Jeff Bridgman Antique Flags

Why should I add a Confederate flag to my collection?
September 2007, Journal of the Antiques Council | by Jeff Bridgman

When people think of the Confederate flag, different images are formed. Many Caucasian southerners—especially those persons with ancestral connection to a solider—would likely find an object that displays their heritage and southern patriotism. Many desire to own one without any particular affection toward racism, let alone slavery, but rather for the opportunity to hold a relic of the South, to be treasured by someone whose love for all things Southern runs deep in their being.

But why would a Northerner, for example, with no direct connection to the war, want to own such an object? From the perspective of a knowledgeable collector, the reasons are several. One is that the Civil War is one of the most interesting time periods in American history and Civil War period flags serve to record it. Another is that war-period Confederate flags are, collectively, the most valuable of all examples in American flag collecting, often fetching five to six-figure prices. And still another reason is that the many beautiful designs found in period secessionist examples, rival those of early Stars & Stripes, with all manner of interesting folk qualities.

To most Northerners, as well as many southerners, the flag most quickly recognized as representing the Confederacy is the Southern Cross, a.k.a., the flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, sometimes simply known as the Confederate battle flag. This is , unfortunately, the same flag that is sometimes employed today by both racist individuals and hate groups.

To many advanced collectors of American flags, however, Southern Cross flags are prized possessions with important history. They are often displayed along side Union examples, in an attempt to capture the struggle between North and South, as well as to show rare stylistic differences. But to both beginners and seasoned collectors alike, the decision to hang a Southern Cross flag in your home or business might seem like a bad idea, sending an incorrect and unintentional message. Luckily, to those who wish to collect Confederate examples, there is a clear alternative that may not send the same harsh signal.

Flag enthusiasts know that there are four basic styles of Confederate flags, three of which served as the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd national flags of the Confederate States of America. None of these are the Southern Cross, and though two of the designs incorporate it, one does not.

Also known as the “Stars & Bars”, the 1st Confederate national flag looked much like the Stars & Stripes. It had white stars on a blue canton, generally between 7 and 11 in number, to represent the count of states that had officially seceded from the Union. Instead of 13 red and white stripes, it had only 3 (red, white, red), which, on this occassion, are called “bars”.

Both Southerners and Northerners alike often incorrectly assume that the name “Stars & Bars” refers to the two diagonally opposing bars of the Sothern Cross, with its contingent of 13 stars. This is a common misconception. In fact, since the Stars & Bars design isn’t taught to most school children, I find that even Southerners don’t recognize it, unless they are particularly well-schooled in Civil War history.

So if the Southern Cross wasn't a national flag of the Confederacy, what was it?

The flag actually served as the Confederate navy jack in rectangular form, flown on Confederate Navy ships. It also served some land forces as their battle flag, usually with square proportions. The most notable among these were the regiments under the command of General Robert E. Lee, in the Army of Northern Virginia. This is why the design is often termed "the flag of the Army of Northern Virginia", though that was far from its only use.

Most regiments instead carried versions of the Stars & Bars as both their battle flag and flank guidons (marker flags). Because of the similarity between the Stars & Bars and the Stars & Stripes, however, one can imagine why confusion might set in on a smoke-filled battle field, or how either one might be misidentified in the fog or heavy rain. This is the primary reason why the national flag of the Confederacy was eventually altered.

The 2nd Confederate national flag exchanged a blue canton with white stars for the Southern Cross, in square format. It also exchanged the red and white bars for a field that was entirely white. This meant that the only color lay in the small canton, which, in turn, meant that it looked way too much like a surrender flag to meet the approval of most soldiers. For this reason, the fly end of the “Stainless Banner”, as was its nickname, was sometimes dipped in blood to better show its purpose. This practice was probably disliked by some southern gentlemen and women, nearly as much as the flag itself was disliked by the men fighting under it. So the 3rd Confederate national flag was created by sewing a vertical red bar at the fly end of the white field, to symbolize and replaced the blood with something more civilized.

To collectors who don’t want to send the wrong signal, the Stars & Bars is a fine choice among the four styles. Casual observers won’t know what it is, while experienced flag collectors or enthusiasts will be impressed to see one. In addition, displaying an example of the Stars & Bars presents an opportunity for a collector to explain its interesting history, if he or she so chooses.

