Flags of the North and South

The national flags of the Union and the Confederacy were more than colorful pieces of cloth; they quickly came to symbolize everything each side stood for, rallying troops and private citizens into an unprecedented patriotic fervor. In New York City, for example, an angry mob took over the offices of the New York Herald, which professed a strong pro-Southern sentiment, and threatened to burn everything in sight if the publisher didn't display the Stars and Stripes. He quickly complied.

Before the war, the army's flags were made at the Schuylkill Arsenal, but with increased demand, the Quartermaster Department created additional depots in New York and Cincinnati. The contractors to the three depots accounted for nearly 2,400 national flags and 2,300 regimental flags over the course of the war.

It became quite fashionable to display the flag at one's home and office, and to wear the flag on one's person as a show of support for the Union cause. The same was true for the Confederate Stars and Bars. Communities nationwide presented specially made flags — either traditional designs or variations thereof — to local militia units gearing up to go to war, hopeful that the colorful banners would inspire the troops to victory.

In 1861, U.S. Army regulations required infantry units to carry two silk flags, a national flag and a regimental flag, each nearly six feet square. The regimental designation was to be embroidered on the center stripe of the national flag. The embroidery was to be in silver on infantry flags and gold on artillery flags, but a shortage of qualified embroiderers often forced quartermasters to have the designations painted on instead.

Until 1862, the individual states were given responsibility for recruiting and outfitting the militias that came out of them, and they were usually responsible for their flags as well. The result was a plethora of colorful and creative patterns that helped distinguish one unit from another.

Beginning in the winter of 1861–62, Union troops started marking their national and regimental flags with the names of battles in which they had participated, a practice that dated back to the 1830s in the regular army.

In the thick of battle, the regimental flag was often the only visible sign of a unit amid the smoke and chaos, and thus it typically received a huge amount of enemy fire. As a result, casualties were usually the highest closest to the colors. To compensate for expected losses, the color guard of a Union regiment, whose sole job was to keep the colors flying, was fairly large, consisting of between six and nine men. If one man fell, another would quickly grab the flag and keep it aloft. To be a member of a regimental color guard was an esteemed honor. The color guard of a cavalry regiment was much smaller, usually just a standard-bearer followed by a single corporal.

The Flags of the Confederacy

The Confederate congress successively adopted three designs for the new republic's national flag. The first, adopted on March 4, 1861, looked very much like the Stars and Stripes — so much so that it was nicknamed the Stars and Bars. It consisted of a field of three equal horizontal bars of red, white, red. Its blue canton extended two-thirds the height of the flag and featured a circle of stars equal to the number of states in the Confederacy.

Two years later, the new flag debuted. Nicknamed the Stainless Banner because it had a plain white field, it featured a red canton crisscrossed by a white-edged, dark blue St. Andrew's Cross emblazoned with thirteen white stars. Unfortunately, its white field made it look like a flag of truce. In March 1865, the Confederate congress changed the flag's proportions and added a wide red vertical bar to its fly edge. This decision was made mere weeks before the war ended, and very few flags were made.

Because the Stars and Stripes and the Stars and Bars looked so much alike at the beginning of the war, General Pierre G. T. Beauregard proposed a separate battle flag to prevent the possibility of mistaken identity on the field. The Battle Flag of the Confederacy is the design most people envision when they think of the Confederate flag.

  1. Home
  2. American Civil War
  3. Life in the Service
  4. Flags of the North and South
Visit other About.com sites: