Very Brief & Basic Flag History
Although the Stars and Stripes of today is loved and admired by millions of Americans as an icon and flag of “national pride,” its role, meaning, and use is much more different today than it was during the time of the American Civil War.
Flags of the Civil War era were held at very high esteem, respected and were one of the most sacred and important items of Civil War soldiers. The armies on both sides would carry these banners of glory onto the battlefield in a way that had never quite been seen before or since. These simple cloths on a pole were the one true item in each fighting unit of the armies that gave the unit its identity, direction, honor, devotion and determination in battle.
These flags were so important to these soldiers not merely from a patriotic sense, but also from a functional point as well. Flags gave the individual units their identity and spirit.
To put it in simple terms, basically each individual army regiment, regardless of side, was about 1,000 soldiers at full strength. Each of these regiments was authorized to carry two primary flags, some would however carry more such as a state-related flag as well.
For the Union, the regiment would have carried a national flag (Stars and Stripes) and a regimental flag. The regimental flag would have been unique and designed and marked for that individual regiment. Most Union regimental flags had the Union Coat of Arms on it (The Eagle and Shield), but they also had their regimental identification on it such as the 31st Missouri Infantry. Many of these Union flags were made of fine material such as silk and were ornately designed by professional manufacturers such as Tiffany in New York. Units also carried smaller “camp flags,” flank markers, guide flags, signal flags, guidons, etc. but in the scope of the primary flags, the smaller flags are another story in themselves. Some of these can be viewed in the unit photo at the top of this page.
For the Confederates, they too usually carried two primary flags per regiment. They would have carried their national flag (Stars and Bars or the other variations that followed) as well as what they called a “battle flag.” Battle flags and regimental flags are basically the same thing. The Confederate flags were made by some professional manufacturers but they also had a large percentage that were handmade by townspeople or the community’s ladies and daughters. These flags usually were made of materials such as cotton and wool and not the finer materials such as silk. Their battle flags (regimental flags) were limitless in design and showed motifs of states rights, liberty, religious symbols like crosses, full moons, crescent moons, letters and many other icons and symbols. The popular “Confederate battle flag” many today associate with the South and the Confederacy is truly known as the St. Andrews Cross flag. This sometimes red or (crimson) colored flag bearing a blue X bordered in white with 13 white stars is the most popular “Confederate flag” we think of today. However, these St. Andrews flags also came in a host of different sizes and colors as well including blue.
Flags, the Highly Sought After Prize
Flags in the American Civil War were the “premier trophy” of an opposing force. Capturing the enemy’s colors in battle was a symbolic and rewarding feat for the soldiers. However, capturing these banners usually meant a fight to the death. Color bearers and their guards knew and realized the importance of the instruments that they were entrusted with by their comrades to protect and they rarely surrendered them without a vicious fight. Soldiers of the Civil War would kill for the capture of these flags and likewise they would fight to the death in order to protect them. Therefore it is not surprising to know that more soldiers in the Union Army would receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for actions regarding the flag than for any other reason. In fact, the very first officer to die in the Civil War was Union Colonel Elmer Ellsworth who was shot and killed for taking down a Confederate flag from an inn in Alexandria, Virginia on May 24, 1861. In response, one of Ellsworth’s men, Corporal Francis Brownell (who is buried in St. Louis, Missouri) immediately killed the innkeeper who shot Colonel Ellsworth. Corporal Brownell received the Medal of Honor for his actions that day.
Civil War Army Version of the Medal of Honor
Addition of New Stars
An interesting traditional note about the Stars and Stripes, whenever a new state comes into the Union not only does the Nation’s flag receive a new additional star but the star cannot be placed onto the new flag until the next July 4th. This is why although Kansas had already been admitted into the Union as the 34th state in January 1861, there was only a 33 star Stars and Stripes flag flying at Fort Sumter when Confederate forces attacked it in April 1861, thus starting the American Civil War.
In addition, this is also the case when Nevada is admitted into the Union on October 31, 1864 (six months before the Civil War is concluding) and still in the first part of 1865 there are only 35 star Stars and Stripes flying. It is because Nevada had to wait until July 4, 1865 to get her star on the nation’s flag therefore the 36 star Stars and Stripes flag did not see action during the Civil War.
Various Flag Designs
There were many different flag manufacturers and maker in the North during the Civil War and the flag patterns varied greatly. At the time of the Civil War, only the flag’s colors, stripes and blue canton were regulated and established in design. The exact star figuration had not been established so the pattern or alignment of the stars in the blue canton (blue box) was left up to the individual flag maker. This is why you see different star patterns and alignments in many Civil War flags.
Medals of Honor
Flags were so important to Civil War soldiers that they would guard and protect them with their own lives. One of the most honored positions and duties that could be bestowed upon a soldier by his commanders and comrades was to carry their unit’s colors in battle. More Union soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor for actions regarding flags than for any other reason. Defending and/or capturing flags on the battlefield were the primary reasons soldiers received these medals. There are numerous accounts of dead soldiers being found on the battlefields with flags hidden under their clothing where they struggled to protect them even to the bitter end. The Medal of Honor was first established during the American Civil War and it was originally thought to be only for Union soldiers of that war. It was later expanded to cover all later wars and conflicts as well.
The Primary Function and Use of National & Regimental Flags
As mentioned before, the most trusted and honorable position soldiers could be given was to be in their unit’s color guard. It was a duty that these brave soldiers took seriously because not only did they realize that their unit was depending on them to care for and protect their most sacred items, but these soldiers also realized that once they accepted the position as a color bearer that they were most likely volunteering to sacrifice their own life when the battle erupted.
The colors were always out in front of the units when the battle lines were drawn. During the Civil War, there were really only three modes of communication once the battle started. The first mode of communication was through the vocal commands of the officers and non-commissioned officers. Vocal commands worked fine until the deafening noise of cannons, muskets and horses took over and then vocal commands were useless.
The second mode of communication on a Civil War battlefield was through musical instruments such as bugles and drums. These also worked fine and were even louder than voice commands, however once the battle lines were staged and the engagement was imminent, the drummers (usually young boys) would be sent to the rear lines to take care of the horses and to help with the wounded that were soon to follow.
The third primary means of communication with soldiers in combat was through the use of the flags. Although there were many different types of flags for different purposes, combat soldiers would follow their national and regimental colors into battle. Due to the loud noise and dense smoke that filled the air, the flags were really the only things somewhat visible to the individual soldiers on the ground. Where their colors went, the soldiers themselves would follow and if the colors stopped, the unit itself would then pause as well.
This is why these flags were the primary targets of enemy sharpshooters and infantrymen. The enemy knew that if they could stop the flags, they could temporarily stop the advancing army units. They also knew that once the advancing army paused or stopped, they would have a greater chance of repulsing the advance or destroying the unit with an increase of firepower and shooting at stationary targets.
Even though all Civil War infantrymen knew the risks associated with carrying the colors, there never was a shortage of men who wanted to carry these glorious banners. These flags meant everything to them and one can easily argue that the men who carried them were some of the bravest, if not the bravest and devoted men of the war. To go into combat armed with weapons to defend yourself in one thing, going into combat at the front of the line carrying nothing but a flag is something else, especially knowing that you are the primary target. To put it simply, the men who carried these flags out in front of their units knew that they would most likely be one of the first to die in the battle.
Battle Honors and Writing on the Flags
When observing Civil War flags in old pictures or on display at museums, one can observe that many of these flags have names of locations and battles written or painted on them. These markings are known as “battle honors” or “battle markings.” These markings were placed on the unit’s flags as a proud reminder of the battles that they were in during the war. Union soldiers typically wrote the names of the battles on the red and white striped portions of their national flags. Some units did also place markings on some of their regimental flags but overall most units preferred to mark their national flag. Confederate forces wrote on both, their national flags as well as their unit’s battle flags. Some of the markings were crudely painted or drawn on the flags while others, especially northern flags had them artistically painted on them sometimes in gold, black or red colors. The more writing that was on a unit’s flag showed others of the unit’s veteran status and combat service.
National Flags of the Union
33 Star - Stars and Stripes
(Fort Sumter Flag)
34 Star - Stars and Stripes
(Kansas Admitted January 29, 1861)
35 Star - Stars and Stripes
(West Virginia Admitted June 20. 1863)
36 Star - Stars and Stripes
(Nevada Admitted October. 1864)
(*According to flag tradition, this 36 star flag would not have been authorized or produced until July 4, 1865 when it would have officially received its 36th star and therefore would have not seen action in the Civil War which had ended before the date)
National Flags of the Union
The Bonnie Blue Flag
On January 9, 1861 the Convention of the People of Mississippi adopted an Ordinance of Secession. With the announcement of the ordinance, a large blue flag bearing a single white star was raised over the capitol building in Jackson. One of the witnesses to this event, an Irish born actor named Harry McCarthy, was so inspired by the spectacle that he wrote a song entitled “The Bonnie Blue Flag,” which was destined to be the second most popular patriotic song in the Confederacy
Although it was the most popular flag representing the secession of southern states leaving the Union in late 1860 and early 1861, the Bonnie Blue flag was never officially adopted by the Confederate Government as an official national flag. The Bonnie Blue flag had its early roots dating back some 50 years before the Civil War. It was a simple flag with a simple single star, meaning single unity.
The Bonnie Blue flag was even reported to have been flying in St. Louis shortly after hostilities first broke out in April 1861 and it was observed flying in several other towns throughout Missouri at the start of the war. The Bonnie Blue flag was even reported to have been used on the battlefield several times in Missouri as well in the early part of the war.
The First National Flag of the Confederacy
The 7 star Stars and Bars
The 12 star variation of the Stars and Bars
(The 12th star in the constellation of the amended 1st National flag represents the
State of Missouri which was admitted into the Confederacy November 28, 1861)
The first official flag of the Confederate States of America was the seven-star Stars and Bars flag. It was approved by the Congress of the Provisional Government of the Confederate States and first hoisted over the capitol building in Montgomery, Alabama, on March 4, 1861. Congress did not adopt a formal act codifying this flag, but it is described in the Report of the Committee on Flag and Seal, in the following language:
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 the width of the flag. The red space above and below to be 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 in the Confederacy.
This new flag spread quickly in use across the South, even beyond the borders of the seven States of the Confederate States of America (CSA). The official version was to have the stars in a circle, with the number corresponding to the states actually admitted to the Confederacy. Thus, there would have been 7 stars from 4 March 1861 until 7 May 1861, when Virginia became the 8th Confederate State by Act of Congress. Thereafter, the number of stars continued to increase until Tennessee gained her seat as the 11th State on 2 July 1861. The number remained 11 through the summer, but increased when Missouri and Kentucky were admitted to the CSA by Acts of Congress approved 28 November 1861 and 10 December 1861, respectively. Despite the official pattern and numbers, however, individual examples of the Stars and Bars varied greatly, with numbers of stars ranging from one to 17, and star patterns varying greatly beyond the officially sanctioned circle.
The Stars and Bars flag caused considerable confusion on the battlefields in which it was present during the first part of the Civil War. Due to the confusion on the battlefields caused by noise, lack of standardized colored uniforms and thick clouds of smoke from the weapons, the Stars and Bars and the Stars and Stripes looked identical when they were viewed from a long distance or when they hung limp. This caused numerous cases of friendly fire to occur where Federals fired on approaching Federals and Confederates accidentally fired upon their own as well. This problem was the primary cause of the flag being redesigned for a new one that would not look like the Stars and Stripes flag.
The 2ND National Flag of the Confederacy
(The Stainless Banner)
Adoption of the Second Confederate National Flag
The second flag of the Confederate States of America, commonly known as the "Stainless Banner" was created by an Act of the Congress of the Confederate States (First Congress, Session III, Chapter 88), approved by the President on the 1st day of May 1863. The Flag Act of 1863 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 field to be white, the length double the width of the flag, 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; thereon a broad saltier of blue, bordered with white, and emblazoned with white mullets or five pointed stars, corresponding in number to that of the Confederate States.
The Third National Flag of the Confederacy
The third and final national flag of the Confederate States of America was approved by an Act of the Congress of the Confederate States (Second Congress, Session II) approved by the President on the 4th day of March 1865.
The Flag Act of 1865 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 saltier thereon, 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.
The Confederate Navey Jack 1st Edition
A jack is a small flag flown at the bow of a ship. It is not flown while the ship is at sea, but only when at port, or while entering or leaving a port. The staff from which a jack is flown is often removed when the ship is underway. It is said that this was to keep it clear of the forward field of fire in combat.
The only known surviving jack of this period is the one illustrated above that resembles the one that was on the CSS Atlanta. It has only seven stars, and although on board the Atlanta when it was captured in June 1863, may date to an earlier period. Like the ensign, jacks in use in this period probably could be found with star numbers ranging from seven to 13.
The Confederate Navy Jack Second Edition
By tradition inherited from the Royal Navy, the jack of the US Navy is the union of the ensign. The Confederate Navy carried forward this tradition. Therefore, the 1863 jack was a rectangular version of the battle flag canton of the ensign. The 1863 jack, as a result, is similar in design to the battle flag used in the Army of Tennessee from late 1863 to 1865.
The Missouri State Guard Flag and Other “Secession Flags” in Missouri
Authorized Flag of the Pro-Confederate Missouri State Guard Troops
Like Kentucky, the state of Missouri was severely divided on the issue of secession in 1861. Missourians in the slaveholding sections of the state, led by Missouri governor, Claiborne F. Jackson, favored secession, while the German "48'ers" who had settled in St. Louis and the northeastern part of the state detested slavery and opposed secession. As early as February of 1861, secessionists in the Missouri River Valley in the northwestern quarter of the state crossed the river into Nebraska Territory and raised a palmetto flag bearing the motto "Southern Rights" at Old Fort Kearney (the federal encampment on the Missouri occupied from 1848 to 1849, not to be confused with the Fort Kearney on the Platte River). Evidently "secessionist" flags bearing the palmetto tree in honor of South Carolina's departure from the Union in December of 1860 were popular among the secession sympathizers of Missouri in early 1861. Another, captured near Boonville, Missouri on 16 June 1861, had a red bordered white field with a palmetto tree in the center and bore the motto "Constitutional Rights."
Despite the occasional presence of these "secessionist" banners in the state in the first half of 1861, the Missouri militia that Governor Jackson had called into state service favored flags that bore the state's coat-of-arms. One of the flags, that of the "Missouri Guard," seized when the Missouri militia was surrounded and forced to surrender to the federal "home guard" in St. Louis on 10 May bore the state's coat-of-arms enwreathed in oak and laurel, surmounted by the federal eagle and flanked on each side by representations of the United States flags, all on a white field fringed in gold. Another flag of the Missouri militia, that of the "2nd Missouri Militia," which bore the state coat-of-arms on one side and a den of tigers in repose with the motto "Beware" on the other side, was secreted from Camp Jackson by Mary Bowen, who later presented it (with designation appropriately altered) to her husband's regiment of Confederate volunteers, the 1st Missouri Infantry (C.S.).
The pre-war prominence of the state coat-of-arms on the flags of the Missouri militia was reflected in the flag adopted by the Confederate oriented Missouri State Guard shortly after that force began to form in early June of 1861. On 5 June 1861, Major-General Sterling Price, commander of the Missouri State Guard, directed that "Each regiment will adopt the State flag, made of blue merino, 6 by 5 feet, with the Missouri coat-of-arms in gold gilt on each side. Each mounted company will have a guidon, the flag of which will be of white merino, 3 by 2 1/2 feet, with the letters M.S.G. in gilt on each side." No flags conforming to these orders are known to survive. Nevertheless, from the accounts of the engagements fought in Missouri in 1861, it is plainly evident that flags either conforming to this pattern or variations thereof, were in service with the Confederate forces.
Indeed, General Price himself used a flag that was a variant of the state flag. According to one account describing Price's headquarters: "The Missouri State flag waved over the General's headquarters; it is emblematic of our coat of arms, but exhibits a portion of its flag only; though the escutcheon with the bear on each side, rampant and guardant, in heraldic terms, is not represented, and perhaps would not be appropriate, yet the ascending star upon an azure ground [is] there and something else, which is not distinctly visible." Other variations were also in use in the state in 1861.
At Boonville, Missouri on 17 June 1861, one eyewitness account indicated that three of the four flags flown by Missouri State Guard incorporated the state's coat-of-arms. Thomas W. Knox, who accompanied the Union forces, gave a fairly detailed account of the flags, noting that the "flags captured in this affair were excellent illustrations of the policy of the leading Secessionists. There was one Rebel flag with the arms of the State of Missouri filling the field; there was a State flag, with only fifteen stars surrounding the coat-of-arms. There was a Rebel flag, with the State Arms in the centre, and there was one Rebel flag of the regular pattern."
Two weeks later near Carthage, Missouri, Brigadier-General Franz Sigel's "Dutch" U.S. volunteers fought the withdrawing forces of the Missouri State Guard. The Fort Scott Democrat later reported on the engagement and indicated that: "The rebels had three flags, one of the State of Missouri, which was unharmed, and two secession flags, which were twice shot down and raised no more." These may have been the same flags that carried into action by the Missouri State Guard during their successful siege of Carthage, Missouri on 20 September 1861. After the Union garrison of that town surrendered, a correspondent to the Democratic Herald wrote: "At six o'clock P.M., the "stars and stripes" were lowered and the blue flag of the state and the Confederate flags were raised from the College building, and thirty-five hundred Federal soldiers marched out and laid down their arms."