In any event, wartime Confederate flags and post-war, reunion-era flags are not hate banners, which makes them very unlike the flags used in Hitler’s spread of hate, racism, and death. Not only did Nazi flags act as military signals, they also trumpeted Hitler’s master plan and that of the Nazi Party, which was to wipe from the earth those who did not fit the Aryan mold. Confederate flags, in stark contrast, were devised by the Confederate government, during wartime, when need arose to devise signals for the Confederate Army and Navy.

These men were fighting to protect their families, homes, and land, from a national government that didn’t seem to understand them. Slavery was an unfortunate and unforgivable part of that for some men and women, but most didn’t own plantations or slaves. Most were God-fearing people who were not looking to spread hate. That is the key difference in the American South of the nineteenth century and the men of the Third Reich.

I don’t say this to diminish the horrors that slavery brought upon African Americans; Slavery is a stain on our nation that we will never fully shed, and the Civil War helped to end it. But Men like Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis didn’t go to war to protect slavery; they did so to protect the South, their homes and neighbors, after a war broke out that focused mostly on slavery. Some fought for that end, to be sure, but most fought to separate themselves from northern control and to protect their livlihoods and their families. That’s a very different picture than the aggressive spread of hate put forth by Nazi Germany.

For collectors, the Stars & Bars comes in all manners of variation, not only in its star configuration, which can be linear, circular, in crescent forms or other designs, but also in the number of stars. The initial wave of secession bore a total of 7 states. This number increased to 11 soon afterward, but there are flags with 8, 9, and 10 stars, to reflect each state that was added in-between. There were also as many as five border states, generally sympathetic to the southern cause and which sent regiments to fight for the Confederacy. These states are sometimes reflected in the stars of Confederate flags. In addition, some Native American tribes aligned themselves with the South for political reasons, often supplying guides and scouts. Additional stars are actually present on a few known flags, to show of respect for their involvement.

Sometimes Southerners experimented with their own designs. Many were hesitant to completely abandon the Stars & Stripes, which had, of course, been their flag since June 14th of 1777, paid for with the same blood and tears that Northerners shed in the struggle for independence. So some flags were made with a star count particular to secession, such as 7 stars for the initial wave of 7 states, but with 13 stripes instead of 3 bars, or with the stripe count lowered from 13 to 7. These are some of the many ways that Southerners represented secession in prototypes or otherwise patriotic versions of Confederate colors.

A particularly notable example was the marriage between the Texas flag and the Confederate 1st national flag. Since the flag of Texas looked quite like the Stars & Bars, with one big star on a blue canton, spanning the entire hoist end, followed by two bars (red over white), some Texans married the two designs to personalize their combined meaning.

Like most types of Confederate and Union flags, Confederate 1st national flags varied in their manner of construction, including the weave and color of fabric employed, the presence of company designations or battle honors (rare outside institutions), and the presence of slogans. In fact, the Stars & Bars can vary as much or more as Stars & Stripes of the same period, because any number of private and commercial makers were producing them and they were doing so in a part of the country where there was a noted lack of financial resources, more significant shortages of supplies, poorer communication, and a greater lack of organization. For all of these reasons, Confederate flags used for military purpose are even more variable than the Stars & Stripes of the North.

Just like Union flags, those of the South vary greatly in both size and proportion. Among homemade flags, Confederate women were particularly known for the making of Bible flags, which they sewed for loved ones as gifts when they went away to war. Usually between four and twelve inches in length, these little flags could fit into Bibles (folded if necessary) to serve as both keepsake and bookmark. Typically hand-sewn from dress silk and ribbon, and usually found in Stars & Bars format, Bible flags offer an interesting window into the personal relationships between soldiers, their wives and mothers. Easily displayed, due to their small size, they also offer an opportunity for collectors to own some of the most unique of all Civil War flags made above or below the Mason-Dixon.

When deciding whether or not to add a flag of Southern persuasion to your collection, the point to remember is that both Confederate and Union flags now serve to record what happened; where men fought, how and where they lost their lives and, on occasion, their beloved banners. Slavery was a horrible mistake of many civilizations. America overcame it, and the textiles of the War Between the States survive to tell us how.

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