Finding Meaning in the Flag: Rebel Flag

This post is the third in a series about the Confederate flag in history, memory, and culture. It offers one Fellow’s individual perspective as she investigates different sources and opinions. Please feel free to engage with the author and the Civil War Institute community in the comments section. Read the first post here and the second post here.

By Olivia Ortman ‘19

I’m sure that as fans of history, at some point in your pursuit of knowledge, you have either read or heard the phrase “language is key”. This is something my professors have harped on, class after class, explaining that the way we talk about things shapes the way they are viewed. This lesson holds true for the Union perspective of the Confederate flag during the war. In all the documents written by Northerners that I looked over for this post, I did not come across a single mention of the “Confederate flag.” This was because the flag was pretty consistently, and intentionally, known as the “rebel flag.” This term was used for each subsequent version of the flag, showing that each of the flags had the same meaning for Northerners, regardless of the changing design.

rebel-flag-captured-at-chancellorsville
Rebel prisoners and battle flags captured at Chancellorsville, being taken to the rear by cavalry and infantry guards. Sketch by E. Forbes, 1863. Via Library of Congress

The language “rebel flag” is important for two reasons. The first is that by using the word “rebel,” Northerners gave Southern actions a negative connotation. These “rebels” were people throwing tantrums and acting out against the government. The second reason is that calling it the rebel flag gave the Confederacy an air of illegitimacy. The flags of established nations always have the country’s name in the title. Northerners refused to acknowledge the Confederacy as a true nation and that is reflected in their refusal to call the flag a Confederate flag. These ideas were illustrated in a stanza of a poem written by John Northrop.

“So up they hoist a Rebel flag;
They shake it in the Nation’s face —
An insolent old slavery rag —
To all the land disgrace!
Then Lincoln to the loyal said:
‘What will my brothers do?
You as the people, I the head,
To Justice must be true!
Come forth to meet this traitorous horde;
Defeat them where they stand;
They’d wreck the Nation with the sword,
Come and redeem the land!
They challenge us; shall we be brave,
Or cowards shall we be?
From basest treason shall we save
What God proclaimed was free?”

This stanza deals with a lot of the symbolism connected to the Northern/Union supporter perspective of the flag. Northrop, a soldier in the Union army, wrote this poem in May, 1861 while detained in a prisoner of war camp. You can feel the intense hatred he harbored for the flag, and the war had only just begun. He calls the flag “insolent” and a “disgrace,” explaining it was an insult to the Nation, which he capitalizes to emphasize the legitimacy of the United States. Later in the stanza, he speaks of treason and the idea that God and manhood demands that this flag be put down. This, in a sense, acts as a call to arms, which is heard by William Timberlake. In September, 1861, Timberlake writes that from his post in D.C., he can see that “the rebel flag is now waving in sight of the President’s house!” This is a clear affront to Timberlake’s sense of pride and loyalty to his nation. He tells the intended recipient of his letter that he will “fight for the old flag till it is again unfurled and respected in all the present rebellious States!”

two-standard-bearers
The two standard bearers, the day after battle. E. B. Bensell, 1864. Via Library of Congress.

In the poem, Northrop also calls the rebel flag a “slavery rag.” Thomas Ellis, an army surgeon, spoke of the same tie between the flag and slavery in his diary entry in 1862. He was writing about the Seven Days Battles and shared, “We captured a rebel flag, now held by the 2d Maine regiment, marked on one side ‘Victory,’ and on the other ‘Equal Rights.’” Although emancipation didn’t enter the war’s equation until 1863, Northerners knew from the start that slavery caused the war. Northerners were fighting to preserve the Union because Southern states had feared for the continuation of slavery under Lincoln and had seceded. The link to slavery only grew stronger when Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, firmly adding abolition to the reasons for fighting.

What Northrop misses, however, is the admiration some Northerners had for the flag and the men carrying it. Three months after linking the flag to slavery, Ellis writes a journal entry about his experience at Antietam. While describing the battle, he launches into praise for the bravery of color-bearers, making several notes of Union soldiers who lay down their lives to carry their flag. Ellis then extends this same admiration to Southern color-bearers. He remembers one case in particular when a rebel color-bearer was mortally wounded and as he fell to the ground, he clutched the rebel flag to his breast and held it tightly with his failing strength. This level of devotion was equal to any Union soldier and therefore gained Ellis’ respect, regardless of the fact that this was his enemy. The rebel flag may have inspired many feelings of hatred from northerners, but there were positive reactions too.

On my last post, a reader asked about the connection between the Confederacy’s founding principles and the flag’s symbolism. Although I don’t plan to write a post specifically on that topic, the connection is important. Since my posts are necessarily short compared to the length I would need to include all the information I would wish to share, I’m going to start including a section below my sources that will have links to interesting articles. These will be articles I found while writing each post, research I did to answer a reader’s question, or current events connected to the flag. It’s not necessary to read them, but they might add extra context to your understanding of the flag and have certainly contributed to my search for understanding. 


Sources:

Ellis, Thomas T., fl. 1862, “Diary of Thomas T. Ellis, 1862,” in Leaves from the Diary of an Army Surgeon: or, Incidents of Field, Camp, and Hospital Life. New York, NY: John Bradburn, 1863, pp. 312. June 1862, September 1862

Forbes, Edwin, Artist. Rebel prisoners and battle flags captured at Chancellorsville, being taken to the rear by cavalry and infantry guards / E. Forbes. May 3, 1863. Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

Morse, Charles Fessenden, 1839-1926, “Letter from Charles Fessenden Morse, September 21, 1862,” in Letters Written During the Civil War, 1861-1865.Privately published, 1898, pp. 224.

