Flags, flags, and more flags: A Confederate odyssey.

Here is what today we call the Rebel Flag. Of all the flags pictured below, it is the only one that was NEVER carried into action at Chickamauga.

Modern rebel flag

By Dave Powell and Greg Biggs

(Note: I am not a civil war flag expert. As the saying goes, I know just enough to get myself in trouble. But I wanted to address the flags of Chickamauga, and not appear too dimwitted. Ergo, I asked Greg Biggs, who really is an ACW flag expert, to comment/correct my post. He ended up adding so much to the process that I feel it only fair he get co-writing credit. Thank you Greg.)

A Chickamauga Park Ranger once told me an interesting story. One day a man walked into the Visitor’s Center. The lobby is impressive, lined with portraits of Union and Confederate commanders, draped with U.S. flag bunting, state flags hanging from the ceiling. This visitor, however, was unimpressed.

“Where are the Confederate flags?” he demanded. So the ranger took him over to the Hardee-pattern corps flag on display, and pointed it out. Next he showed the man the Polk-pattern corps flag. “There,” said the ranger.

That visitor’s confusion is forgivable. Moreover, it is historically accurate. Sorting out flags at Chickamauga was, in fact, pretty difficult – and sometimes deadly.

Today, the Confederate battle flag – the familiar red field, blue-and-white St. Andrews Cross and white stars, often misidentified as the “Stars and Bars” – can be seen around the world. People wave it for all sorts of reasons, and it is the subject of much debate, especially here in the United States.

But at Chickamauga, it was not common at all. There were probably as many as eight different patterns of flag carried as Confederate battle flags, and most of them looked nothing like what we now call “the” battle flag. And that doesn’t even count the minor variants within the larger pattern types.

The key is the flag history of the Army of Tennessee, itself created as the Army of the Mississippi in March 1862 from four other armies.  Forming at Corinth, MS after the fall of Fort Donelson and Nashville, the core components were; the Army of Central Kentucky, Polk’s Grand Division; Bragg’s Army of Mobile and Pensacola, and the Eastern Division of the District of Kentucky & East Tennessee.

Hardee flagIn January 1862, the Central Kentucky troops adopted a simple blue flag with white disc in the center designed by Simon B. Buckner, possibly modeled after flags used by the pre-war Kentucky State Guard.  First employed at Fort Donelson, these flags were later carried by Gen. William Hardee’s Corps and thus, have borne his name since.  Six versions of this flag would see use over the course of the war.

Polk flagPolk’s troops adopted large blue silk flags, bearing a red St. George’s Cross adorned with thirteen white stars.  These flags waved over his corps at Shiloh. On the orders of Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, they were replaced shortly thereafter  by the Southern Cross flags made in New Orleans, and modeled on flags in use in Virginia.  Beauregard left the army in June 1862, replaced by Gen. Braxton Bragg, who seemed not to care about flag design: Bragg offered no objection when  Polk went back to a version of his previous battle flag; a smaller version made of wool bunting, and bearing eleven white stars.  The flag was inspired by Episcopalian Church heraldry, of which Polk had been a bishop.

First nationalThe troops from Mobile and Pensacola arrived bearing First National flags and these were ordered replaced by Beauregard with the Southern Cross flags made in New Orleans.  These were the square versions and Bragg’s troops followed them at Shiloh and through the rest of 1862 and even into 1863.  Later, a rectangular version of the flag was issued serving late into 1863.  As stated, some of these flew over Polk’s troops for a time.

Breckinridge flagThe troops from East Tennessee, defeated at Mill Springs in January 1862, carried mostly First National flags.  At Shiloh they were the core of Gen. John Breckinridge’s Reserve Corps, which also carried one or two other flag patterns thanks to new unit additions.  In May 1862, Breckinridge’s Corps, then two divisions, created its own distinctive battle flag; blue field with large red Latin cross adorned with thirteen white stars.

 

These patterns would fly over the Army of Tennessee into 1863 but these were not the only flags they carried at least until 1864.

