the strangest First National Flags still in existence is that used from time to time by the 43rd Battalion of Virginia Cavalry, Mosby’s Rangers. The unit carried out guerrilla warfare behind Union lines in Northern Virginia, and therefore rarely carried its standard into action. However, the flag, which measures 51 inches on the hoist by 114 inches on the fly, was used at Mosby’s headquarters. According to a veteran some years after the war: "Bunting was a scarcity in those days, and the blue field of this flag had been cut from the blouse [fatigue coat] of a Union soldier; the red stripes are of a fair quality bunting, while the white stripe is of unbleached cotton."

There was also no regulation finial, cords, or stave size or color. In practice, most units used brass or gilt spear point or halberd finials; eagles left over from before the war and captured with US Army colors were also used. Staves were left their natural wood color. Cords rarely appeared with Confederate colors.

Military versions of the First National Flag also often had the unit designation painted or sewn on the white middle stripe.
Source: "Flags of the American Civil War, 1: Confederate" By Philip Katcher & Rick Scollins

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