Confederate troops under the command of General G.T. Beauregard fired on Fort Sumter in the harbor at Charleston, South Carolina on 12 April 1861. The fort capitulated the next day, and on 15 April 1861, US president Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to invade the Confederate States.
Two days after Lincoln’s call for volunteers, the Convention of Virginia passed “An Ordinance to repeal the ratification of the Constitution of the United States of America, by the State of Virginia, and to resume all the rights and powers granted under said Constitution.”
Virginia state flag adopted 30 April 1861
by Devereaux D. Cannon, Jr., 05 February 2000
Virginia’s secession was not to be formally completed until ratified by the electorate on the fourth Thursday of May, 1861. Yet the convention set into motion the unification of Virginia with the Confederate States, and adopted other measures which made it plain that they entertained little doubt about the outcome of the May referendum. Among the ordinances passed by the Convention was one adopted on 30 April 1861, entitled:
“Virtus, the genius of the commonwealth, dressed like an Amazon, resting on a spear with one hand, and holding a sword in other, and treading on tyranny, represented by a man prostrate, a crown fallen from his head, a broken chain in his left hand and a scourge in his right. In the exergon the word Virginia over the head of Virtus, and underneath the words “Sic Semper Tyrannis.”
This flag shall be known and respected as the flag of Virginia.
The governor shall regulate the size and dimensions of the flag proper for forts, arsenals and public buildings, for ships of war and merchant marine, for troops in the field, respectively, and for any other purpose, according to his discretion; which regulations shall be published and proclaimed by him as occasion may require.
This ordinance shall take effect from its passage.
Although the governor of Virginia had been authorized to “regulate the size and dimensions” of the various military flags that were to be made under this ordinance, from May through September of 1861, Governor Letcher made few efforts to define the characteristics of the state military flags. Two flags (one for the Richmond Armory and one for the state capitol) were ordered from George Ruskell on 2 May 1861, but for the next four months the providing and defining the state flag was left to individual artists and private contractors. In addition to Ruskell, the firms making state flags for volunteer companies and a few regiments included J.W. Belote of Norfolk, Virginia and possibly Charles A. Delano of Petersburg. Each of these makers usually followed a common size and pattern of their own choosing. Those made by Ruskell incorporated the state coat of arms on a blue field on only one side of the field. The same held true for those made by Belote.
In September of 1861, the governor of Virginia finally assumed the control that the adoptive ordinance had authorized. Seeking a replacement for the Confederate 1st national flag that had proven so confusing in the field at the battle of Manassas, General Joseph E. Johnston requested each of the states to provide state flags for their military units in the field. Only North Carolina and Virginia would respond to this request.
Governor Letcher delegated the responsibility of furnishing the Virginia state flag for the military units of the state to his secretary, George W. Munford. For the materials, Munford turned to the dry goods dealers of Richmond, purchasing dark blue and white merino wool for the flags’ fields from J.B. Ferguson, M. Mittedorfer, M. Rosenbaum, and Thomas Smith, while the white silk fringe was acquired from George Ruskell. Fifty staffs for the earliest flags were made by West & Co., with L.L. Barnes furnishing the brass fittings for the staffs.
To actually make the flags, George Munford turned to his own family, primarily his six daughters, who assembled all the flags made until late 1863. To shield these ladies from the “business world” (or avoid the appearance of nepotism), Munford arranged that the payments for making these flags be channeled through John R. Thompson, who accepted payment “acting for a society of ladies”, and who also provided linen covers for the flags. Thompson received payment for 20 of these on 13 November 1861, 8 more infantry and 4 cavalry flags on 20 December 1861, and an additional 20 infantry and 4 more cavalry flags on 10 April 1862.
In the same period, Hugh P. Keane, a Richmond artist, was paid for actually painting the coat-of-arms on the white central disc of these flags. On 24 December 1861, considerably after the actual delivery of the flags, Keane was paid for decorating 25 of the infantry flags. On 20 March 1862, Keane was paid for 49 infantry and 8 cavalry flags, for a total of 74 infantry and 8 cavalry flags. It is thought that a missing payment to Thompson accounts for the difference between the 74 infantry flags painted by Keane and the 48 infantry flags paid to the Munford sisters. The count for the eight cavalry flags agrees between the two sets of bills.
These 1861 and 1862 infantry state flags generally measured about 4.5 feet on the hoist by 5.25 to 6 feet on the fly, exclusive of the 2″ deep white fringe that only decorated the fly edge of the field. Both sides of the 31″ to 33″ diameter white merino discs inset into the blue field bore a fully colored rendition of the state coat-of-arms, with a red scroll overhead bearing the state name, “VIRGINIA” in white letters and a blue scroll below the arms with the state motto, also in white. The eight cavalry flags measured only 2.25 feet on the staff by 2.5 feet on the fly.
The first flags were presented directly by the governor in impressive ceremonies to the Virginia units at Centreville, Virginia on 30 October 1861. Thereafter, the flags were sent via express to the colonels of the units in the field, or their commanding generals.
Although most of these flags were retired when the battle flag was ordered to supplant all other flags in 1862, in western Virginia the state flag continued in use, either as the main regimental or battalion flag or in conjunction with national flags. With General Breckenridge’s assumption of command of these forces in late 1863, new state flags were ordered. For these flags, the state had imported a large quantity of French merino and silk fringe through Bermuda in mid-1863. As the Munford daughters had apparently ceased their production of flags, the state turned to a new combination of talents. For the manufacture of the flags, Governor Letcher contracted with Rosetta Hunter. On 17 December 1863 Rosetta Hunter was paid for 7 infantry and 4 cavalry flags. It is likely, however, that she made others earlier.
The artist decorating the white central discs of these state flags was John Vanni. The application of the state’s coat-of-arms on the eleven flags made by Ms. Hunter was credited to Vanni on 4 December 1863. However, this was not Vanni’s first work. On 13 November 1863 he had been paid for “painting four regimental flags for State Troops”. On 25 February 1864 he would also be paid for “painting and lettering one state flag for 36th Regt. Va. Vols.” (This flag would be captured at Winchester on 19 September 1864.)
The Hunter-Vanni state flags differ considerably in size, with the hoist varying from 4.25 feet to 5 feet and the fly dimensions varying from 6 feet to 7 feet, exclusive white silk fringe on the fly edge. The 33″ diameter white central discs bear the state coat of arms with “VIRGINIA” painted on a dark blue scroll in shadowed black over the arms and the state motto in shadowed black letters on a crimson scroll. The cavalry flags were proportionately smaller, measuring about 2.5 feet on the staff by 3 feet on the fly.
Although Rosetta Hunter is thought to have sewn five flags more than the eleven jointly accounted for under the bills of 4 and 11 December 1863, she would not again bill the state for flag production again until 24 February 1865. On that date, through the state’s secretary, George W. Munford, she was paid for “making 12 state flags.” Rather than Vanni, the artist responsible for these flags was William B. Cox. Cox received payments for decorating the centers of state flags on 13 May 1864 (for 2), 19 May 1964 (5), 19 January 1865 (1), and 31 January 1865 (5). Although the count of Cox painted flags (13) does not match the bill of Ms. Hunter of 25 February 1865 (for 12 flags), it is thought that they represent the same state flags. The dimensions and other characteristics of these late-War flags has yet to be determined.
Devereaux Cannon and Howard Michael Madaus, based on research by Greg Biggs, Devereaux Cannon, Kenneth Legendre, and Howard Michael Madaus.