First National flags – The Myth
As stated in this site’s section on the First Confederate National Flag, the flag was adopted on March 4, 1861. After that, once the design had been spread across the South by newspapers and the telegraph, military units began receiving these flags as unit colors, from company to regimental levels. Often emblazoned with patriotic slogans, colorful unit names or pictures depicting scenes designed to reinforce the connection between the soldiers and their homes, these colors would be issued starting in March and going on into early 1863 in some places for Confederate units. Their actual combat use would last even longer.
Combat use in the Eastern Theater
The Continued Use of the 1st National Flag in Combat in the Eastern Theater
A Matter of Supply
Part of this had to do with the production capacity of the various quartermaster depots as well as the proper materials coming through the blockade for making distinctive battle flags. The vast majority of these battle flags, like those of the Army of Northern Virginia for example, were made from English wool bunting, which was not available in America. The cloth was only made in England and had to come through the blockade to the various quartermaster depots from which new flags were then made.
As such, many units were forced to use their First National flags well into the war.
The other part is that the troops seemed to love their Stars and Bars battle colors. While one can find newspaper editorials railing against the First National flag by early 1862 for looking too much like the flag of the United States (which it was intended to do), you will have to dig very, very deep to find similar comments from the troops in the field. These flags were often the first unit colors the various units received, often from the hands of their wives or sweethearts. Other examples were made by the ladies of their towns or counties, and thus, these colors were a silken steel bond between the men in the field and the folks they were defending back home. They would see their friends and family members fall in battle under its folds, thus consecrating the flags ever more.
In no way would the troops say anything bad about these flags! They simply looked at them as the colors of their nation, their homes and themselves. These were their battle flags, despite the protestations of the press and some politicians.
After the battles of 1861, documented examples of these flags can be found on the 1862 battlefields of the Valley of Virginia in “Stonewall” Jackson’s army. Others can be found in the Seven Days Campaign a couple months later. Well into the Fall of 1862, numerous examples of Confederate regiments and battalions can be found carrying their Stars and Bars colors. Many of these examples come from the fact that Federal units captured these flags during these battles (as well as other types of battle flags).
In February, 1863, the firm of Hayden & Whilden in Charleston, made some First National flags for several South Carolina regiments. One of these examples is in a private collection today. These flags would not start getting replaced by the ANV-type battle flag of the Charleston Depot until April of the same year.
Prior to the Gettysburg Campaign of late June/early July 1863, two divisions of Lee’s Army Of Northern Virginia received new ANV battle flags from the Richmond Depot (another received their ANV flags prior to Chancellorsville). A fourth division was scheduled to receive a full set of ANV flags before marching off to Pennsylvania, but a bunting shortage at the Richmond Depot prevented these flags from being made.
As such, Edward Johnson’s Division would fight at Gettysburg under some ANV flags (one brigade had received a set some time earlier), while the bulk of the units used mostly First National flags (there were a few ANV cotton flags as well in this command). One example of a First National from this division was captured on Culp’s Hill by the 60th New York Infantry. The 1st Maryland Battalion carried both their Stars and Bars flag as well as a state flag into their attack on Culp’s Hill on July 2nd. Johnson’s Division would start receiving their ANV colors in late August once they were back in Virginia.
The headquarters flags of the Army of Northern Virginia at this time were depicted in the film “Gettysburg” as being mostly Second Nationals. However, due to the lack of bunting from the depot, this was not the case in reality. Robert E. Lee’s own headquarters flag was a First National as were the bulk of the headquarters flags from corps level down. The army would not start receiving Second National HQ flags until the Fall of 1863.
However, it must be pointed out that, once the battle flag is generally distributed (October-December 1862) and the divisional issues begin, use of the Stars and Bars is restricted to those units that arrive in the east and fail to receive a battle flag (The 2nd Georgia Battalion, of Brig. General Ambrose Wright’s brigade, lost their First National flag to the Federals while assaulting Seminary Ridge on July 2nd, where their brigade broke the Federal center before being forced out) or to those units who had not received the divisional issues (Edward Johnson’s Division). However, once the divisional issues are completed in September-October, 1863, there is virtually no use of the 1st national until the Appomattox Campaign.
