by Richard R. Gideon

few years ago a lady walked by my home with her young son and stopped to look at the flag flying from atop my 17 foot pole. I was working in the yard at the time, so I had an excellent opportunity to observe and hear what happened next. Pointing to the flag, she said to her son, "Look at the pretty Betsy Ross flag." But then she noticed that there were only seven stars1 in the canton, and she called over to me. "Why are there only 7 stars," she asked.

"Shouldn't there be 13?" "There were 13 on later flags," I said, "but the first flags only had 7." I probably should have let her in on the mistake at the outset, but I couldn't resist dragging out the suspense. She seemed extremely perplexed with my answer. "I thought...." - and then she stopped. I decided the joke had gone far enough. "That is a Confederate flag," I said. "It's called the Stars and Bars, or the First National Flag of the Confederacy. At the time that flag was created there were only 7 states on board."

What happened next is complicated, but suffice it to say that the lady was not convinced. Her major argument was that since it looked like an "American flag," how could it be a flag of the Confederacy? The funny thing is, back in 1861 there were many Southrons wondering the same thing.

The history of the Stars and Bars has been well documented, and this article's focus in on the design and beauty of the flag. However, having said that, a few words about the genesis of the flag are appropriate if for no other reason than to bring the pattern into focus.


As secession worked its way across the southern States a new country was preparing to make its entry onto the world's stage. The Confederate States of America began life in Montgomery, Alabama. In the time period between December 20th, 1860 (when South Carolina seceded) to March 4th, 1861 (the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln), a Provisional Congress was assembled, and a Flag and Seal Committee began work on creating a national identity. As one might expect there were many arguments adduced about just what kind of symbol would best represent the new nation. Some people wanted to keep the Stars and Stripes, making only minor cosmetic changes. One of the biggest proponents of the old flag was none other than Jefferson Davis, President of the CSA.2 Davis felt that the American flag was as much a product of the South as the North, and he postulated that, in time, the world would associate it more with the CSA than the USA. But others did not share Davis's vision. One of the naysayers was William Porcher Miles, chairman of the aforementioned Flag and Seal Committee. Miles wanted a unique flag, with no hint of the "old gridiron" in its design. Miles's concern went beyond a national identity crises; he felt that any flag used in battle must be distinctive, or terrible mistakes would be made. He would eventually be proved correct.

Miles had a design of his own in mind. His flag would feature a broad saltier (X) on a red field, with stars representing the Confederate States distributed across the saltier. But the Provisional Congress wasn't impressed; one member called the design
"a pair of suspenders."3 And Miles wasn't the only one to submit designs to the committee - the Confederacy received submissions from near and far; even from people living in the North.

Eventually a Prussian artist living in Montgomery, Alabama, was invited to submit his design. Nicola Marschall had the backing of some very influential Montgomery citizens.4 Marschall based his design on a Prussian flag familiar to him. It featured three bars of red over white over red, and a blue canton emblazoned with stars, each star representing a state. This design, close to the US flag but also different, seemed to be just the ticket, and the Flag and Seal Committee moved its approval. Chairman Miles signed off on it, but grudgingly, and in the nick of time. The Confederate government wanted something to raise on March 4th, 1861; a symbolic nose-thumbing to Abraham Lincoln. The approval came on the morning of the selfsame day, and a group of ladies worked feverishly to make one. They succeeded. It was raised that afternoon by Miss Letitia Christian Tyler - the granddaughter of former US President
John Tyler.