From the evidence presented it is fair to conclude that the Missouri State Guard units that fought in their home state in 1861 seem to have carried a mixture of blue state flags either conforming to the General Orders of the Missouri State Guard, variations thereof, or Confederate 1st national flags, either adorned in part with the Missouri coat-of-arms, or devoid of any Missouri association. In this respect the flags they used paralleled those carried by the forces of the Confederate States government that ventured to join the Missouri State Guard at the battle of Wilson's Creek in August of 1861.
One of the Original Flag Makers for the Missouri State Guard
(Mr. M.M. Flesh of Jefferson City, Missouri)
According to an 1860 Census, Mr. M.M. Flesh was a paperhanger in the Missouri State Capitol. As called for by Governor Claiborne Fox Jackson’s proclamation to the state calling for troops in June of 1861, General Sterling Price enacted regulations for each unit of the “Pro-Confederate” Missouri State Guard to have a blue flag with the state seal on it in gold. Responding accordingly in 1861, Brig. General Harding reported that Flesh painted some 10 of these flags for the units in the command. According the General Harding, Mr. Flesh was never paid for the flags. He further stated that although Mr. Flesh was a loyal man, “he did paint some mighty nice flags for the rebels.” Flesh reportedly relocated to St. Louis sometime after the war.
Flag of the Missouri Guard (State Militia)
Front and reverse sides of flag of Co. G, "Missouri Guard," 1st Regiment Missouri Volunteer Militia. This was the flag captured at Camp Jackson in St. Louis, Missouri on May 10, 1861 by Federal forces under Capt. Nathaniel Lyon. The original flag is in the collection of the Missouri Historical Society in St. Louis. The above flag graphic is generalized for simplicity.
Flag of the 21st Missouri Volunteer Infantry (Union)
Flag of the 21st Missouri Volunteer Infantry (Union). The front with the Missouri state seal contains the names of the following battles: Athens; Shiloh; Corinth; Tupelo; Nashville; Blakely; Mobile. Union regiments that reenlisted for a second tour of duty were referred to as "Veterans" units as an added distinction. The original flag is in the collection of the State of Missouri at Jefferson City. Above graphic is generalized for simplicity.
Flag ordered by Governor Jackson of All Missouri State Guard Troops, 1861
The image of the Missouri State Guard Flag as it was described to look by Governor Jackson in 1861. According to recorded sources there were various versions of this flag used but they were to be of "blue merino with the state seal emblazoned in gold." On some, the flag's background may have been a darker tone of blue, and the exact depiction of the state seal varied. This flag was primarily used before spring of 1862 when Missouri Guard units converted to regular Confederate army service following the secession of the Jackson State government from the Union. No known Missouri State Guard regimental flags such as these are known to have survived to the present day. The Missouri State Guard was commanded in the field by Major Gen. Sterling Price and their Commander-in-Chief was Gov. Claiborne F. Jackson.
Missouri Confederate Battle Flag
The Confederate Battle Flag of Missouri (sometimes referred to as the "Sterling Price Flag"). This flag was sewn by the ladies of New Orleans and presented to the Missouri regiments that were exiled from their native state. Most of these flags were captured after the fall of Vicksburg, Mississippi. An example of a unit that used this type of battle flag was the 1st Missouri Cavalry and the 9th Missouri Sharpshooters CSA.
Flag of the 24th Missouri Volunteer Infantry (Union)
Regimental Flag of the "Lyon Legion," 24th Missouri Volunteer Infantry (Union Army) Note: The original was in the private collection of Dr. Tom and Karen Sweeny at the General Sweeny's Museum near Wilson’s Creek Battlefield near Republic, Missouri.
Regimental Flag of the Missouri Infantry, C.S.A.
Regimental Flag of the 8th Missouri Cavalry (Union Army)
Original flag is in the collection of the Missouri State Museum, Jefferson City, MO
"No Quarter" flag of William Quantrill's band of pro Confederate guerillas
In reality, historical accounts state that Quantrill’s unit usually flew the Stars and Stripes flag when they traveled and wore the uniforms of Union soldiers to deceive and trick pro- Unionists civilians and other Yankee units.
Scott K. Williams