The Birth of the ‘Stainless Banner’

On May 1, 1863, the Confederate Congress approved a new national flag – colloquially dubbed the Stainless Banner – to replace the so-called Stars and Bars, the Confederacy’s national flag since March 1861. The new flag was a plain white field emblazoned with what was already a powerful and famous Confederate symbol, the Southern Cross, the star-bedecked blue saltire, or diagonal cross, that had been a famous battle flag since the fall of 1861. Its incorporation into the national flag confirmed the Southern Cross as the de facto symbol of Confederate nationalism.

The first recorded use of the flag came 10 days later, and in a manner that sealed its place in Southern history. Lt. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson had been wounded in his hour of triumph at the Battle of Chancellorsville, Va., on May 2 and he died on May 10. When his body lay in state at the Virginia State Capitol on May 12, his coffin was draped by a garrison-size second national flag, apparently intended to fly over the Capitol building.

How did the Southern Cross become so central to the Confederacy? After all, other Confederate armies had embraced other flags, but those other flags did not elicit wide support outside of their armies and among the Confederate nation at large.

But those other armies didn’t belong to Gen. Robert E. Lee, whose Army of Northern Virginia had flown the Southern Cross battle flag during the campaigns and battles that had won Lee’s army international fame. It was the Confederacy’s marquee force, the army fighting to defend the capital city, and the army that won the victories that kept the Confederacy alive. It was, as the historian Gary Gallagher has argued, more than just a military unit, but the very touchstone of martial Confederate nationalism. It was the symbol of the fighting South. In the words of Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, the battle flag had been “consecrated by the best blood of our country on so many battle-fields.”

The first Confederate national flag, the "Stars and Bars."The Museum of the ConfederacyThe first Confederate national flag, the “Stars and Bars.”

Some congressmen and newspaper editors favored making the Army of Northern Virginia battle flag (in a rectangular shape) itself the new national flag. But Beauregard and others felt the nation needed its own distinctive symbol, and so recommended that the Southern Cross be emblazoned in the corner of a white field. (Not that it did any good; even today, people mistakenly believe the Confederate battle flag was the same as the national flag.)

The popularity of the “consecrated” Army of Northern Virginia battle flag was only one dimension to this story. The other is the Confederacy’s rejection of the Stars and Bars.

“Every body wants a new Confederate flag,” wrote George Bagby, editor of The Southern Literary Messenger, in January 1862. “The present one is universally hated. It resembles the Yankee flag and that is enough to make it unutterably detestable.” The editor of the Charleston Mercury echoed Bagby in his criticism and in his solution: “It seems to be generally agreed that the ‘Stars and Bars’ will never do for us. They resemble too closely the dishonored Flag of Yankee Doodle … we imagine that the Battle Flag will become the Southern Flag by popular acclaim.” As early as April 1861, critics denounced the Stars and Bars as a “servile imitation” and a “detested parody” of the Stars and Stripes.

The second Confederate national flag, the Library of Congress The second Confederate national flag, the “Stainless Banner.”

More insightfully, The New Orleans Delta characterized the Stars and Bars as a “hybrid bunting” that was useful “during our transition state from attempted to confirmed independence.” Adopted in March 1861, the Stars and Bars indeed deliberately resembled the Stars and Stripes and represented a concession to what the Committee on Flag and Seal called “a desire to retain at least a suggestion of the old ‘Stars and Stripes.’”

But the war changed that, accomplishing what secession alone had not: it made the masses of white Southerners feel separate and distinct from the United States.

As the Confederacy was ready to make the transformation from “attempted” to “confirmed” independence, it was clear what the new national symbol should be. A correspondent to The Richmond Enquirer waxed eloquent on the virtue of having “our bright, simple, appropriate, defiant Battle Flag to float over our young Confederacy; all the more becoming, too, from its having floated over many a battle-field through which that Confederacy has been working its way to independence and a place among the nations of the earth.”

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A handful of contemporaries linked the new flag design to the “peculiar institution” that was at the heart of the South’s economy, social system and polity: slavery. Bagby characterized the flag motif as the “Southern Cross” – the constellation, not a religious symbol – and hailed it for pointing “the destiny of the Southern master and his African slave” southward to “the banks of the Amazon,” a reference to the desire among many Southerners to expand Confederate territory into Latin America. In contrast, the editor of the Savannah, Ga., Morning News focused on the white field on which the Southern Cross was emblazoned. “As a people, we are fighting to maintain the heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored races. A White Flag would be thus emblematical of our cause.” He dubbed the new flag “the White Man’s Flag,” a sobriquet that never gained traction.

The Confederacy’s rejection of the Stars and Bars as its national flag and embrace of the battle flag as the central emblem of its “confirmed independence” continues to have great significance today. With the adoption of the “Stainless Banner” in 1863, the battle flag became more than a soldier’s flag; it became a political flag, associated with the Confederate government, nation and cause.

Echoes and ironies abound. Consider the modern history of the Georgia state flag. In 2004, after decades of debate, Georgians ratified a new state flag that was clearly modeled after the Confederate Stars and Bars. The most vocal protest came (and still comes) from Confederate heritage activists, who steadfastly hold on to the 1956 state flag, which bears the Southern Cross battle flag. African-American leaders, though fully aware that the new state flag is based on the first Confederate national flag, said they did not find it troubling; the real Stars and Bars does not carry the baggage that the battle flag (the one the headline writers so often mistakenly dub the “Stars and Bars”) did, and does.

In other words, the real Stars and Bars, the original Confederate flag, is acceptable to them for the same reason that it was not acceptable to Confederates in 1863, and to Confederate heritage activists today: it’s not Confederate enough.

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Sources: John M. Coski, “The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem”; Robert Bonner, “Colors and Blood: Flag Passions of the Confederate South.”


John M. Coski is the historian at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Va., and the author of “The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem.”