WHO DESIGNED THE STARS AND BARS? The history of the design of the Stars and Bars, as used in this paper, comes from the majority opinion of the books and articles I've read on the subject. However, the decendants of Orren Randolph Smith, a North Carolinian, are adamant in their belief that he designed the flag. There is also a body of opinion that says neither Marschall nor Smith can be credited; that the design may have been a good old fashioned compromise of the members of the Flag and Seal Committee. This more recent view comes from men who are experts in the field of Confederate Vexillology. If the latter view is correct then it would seem to be an excellent example of the old saying, "the exception proves the rule" - the "rule" being that flags designed by committees usually stink! (Many people are unaware that the word "proves" in this old saying actually meant "tests" to the people of the time; i.e., "the exception tests the rule" - which actually makes more sense.) ..Richard R. Gideon

NOTE: please see the epilogue at the end of this article




the flag as art

It is interesting to read the report of the nascent Flag and Seal Committee because it shows that both William Porcher Miles and Nicola Marschall might have agreed on at least a couple of points. Part of the report reads as follows: "A flag should be simple, readily made, and, above all, capable of being made up in bunting. It should be different from the flag of any other country, place, or people. It should be readily distinguishable at a distance. The colors should be well contrasted and durable, and, lastly, and not the least important point, it should be effective and handsome."5 That sentiment has echoed down the corridors of time, and is as valid today as it was in 1861. The First National is all that and more. It has no artwork to complicate its design. Once taught it can be recognized immediately, and a child can draw one from memory. The colors are traditional and easily obtained in fabric. Miles's comment - "...above all, capable of being made up in bunting"- reinforces the idea that a flag should be made of common materials. Wool bunting was the flag material of choice because it is tough and was relatively inexpensive (not anymore!). A young girl at home, or a soldier in the field, might put one together in a matter of hours. Marschall didn't complicate the field design nor follow the early United States example of "a stripe and a star for a state."6 Three stripes - or because they were so broad, bars - is it.

This is not to say there weren't some questions about the design. One rather interesting problem was that the Flag and Seal Committee never spelled out specific dimensions for the flag, and described it in the simplest of terms - rather like their American ancestors of 1777. Thus there was nothing specified as to aspect ratio7, canton proportions, or the quality of the colors in the flag. As a result a number of interesting iterations found there way into both civil and military usage. Actually, the Stars and Bars was never voted upon by the entire Provisional Congress, and thus was never given legal status. This oversight was apparently a distinction without consequence, and thousands of Stars and Bars began to appear throughout the South.
It wouldn't be until the 20th Century that the Stars and Bars finally got some specifications. In 1904 the United Confederate Veterans adopted a resolution that reiterated or established proportions for various flags used by the Confederate States of America. The Stars and Bars was defined according to the original Committee on a Proper Flag for the Confederate States of America, March 4th, 1861, with the following notation added: "The union is square; the stars five pointed. The length of the flag one and a half times the width." The Veterans' organization urged all flag manufacturers to comply with the report, which was signed by "Stephen D. Lee, General Commanding"

One of those distinctive iterations was made by Mrs. Robert E. Lee and her daughters. The flag was found in a box of Confederate records marked as belonging to General Lee, and forwarded to Union authorities at the war's end.8 Made of wool bunting with cotton stars, the flag measures about 50" x 77". The star pattern, a letter "A", has been described variously as standing for "Ark of the Covenant," "Arch of the Covenant," or "Army." Historians may argue about what Mrs. Lee had in mind when she arranged the stars as she did, but Lee's Headquarters Flag does not need any modern person to pass judgment on its appearance; it is strikingly handsome as it is. (The flag at the left is a reproduction in period grade wool bunting and cotton.) And it is unlikely that Mrs. Lee worked off of a detailed set of instructions to make it.


Even without a set of directions the design is simple enough to be "decoded" by almost anyone. Each bar occupies one-third of the width of the flag, and the width of the canton is the same as the width of the top two bars - or in simpler terms, two-thirds the width of the flag. From then on it's a matter of "eyeballing it." Canton lengths varied, but seem to fall into one of two categories: 1) one-third of the flag's length, or 2) square. On flags with an aspect ratio of greater than 1:2 a canton with a length of one-third the length of the flag will end up being rectangular favoring the horizontal; if the aspect ratio is less than 1:2 the canton would end up favoring the vertical. An example is show in the photo to the right. This raw silk flag is 52" x 74", and the canton is about 35" x 25". Since the aspect ratio is less than 1:1.5, and the canton's length is 1/3 the field length, the canton favors the vertical.

Flags with square cantons did not presume to apply mathematics to the situation; it was easy to make up these designs. Regardless of the length of the field if your flag's width was "Y", then the canton's width and length would be "2/3 Y" - a square, case closed. A square actually made the star arrangement easier to achieve, since a circle fits inside a square more symmetrically than it does inside a vertically polarized rectangle. Designers can grasp this point easily, although it should be pointed out that the circular arrangement of stars was often "eyeballed", and therefore wasn't exactly round, nor were the stars spaced uniformly apart.

But these are all minor points. Once one decides on the size of the flag it is a matter of four pieces of fabric (not counting the stars) and a bit of time. It takes longer to put on stars than it does to make the body of the flag. This point apparently was not lost on many of those original seamstresses (or tailors), and one can find original flags with examples of stars put on "in a rush", or stars that are stenciled with paint. On the other hand one can find many examples of finely crafted flags, with beautifully embroidered or appliquéd stars.

Speaking of stars, nothing in the original flag resolution mentioned anything about their style, although the vast majority of flags employed 5-pointed stars. And as new states were admitted into the Confederacy the number of stars perforce grew. The original flag of seven stars was soon superseded by flags of 11, 12, and 13 stars. There are some examples of flags that were made in anticipation of new states. An example is the flag of the 30th Tennessee Infantry, a 15 star version made to incorporate the slaveholding states of Maryland and Delaware.

(click on photo to see larger view)

The utility of the Stars and Bars transcends its use as a national symbol. Heritage organizations have employed this versatile design to identify them. One case in point is the Prairie Grove, Arkansas, Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. This flag, designed by RICHARD R. GIDEON FLAGS, uses the entrance to the Prairie Grove Battle Field as an identifying symbol in the canton of a 13 star Stars and Bars. The square canton provided sufficient area to apply both the seal (which is on both sides of the flag) and the stars. It would be hard to envision the seal incorporated into the two other national flags of the Confederacy; the Stainless Banner (a.k.a. Second National) and the Third National.


The Stainless Banner, whilst affording a lot of white space, would move the Prairie Grove symbol out into the "flapping area."


The Third National's design really doesn't lend itself to the seal, since the white space is shortened and a red vertical bar is placed on the fly end.


The initial reaction of the woman that walked past my home is not unique. Unaware of its past, most people that I meet are enthusiastic about the flag's design and its beauty. However, reactions vary when the true identity of the flag is revealed. I once was invited to give a flag talk to a group of high school history students. Their teacher was certainly qualified to teach the subject; she had grown up on several Civil War battlefields, her father being an employee of the National Parks Service.9 The teacher had absolutely no problem with the Stars and Bars because she understood that its usage in the school was as a visual aid to a history lesson. On the other hand, I've been invited to speak in some school districts with the proviso that "no Confederate flags be brought into the school." I always turn down these requests, but have often toyed with the idea of bringing in the Stars and Bars - without using that name - just to see what would happen.10

Divorced from its political past, the Stars and Bars may be appreciated by all; as in the words of John Keats, "A thing of beauty is a joy forever."



The following information comes from historians Greg Biggs and Devereaux D. Cannon, Jr. Mr. Biggs was the first to critique the manuscript, and as a result of his observations I asked Mr. Cannon to look it over as well.

Mr. Biggs first brought to my attention recent research tending to support the opinion that the Stars and Bars was a joint effort of the members of the Flag and Seal Committee. In order to show support for his opinion - one shared by many distinguished names in the field of Southern Vexillology - Mr. Biggs has graciously given me permission to share some of his notes on the subject.