ThCleburne flag 2e Hardee pattern flag has also been called the Cleburne flag, because Cleburne’s division was allowed to continue to carry these distinctive flags after December 1863. When Joseph E. Johnston assumed command of the Army of Tennessee, he replaced most of the army’s existing flags with a rectangular variant of the Army of Northern Virginia pattern flag (first designed by P.G.T. Beauregard.) As a mark of special favor, recognizing their outstanding fight at Ringgold Gap, Cleburne’s men kept their blue flags and, in fact, received new versions.  However, some units still bore other flags including First Nationals, Second Nationals, a few Bragg pattern flags and the twelve star Southern Cross battle flags from the Mobile Depot carried by Polk’s Army of Mississippi which had come to Georgia to reinforce Johnston.

At Chickamauga, D. H. Hill’s Corps mostly carried Hardee pattern flags – Breckinridge’s and Cleburne’s Divisions.

In September 1863 Polk’s Corps, included Cheatham’s and Hindman’s Divisions, still mostly carried Polk Pattern flags.  Based on surviving examples, new flags of this pattern seem to have been issued earlier in 1863.

22nd Alabama Polk Variant flagOne interesting variant of the Polk pattern flag can be found in Zacariah Deas’s Brigade of Hindman’s Division – the 22nd Alabama’s flag lacked the stars on the cross, which was solid white instead of red.  Based on flags of the pattern captured at Missionary Ridge, the rest of the brigade also carried this pattern.  These Alabama troops hailed from Southern Alabama which had been French long before the war.  It is possible that Imperial (pre-Revolution) army battle flags influenced the designed used by Deas’ men.

 

ANV 3rd BuntingHere is the Army of Northern Virginia flag, Third Bunting issue, which most if not all of Longstreet’s five brigades carried.  It is also known as the Richmond Depot flag. Some of Longstreet’s regiments also carried earlier Second Bunting issues of this flag, which are identical to the Third Bunting version save for orange exterior borders.  Many of these flags were unmarked; other bore unit designations or battle honors.  The regimental flags of Kershaw’s South Carolina Brigade had white battle honos, for example.  This pattern was designed in February 1861 by William Porcher Miles of the Committee of Flag and Seal of the Confederate Congress as the national flags of the new Confederacy.  Initially rejected, Miles brought hes design back in September 1861, showing it to Gen. P.G. T. Beauregard who, along with Gen. Joseph Johnston, was seeking to create a “war flag” for the main army in Virginia.

First nationalThe Confederate cavalry flags at Chickamauga were dominated by First National battle flags.  Unlike the cavalry of Robert E. Lee’s army, which standardized their flags from November 1861 onward, western cavalry units preferred First Nationals.  Army of Tennessee cavalry would not carry Southern Cross flags until 1864 when they received the rectangular versions like those issued to the artillery and infantry.  A few artillery batteries also carried First National flags.  Longstreet’s corps used First National flags to mark headquarters as did Army of Tennessee general officers.  The use of Second National flags for this purpose, despite being created in May 1863, would not occur until his corps returned to Virginia in 1864.  Based on evidence, even AOT units seemed not to adopt the flag very much and in 1864, this army created its own special designating flags.

Buckner’s Corps carried a mix of flags.

Most of Stewart’s Division previously belonged to Hardee’s Corps, and carried Hardee pattern flags of some sort. Preston’s Division, however, was a different story.

McCown 2 flagSome of Preston’s troops carried this flag, or a variant of it: The McCown battle flag as used by at least some of the Army of Kentucky in the 1862 invasion of that state.   Gen. John McCown was of Scottish heritage and the flag of Scotland formed the basis for this battle flag.  Surviving flags in the Alabama state collection for Hilliard’s legion, for example, tend to be McCown flags, at least one has a red St. Andrews Cross, instead of white. However, the 2nd Battalion of Hilliard’s Legion used a home made Southern Cross flag that was pierced by over 80 bullets at Chickamauga.

When it comes to flags, the Reserve Corps had by far the most varied set.

Of the five brigades comprising the corps, only two likely had the same type of flags.

16th South Carolina flagColquitt’s Brigade (formerly commanded by Gist, until he was elevated to command the division) and at least some of Wilson’s Brigade carried this flag, very similar to the ANV battle flag, issued to them at Charleston in the spring of 1863. When P. G. T. Beauregard took command of the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida; he ordered flags similar to those he had championed in Virginia.   These were made through the Charleston Depot.

 

mccown_battle_flag_1863Ector’s and McNair’s brigades, however, still carried McCown pattern flags. One additional unusual feature of the McCown pattern flag of the 39th North Carolina Infantry is that colored triangles were added to the corners of the flag, as shown in this example, to further distinguish it.

Liddell’s division was similarly mismatched. Govan’s brigade carried Hardee pattern flags, since they had come from Hardee’s Corps. Walthall’s Mississippians, despite serving in Polk’s Corps in their history, also carried Hardee flags.  They lost several of these in late November on Lookout Mountain.

 

Cassidy 3rd patternThis flag is known as the Bragg/Cassidy pattern flag, thought it owes its existence to Beauregard as well. When Beauregard arrived in the West in January 1862, he began to standardize the myriad of battle flags in use by the various Confederate armies.  With Albert Sidney Johnston’s approval, Beauregard forced two of the corps to adopt flags like those in Virginia; Bragg’s and Polk’s.  However, Polk’s shipment got lost and did not arrive until after Shiloh so his older Polk Corps flags were used there instead.  Assuming command of the Army of the Mississippi after Albert Sidney Johnston’s death at Shiloh, he continued his attempts to standardize flags on the pre-existing ANV pattern.   Events largely outpaced this effort, and Hardee’s Corps simply refused to change their blue and white flags.  Later, Breckinridge’s Corps adopted distinctive colors that also differed from the Virginia flag.   The Bragg/Cassidy flags (named for their maker, Henry Cassidy of New Orleans) came in square and later rectangular versions.  Both were used at Chickamauga.

First pattern cassidyThe flag pictured above is a third issue Cassidy, used intermittently within the army of Tennessee to replace worn-out flags as needed. Here is a first issue Cassidy, by way of comparison. Similar to the ANV Pattern flags, there are still some noteworthy differences even between the Cassidy flags. For one, the third-issue is rectangular, not square. On both flags, the stars are six-pointed, and there are only 12, not 13. These flags were issued from the summer of 1862 up through some time in 1863. The square versions had yellow borders; third-issues had pink; later versions had neither. .

The Battle of Chickamauga, Sept. 18-20, 1863, saw the biggest diversity of Confederate flag patterns of any Western battle. Most of what we know about flag usage here is based on surviving examples. However, we cannot be 100 per cent certain that our understanding of the colors carried into action by Confederate units is comprehensive or complete. Many flags are missing, their details never recorded, in part due to the constant shifting of units within the Army of Tennessee prior to Chickamauga.

That said, we know of at least eight different major patterns of battle flag present:

 

*First National

* Hardee battle flag (three versions)

* Polk Corps (possibly both versions)

* Bragg Corps pattern (both versions)

* Breckinridge pattern

* Army of Kentucky pattern

*Richmond Depot battle flag (2 versions)

* Charleston Depot pattern

Additionally, there were almost certainly  other flags of unique design or ANV variants

People today know that the Confederate flag, the “battle flag,” is red overall.  However, at Chickamauga, as at earlier Western battles like Stones River and Perryville, the majority of the Confederate battle flags were blue!  The Union troops who faced the Western Confederates for over a year were very familiar with these flags on numerous fields.  What must have offered some confusion were the red battle flags that dominated Longstreet’s eastern Confederates, although they had seen some red flags from Bragg’s corps for a time as well.

 

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One Response to “Flags, flags, and more flags: A Confederate odyssey.”

  1. Pat McCormick Says:

    Thank you Sheldon Cooper! 😉 Actually, very interesting stuff. Would love to see some color footage from Confederate lines at Chickamauga, had any existed.

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