Northrop, John Worrell, 1836(?)-, “Diary of John Worrell Northrop, May, 1861,” in Chronicles from the Diary of a War Prisoner in Andersonville and Other Military Prisons of the South in 1864 : Experiences, Observations, Interviews and Poems Written in Prison, with Historical Introduction. Wichita, KS: J.W. Northrop, 1904, pp. 228.

Sherman, William Tecumseh, 1820-1891, “Letter from William Tecumseh Sherman to John Sherman, January 25, 1863,” in The Sherman Letters: Correspondence between General and Senator Sherman from 1837 to 1891. Thorndike, Rachel Sherman, ed.. New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1894, pp. 398.

The two standards bearers, the day after battle / E.B. Bensell, del. ; T. Sinclair’s lith., Phila. ca. 1864. Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress

Timberlake, William H., 1836(?)-, “Letter from William H. Timberlake, September 27, 1861,” in Soldiers’ Letters, from Camp, Battle-field and Prison. New York, NY: Bunce & Huntington, 1865, pp. 472.

Author’s Reads:

Thompson, Kathleen Logothetis. “Removing Confederate Memory: How Far is Too Far?” Civil Discourse (web log), October 15, 2015. Accessed February 3, 2017.

Confederacy’s Founding Principles –

Stephens, Alexander. “Cornerstone Speech.” UL-Lafayette Computing Support Services. Accessed February 03, 2017.

Secession Acts of the Thirteen Confederate States.” Civil War Trust. Accessed February 03, 2017.

The Declaration of Causes of Seceding States.” Civil War Trust. Accessed February 03, 2017.

13 thoughts on “Finding Meaning in the Flag: Rebel Flag”

  1. I heard there were multiple official confederate flags during the civil war. Is that true? If so do you think they were interpreted differently as the war got more violent?

    1. Hi Wes, you are correct about there being multiple flags. The Confederacy went through a series of flag designs throughout the war as issues with the flags arose. I touch upon these changes briefly in my second post in the series and explain why they were necessary. As for their interpretations, that’s a great question. I think the flags were undoubtedly interpreted differently, but those differences depend on which side you’re looking at.
      From the Union perspective, the changing interpretations of the flag would have depended more on battlefield events and politics than on the design of the flag. The changing design of official confederate flags meant little, if anything, to Union supporters; they were used to seeing a variety of flags representing the individual states and troops in the Confederacy. The events on the battlefield would have been important though. During periods of Confederate victory, the flag was probably a terrifying sight to behold because Union soldiers had just been hearing stories of great feats achieved by Confederates. Once the Emancipation Proclamation was released, the Confederate flag would have been more closely tied to slavery. The increase in violence and continuation of the war would have made Union supporters angrier and their interpretations harsher.
      For Confederates, the design would have had more impact. The original flags closely resembled the U.S. flag and served as a tribute to our founding fathers. (The Confederacy firmly believed it was carrying out the true wishes of the founding fathers in the setup of its government.) The flag we identify as the Confederate flag today, the battle flag during the war, would have been more closely related to General Lee and the Army of Northern Virginian. The Army of Northern Virginia was the first army to start using the flag so Lee’s success as a military leader was attached to the meaning of the flag. Battlefield events would have also changed interpretations of the flag. Each time the Confederacy was victorious, the flag would have invoked interpretations of God’s favor, and losses would have meant God’s dismay.
      Thanks for your question!
      – Olivia

  2. I have a Minor history and u brought up some good pts ty. I’m sorry I didn’t read ur read your 1st or 2nd article I will now. Wow you blew me away with the answer! ty

    Never thought of religion and the effects on the battles and how the flag could influence that ty. Nice job ty. Wow!!

    Cant wait to discuss more! Are you doing a 4th series on the flag?

  3. Just another thought do u think when a standard when down …God forbid. Did most pick up the standard for there country or religion or just to inspire there friends.

    To do that knowing u have big target I think u got it right its religion. What are ur thoughts? Rough question.

    1. Wes –
      I want to start by saying thank you for your questions and positive feedback. I truly enjoy hearing from readers; it’s a big confidence boost to know that my writing is being well received and prompting new thoughts (which is always my goal). I’m sorry it took so long for me to respond to you though, I unfortunately do not get email notifications when new comments are made so I don’t always see them right away.
      In response to your question on religion, all three of your thoughts were correct. When the color bearer went down, which happened quite often, another soldier picked it up for country, religion, and inspiration. A flag has a lot of symbolism – you could write a whole book about it – but the main representation is country. As we discussed, a soldier’s (or anyone’s) view of country during the Civil War Era was highly connected to religion. Everyone believed that God was on their side, so the flag was a symbol of a nation chosen by God. Being so religious, soldiers weren’t going to drop a representation of God’s love. I also mentioned that the flag was a communication device, so someone needed to carry it to let soldiers know what’s happening in the fight and inspire them to keep moving forward or to fall back. There’s also a measure of pride and manhood that went into picking up the flag. To let the flag fall meant the enemy could pick it up and losing your flag to the enemy was the biggest source of shame possible. To make all of this more poignant, each man who picked up the flag knew they were becoming targets and that they were most likely going to get severely wounded or killed. That really shows how devoted they were to all the above factors.
      As for the future of my series, my fourth post is in the editing stage now and should be released soon. My goal is to put out a new post for the series every couple weeks until I run out of topics to talk about. I don’t know how long it will take to reach that point but I know I still have plenty of material to be able to continue for a few months.
      Thank you again for commenting!
      – Olivia

    1. Nice response btw. Ur logic is sound thanks for taking the time respond and helping me understand it better. People picking up the Banner knowing they will be targeted….still amazes me.

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