The argument for a Committee design is compelling, as one will see from the newspaper extracts shown below. Of course, one may properly ask why all these newspaper accounts weren't considered during the investigations of 1915 and 1931 - particularly during the 1915 investigation, a time when there were still many veterans around to say them yea or nay. And although I must reiterate that this article is to praise the design, not the designer(s), I think the addition of these notes adds to the ambience of the flag.

Mr. Cannon subsequently critiqued the article, corrected my grammar and found a few typos, and submitted an extremely interesting piece of information concerning the efforts of a husband and wife design team from South Carolina.

Perhaps it can be said that the Stars and Bars is a design that, like great architecture, insinuates itself into the opportunities that avail themselves to it, and thus becomes inspiration to sundry people at divers times.
...Richard R Gideon

The following are Mr. Biggs's notes and comments:

Baltimore Sun March 6, 1861 (citing their Montgomery correspondent) - March 5th - "The flag of the Confederate States has been determined upon unanimously. The design originated with the committee, not from the models presented. It was hoisted on the capitol at 4 o'clock this afternoon."

Also copied in the New York Times, March 6, 1861.

Similar articles ran in the following papers of which I have copies:

Vicksburg Evening Citizen - March 14, 1861 "The flag of the Confederate States was the work of the committee appointed by Congress, none of the designs sent by individuals as models having been thought suitable."

Atlanta Intelligencer - March 7, 1861 - as above
Augusta (GA) Chronicle & Sentinel - March 6, 1861 - "The flag of the Confederate States was determined on unanimously today. The design originated with the Committee, and not from models presented."

Columbus (GA) Times - March 6, 1861 - "About 12 o'clock the Committee on Flags handed in the design which had been selected by them to represent the honor of the Confederate States. It originated with the committee, none of the models sent in having been accepted."

Richmond Daily Dispatch - March 11, 1861 - cites Montgomery Advertiser article saying similar to above

Talladega (AL) Democratic Watchtower - March 13, 1861 - as above

Huntsville (AL Weekly Democrat - March 13, 1861 - "The flag of the Confederate States was the work of the Committee appointed by Congress, none of the designs sent by individuals as models having been thought suitable."

Confederate Veteran - May 1916, Vol. 24, Page 196 - "The committee, as appears from their report, did not adopt either or any of the designs or models of flags submitted to them and recommended one of their own designs, which was the one that was adopted by the Congress."

William C. Davis, in his book "A Government Of Our Own", which details the creation of the Confederate government in Montgomery, AL, he states, "Instead the committee proposed its own model, though the design did not originate with them. Nicola Marschall lived in nearby Marion, Alabama, where he taught school to supplement his income as a portrait painter. Governor Moore's daughter Mrs. Napoleon Lockett also lived in Marion, and sometime during February she asked the artist to take a hand at flag design. On a sheet of paper he rather quickly sketched three designs...Somehow, almost certainly through Governor Moore himself, Marschall's design found its way to the committee and they settled on it as the best choice."

While that may be possible, no flag researcher I know of that has been through the records of the CS Congress or the flags scrapbook at the National Archives, has ever seen Marschall's name mentioned. This includes me, [Devereaux D.] Cannon and [Howard M.] Madaus. In addition, if he was the designer, unless he requested complete secrecy, the name of such a flag designer would be trumpeted by every newspaper in the nation, North and South. Yet it was not.

Also - the full text of the report submitted by Miles to the CS Congress regarding the flag:

AUSTIN STATE GAZETTE, March 23, 1861, p. 1, c. 5

The Confederate Congress.
The Flag of the Confederacy.

In consequence of their interesting nature, we give a report, rather fuller than usual, of the proceedings of the Confederate Congress on the 5th inst.:
Mr. Miles, of South Carolina—In consequence of having omitted to attend to the matter on yesterday, I beg leave to submit the following:

The committee appointed to select a proper flag for the Confederate States of America, beg leave to report—

That they have given this subject due consideration, and carefully inspected all the designs and models submitted to them. The number of these has been immense, but they all may be divided into two great classes.

First, those which copy and preserve the principal features of the United States flag, with slight and unimportant modifications.

Secondly, those which are very elaborate, complicated or fantastical. The objection to the first class is that none of them, any considerable distance, could be readily distinguished from the one which they imitate. Whatever attachment may be felt, from association, for "the stars and stripes," (an attachment which your committee may be permitted to say they do not all share,) it is manifest that in inaugurating a new Government from which we have withdrawn, with any propriety, or without encountering very obvious practical difficulties, there is no propriety in retaining the ensign of a Government which, in the opinion of the States composing the Confederacy, had been so oppressive and injurious to their interests as to require their separation from it. It is idle to talk of keeping the flag of the United States when we have voluntarily seceded from them. It is superfluous to dwell upon the practical difficulties which would flow from the fact of two distinct and probably hostile Governments, both employing the same or very similar flags. It would be a political and military solecism. As to "the glories of the old flag," we must bear in mind that the battles of the Revolution, about which our fondest and proudest memories cluster, were not fought beneath its folds. And, although, in more recent times—in the war of 1812, and in the war with Mexico—the South did win her fair share of glory and shed her full measure of blood under the guidance and in its defence, we think the impartial page of history will preserve and commemorate the fact more imperishably than a mere piece of striped bunting, when the Colonies achieved their independence of the "mother country, (which up to the last they fondly called her,) they did not desire to retain the British flag or anything at all similar to it. Yet under that flag they had been planted, and nurtured, and fostered. Under that flag they had fought in their infancy for their very existence against more than one determined foe; under it they had repelled and driven back the relentless savage, and carried it further and further into the decreasing wilderness as the standard of civilization and religion; under it the youthful Washington won his spurs in the memorable and unfortunate expedition of Braddock, and Americans helped to plant it on the heights of Abraham, where the immortal Wolfe fell covered with glory in the arms of victory. But our forefathers, when they separated themselves from Great Britain—a separation not on account of their hatred of the English Constitution or of the English institutions, but in consequence of the tyrannical and unconstitutional rule of Lord North's administration, and because their destiny beckoned them on to independent expansion and achievement-—cast no lingering, regretful looks behind. They were proud of their race and lineage, proud of their heritage in the glories and genius and language of old England, but they were influenced by the spirit of the motto of the great Hampden, "Vestigis nulia retrorsam." They were determined to build up a new power among the nations of the world. They therefore did not attempt "to keep the old flag." We think it good to imitate them in this comparatively little matter, as well as to emulate them in greater and more important ones.

The committee, in examining the representations of the flags of all countries, found that Liberia and the Sandwich Islands had flags so similar to that of the United States, that it seemed to them an additional, if not in itself a conclusive reason, why we should not "keep," copy or imitate it. They felt no inclination to borrow, at second hand, what had been pilfered and appropriated by a free negro community and a race of savages. It must be admitted, however, that some thing was conceded by the committee to what seemed so strong and earnest a desire to retain at least a suggestion of the old "stars and stripes." So much for the mass of models and designs, more or less copied from, or assimilated to, the United States flag.

With reference to the second class of designs—those of an elaborate and complicated character—(but many of them showing considerable artistic skill and taste)—the committee will merely remark that however pretty they may be, when made up by the cunning skill of a fair lady's fingers in silk, satin, and embroidery, they are not appropriate as flags. A flag should be simple, readily made, and, above all, capable of being made up in bunting. It should be different from the flag of any other country, place or people. It should be significant. It should be readily distinguishable at a distance. The colors should be well contrasted and durable, and, lastly, and not the least important point, it should be effective and handsome.

The committee humbly think that the flag which they submit combines these requisites. It is very easy to make. It is entirely different from any national flag. The three colors of which it is composed, red white and blue, are the true Republican colors. In heraldry they are emblematic of the three great virtues, of valor, purity and truth. Naval men assure us that it can be recognized and distinguished at a great distance. The colors contrast admirably, and are lasting. In effect and appearance, it must speak for itself.