As the war gound to its conclusion, some First National Flags again began to appear. Then the usage seems to be by virtue of necessity by those units whose 1863 flags had been worn out during the Petersburg Campaign or by those unit who lost their battle flags during the campaign and had to press older flags into use. During the siege of Petersburg in 1865, the 7th Tennessee Infantry lost their Stars and Bars battle flag to the 61st Pennsylvania Infantry. One example was lost at Sayler’s Creek on the retreat to Appomattox from Petersburg. Two examples of First Nationals captured in this April 6, 1865 engagement include the flag of the 44th Tennessee Infantry, with the slogan “Death To Invaders” on the white bar, and the Sumter Flying Artillery of Georgia.
Continued Use of the 1st National Flag in the Western Theater
A Matter of Neglect
First Nationals were used at Perryville in October of that year and captured at Murfreesboro, Tennessee in late 1862/early 1863. The flag of the 8th Tennessee Infantry is a prime example. Their silk First National was issued to the regiment in October, 1861, and was carried into Kentucky seeing action at Perryville (the flag was decorated with a crossed cannon “battle honor” and engagement name after that battle), and then lost to an Ohio unit at Murfreesboro.
Also at the Battle of Murfreesboro, the 26th Tennessee lost their Stars and Bars flag to a Pennsylvania regiment. The 18th Tennessee carried a unique First National (issued to replace the flag surrendered at Ft. Donelson). Instead of stars in the canton, there could be found twelve chain links forged into a circle. Their color guard was decimated defending this flag. The 20th Tennessee Infantry received a specially designed battle flag after the Battle Of Murfreesboro in early 1863 according to a period newspaper account. This flag, issued to replace their First National battle flag that had been adorned with battle honors and the slogan “Omnipotence Reignth”, was made from the dress of Mrs. John C. Breckinridge.
The First National flag of Semple’s Alabama Battery of Cleburne’s Division was captured in the brilliant rear guard action fought at Ringgold Gap in North Georgia after the debacle of Missionary Ridge in late November 1863 by the 149th New York Infantry. Another First National, possibly belonging to a Mississippi regiment, was lost on top of Missionary Ridge as the Army of Tennessee collapsed and retreated into North Georgia.
The field armies between the Mississippi and the Appalachians seem to have packed away their 1st national flags by early 1864, although, as in Virginia, the old Stars and Bars would be pressed into service again by some units as their battle flags were worn out or captured.
One First National, identified as possibly being an Alabama regimental color, was lost to the Federals at Resaca, Georgia in May, 1864, in the opening stages of the Atlanta Campaign. This happened despite the equipping of the Army of Tennessee by new rectangular ANV style battle flags from either the Atlanta Depot earlier that year or from the stocks of the Army of Mississippi who had come over from Alabama to reinforce them. The latter command carried mostly the 12 star rectangular ANV style flags made in Mobile. An artillery battery of the former army lost their First National flag at the Battle of Nashville in December, 1864.
While the various infantry corps of the Army of the Mississippi/Army of Tennessee adopted distinctive battle flags in an attempt to solve the battlefield confusion problem like their Eastern cousins, the cavalry commands of the West did not do so until late 1863 and on into 1864. The flags they carried into their raids and engagements prior to that were mostly First Nationals.
The famous regiments of Nathan Bedford Forrest and “Fighting” Joe Wheeler fought under the Stars and Bars for more than half of their careers. The flags lost by these commands in battle in 1862 and up to mid-1863 were mainly First Nationals. Company B, Hill’s Cavalry of the 7th Tennessee Cavalry Regiment lost their silk First National guidon in March, 1862 near Union City, Tennessee. The 3rd Georgia Cavalry lost their First National flag in September, 1862 to an Indiana cavalry regiment while raiding in Kentucky.
Not until October, 1863 would a Western cavalry command start adopting a uniform battle flag made for that purpose. William “Red” Jackson’s Division was the first to receive these rectangular, 12 star, Mobile made battle flags. Most of the commands would not get distinctive, uniform battle flags until early 1864. Wheeler’s troopers received Atlanta Depot colors at that time while Forrest’s corps would not get their 12 star Mobile-made flags until the summer.