Your committee, therefore, recommend that 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 of the width of the flag; the red spaces, above and below, to be of 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. If adopted, long may it wave over a brave, a free, and a virtuous people. May the career of the Confederacy, whose duty it will then be to support and defend it, be such as to endear it to our children's children as the flag of a loved, because a just and benign, Government, and the cherished symbol of its valor, purity and truth.

Respectfully submitted,
Wm. Porcher Miles, Chairman.

The following information was sent to me by Devereaux D. Cannon, Jr. Mr. Cannon is author of "The Flags Of The Confederacy," amongst other works, and was President of the Confederate States Vexillological Association. Considering the final design approved by the Flag and Seal committee, this submission, by Mr. and Mrs. G. W. Ladd, is extremely interesting...Richard R. Gideon

Overlooked by many is a design that is documented among the records of the Committee on Flag and Seal in the National Archives that may have been the influence for the Stars and Bars. This submission is number "64" in those records. (The numbers assigned to the submissions are random, and were probably added by a Yankee archivist after the war. They were certainly added after 1864.) Number 64 was submitted by Mr. & Mrs. G. W. Ladd of Winnsboro, South Carolina, under cover dated 10 February 1861. That flag design has: a field of three horizontal bars, blue-white-blue; A red canton extending down 2/3 the width of the flag; a circle of seven white stars; and within the circle, a white crescent (points "up").


ENDNOTES and comments

* Copyright ©March, 2004 - Richard R. Gideon / AMERICAN VEXILLUM Magazine

1 One would have thought she might have noticed the lack of 13 stripes

2 See "A History of the Stars and Bars" by Jim Langcuster.

3 See "The Flags Of The CONFEDERACY - AN ILLUSTRATED HISTORY" by Devereaux D. Cannon, Jr., p8

4 See "A History of the Stars and Bars" by Jim Langcuster. Apparently Marschall was recommended by Mrs. Napoleon Lockett, the wife of a prominent Marion, Alabama, lawyer and planter; a politically savvy woman and a valued advisor

5 See "The Flags Of The CONFEDERACY - AN ILLUSTRATED HISTORY" by Devereaux D. Cannon, Jr., p86

6 In January, 1794 the US Flag code was changed for the first time (the changes going into effect in May of 1795). The US Flag went from 13 stars and 13 stripes to 15 stars and 15 stripes, reflecting the admission of Vermont and Kentucky into the Union. The next official change would occur in April of 1818, when it was decided to revert back to 13 stripes, but add additional stars for new states. However, in the interim period between 1795 and 1818 many unofficial flags were made, not a few of which followed the "star and stripe for a state" principle.

7 Aspect ratio is the mathematical proportion of width to length or length to width, depending upon how one wishes to express the fraction. In this paper we will use width (Y) to length (X). The variation in extant Stars and Bars variants is interesting. Since the Confederate Government never coded the flag the aspect ratios were "fielder's choice." Here are a few examples:

Identifier Aspect ratio in Y to X
Porterfield's Command
30th Tennessee
2nd KY Vol. Cav.
20th Tennessee
H. E. Vincent (Ft. Sumter)
Jefferson Davis Guards
R. E. Lee's H.Q. Flag
18th Virginia

8 The original flag is in the collection of The Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond, Virginia. The flag was removed from the box by John F. Mayer in 1865, and he donated it to the museum in 1916

9 She tells a interesting story about her earliest youth, when her father was the manager of the Vicksburg Battlefield. An old Confederate Army veteran came to visit, and she sat on his lap while he engaged her father in conversation

10 A school district in a northern suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, has prohibited students from displaying or wearing apparel decorated with "the Confederate flag." When pressed to define "Confederate flag" the superintendent said that any flag with an X on it would be prohibited. This effectively eliminates certain naval flags and signals, many Civil War Union flags, and the national flag of Scotland!