In December, 1864, as Federal forces under Gen. William T. Sherman closed upon the coastal city of Savannah, one of the local forts remained defiant in the face of massive Federal strength. The small garrison at Ft. McAllister, which guarded the river approaches to the city some distance to the south, still flew a large First National garrison flag. This banner was captured after the fort was overwhelmed.
The last battle fought in Georgia was on April 25, 1865 at Culloden. There, the Georgia Militia command known as the Worrill Grays, lost their First National battle flag to troops of the 17th Indiana Mounted Infantry. Where Porterfield’s Virginia Command may have lost the first Stars and Bars battle flag of the war at Phillippi in 1861, the Worrill Grays may have lost the last one – thus ending the reign of this banner in combat.
Combat use in the Mississippi Valley
and the Trans-Mississippi
Some of the earliest First Nationals being captured in this theater can be found in Kansas and Missouri. In 1861 several flags of this pattern were taken by Federal troops on both sides of the state line – some bearing 15 stars.
Examples of First Nationals can be found at Elkhorn Tavern (also called Pea Ridge) in Arkansas. This battle, fought on March 7, 1862, yields another of the earliest Trans-Mississippi Theater losses of a First National flag. The 37th Illinois Infantry captured the colors from a unit in an Arkansas brigade. The white bar bore the name “Jeff Davis” as its slogan.
In April, 1862, at Locust Grove in the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), the First National flag of Stand Watie’s 1st Cherokee Mounted Rifles was captured as they were driven from the field by the Federals.
In January, 1863, the Federal army of Gen. John McClernand forced the surrender of Fort Hindman, better known as Arkansas Post. First National flags were captured from several Texas units who were part of the garrison. In April, at the Battle of Irish Bend in Louisiana, the silk Stars and Bars of the St. Mary’s (Louisiana) Cannoniers were captured by the 13th Connecticut Infantry.
The Stars and Bars of the 31st Alabama Infantry, with the slogan “God And Our Native Land” and also marked with a Latin Cross and the regimental designation, was captured at Champion’s Hill, Mississippi during the Vicksburg Campaign by the 17th Iowa Infantry. Another First National, with the slogan “In God We Trust” and bearing twelve 6 pointed stars, was also captured by an Iowa regiment while defending the Big Black River bridgehead after the above engagement.
As evidenced by the captured flags of the Vicksburg garrison, four types of Confederate flags were used by the troops defending that crucial city. Most of these were First Nationals however.
Into the next year, the First National could still be found flying over some Confederate Army units. Holmes’ Crescent City Battery lost their First National flag at Woodville, Mississippi in October, 1864 to a Wisconsin cavalry regiment.
In late 1863, Second National flags begin showing up in this theater to replace the Stars and Bars in garrisons, military posts and cities, as well as in some combat units. Prior to that, some examples of distinctive battle flags were created for certain units defending this theater, but they were mostly on brigade or divisional level. Not until 1864 would a larger command try to standardize their battle flags. Until that time and beyond, the venerable Stars and Bars would serve as the rallying point for many Confederate units.
Yet it is amazing that this Confederate flag pattern does not get the respect it deserves from many Southern heritage groups. If any Confederate flag pattern deserves respect, it is the Stars and Bars. It was the South’s first political flag and it announced to the world a new nation, both on the land and on the high seas. It was the South’s first mass use battle flag, and Confederate troops fought and bled under its red and white bars on many fields – from 1861 to 1865 – right to the very end of the war.
This flag has earned that respect in every way.
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The music on this page is The Confederate Flag, an ode to the “Stars & Bars” written by Mrs. C. D. Elder of New Orleans, music by Sig. G. George, and published in 1861. The midi file Copyright ©1998-2000 by Benjamin Robert Tubb of PDMusic (All Rights Reserved), is used on the FOTC site by permission.
The lyrics can be found at http://www.pdmusic.org/civilwar2/61tcf.txt