Finding Meaning in the Flag: Birth of a Symbol

This post is the second 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.

By Olivia Ortman ’19

The only logical place to start our journey with the Confederate flag is at its birth to examine meanings bestowed upon it by the Confederate soldiers. To do this, we must look at the history of flags within the Confederate nation. Upon its creation in 1861, the Confederate nation immediately set out to design a new flag. Headed by South Carolina’s former state representative, William Porcher Miles, a committee was formed to choose a design that would be original to the Confederacy while remaining reminiscent of the U.S. flag. Although Southerners had split from the Union itself, they were not splitting from their shared history. Southerners were very proud of the founding fathers and the rights they had guaranteed, particularly property rights and the rights of the people to choose their government. It was these very rights and the legacy of the founding fathers that Southerners saw themselves defending when they made the decision to secede. This led to the acceptance of a design known as the Stars and Bars, which mimicked the original United States flag in color and arrangement.  George Pickett emphasized the importance of this connection when he wrote in a letter in May, 1862 that he would fight “till our Stars and Bars wave over the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

Photo credit: Clay Moss
Photo credit: Clay Moss,

However, the connection to the U.S. design was also the Confederate flag’s doom. Very quickly after its adoption as the national flag, generals began complaining that it was causing confusion on the battlefield by being indistinguishable from the enemy’s. On the battlefield, the flag was instrumental as a communication device. It was a way to denote advance or retreat and friend or foe. Confederate Soldier George Lee wrote on December 9, 1861, “the enemy knows our national flag and had already tried to deceive us by hoisting it at their head.” He did not clarify at which battle the enemy had supposedly done this, and it is possible that he mistook the Union flag for the Stars and Bars, seeing as how similar they were. For these reasons, it was imperative for the flags on the field to be easily distinguishable from the enemy’s. Continue reading “Finding Meaning in the Flag: Birth of a Symbol”

Loving and Forever: George Pickett and LaSalle Corbell

By Elizabeth Smith ’17

“So listen and cross your heart that you won’t tell. I love you—love you—love you, and oh, little one, I want to see you so!” These words, supposedly written by General George E. Pickett to his future wife LaSalle Corbell, sum up the nature of Valentine’s Day. They are full of love, even as they were supposedly written in a time of war. In 1913—thirty-eight years after Pickett’s death—LaSalle Pickett published The Heart of A Soldier: As Revealed in the Intimate Letters of General George E. Pickett. This collection of letters were, according to LaSalle, written by her husband to her during the Civil War. The letters provide detailed information about various campaigns and battles as well as serving as love letters from Pickett to his wife. The collection sold very well, but it eventually became a controversial work.

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George E. Pickett. Photograph via Wikimedia Commons.
George Pickett and LaSalle Corbell met sometime between 1850 and 1860, but their relationship didn’t truly begin until 1861 or 1862. They would marry on September 15, 1863 when LaSalle was twenty (she would later claim she was sixteen) and George was thirty-eight. This was George’s third and final marriage. It would last until George’s death twelve years later. After her husband’s death, LaSalle would dedicate the rest of her life to preserving her husband’s memory.

Controversy arose in 1968, however, when historian Gary Gallagher made the argument that The Heart of a Soldier was not comprised of letters written by George Pickett. Instead, he argued that it was, in fact, LaSalle Corbell Pickett who either heavily edited or completely wrote the letters. There are several reasons for this argument to be made. The first is that the letters hold far more information than General Pickett could have had at the time of writing. The next is that the tone of the letters did not match with letters know to have been composed by George Pickett. Continue reading “Loving and Forever: George Pickett and LaSalle Corbell”

“I had tried to avoid the responsibility of the decision, but in vain.”: James Longstreet, Edward Porter Alexander, and Pickett’s Charge

???I had tried to avoid the responsibility of the decision, but in vain.???: James Longstreet, Edward Porter Alexander, and Pickett???s ChargeIn the years following the Civil War, Pickett???s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg became synonymous with both …

By Mary Roll ’12

In the years following the Civil War, Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg became synonymous with both the height of Confederate promise and the beginning of the end of the Confederacy. Much of the blame for Confederate failure at Gettysburg has historically been placed upon the shoulders of Lieutenant General James Longstreet, who was second in command to General Robert E. Lee. There are many reasons for this: some of Longstreet’s subordinates insisted that he deliberately hesitated in executing Lee’s wishes so that the charge would be made only in desperation with diminished likelihood of Confederate victory. Others maintained that Longstreet simply acted out of anger and frustration when Lee refused to adjust his plans to reflect what Longstreet desired. However, attempting to peg Longstreet as guilty or to absolve him of any wrongdoing is not what matters. It is much more useful to objectively examine the events of July 3 from existing evidence and accounts to try to understand the choices Longstreet made in relation to the orders he both received and gave, and to recognize how those decisions were perceived by Longstreet himself and others both during the Battle of Gettysburg and after the Civil War.

July 1st, 1863, was an encouraging victory for the Confederates, with the Union driven through the town of Gettysburg from the high ridges and hills to its north and west.  On July 2nd, the Confederates made an effort to sweep Union troops off the Round Tops and Culps and Cemetery Hills.  These brought the Confederates nearer still to success. Thus, July 3rd was crucial to Confederate success at Gettysburg. General Lee believed that one final push would break the Union line. He chose to attack the Union line at its center at Cemetery Hill, where he believed the line was weakest and most easily penetrable. He desired to first launch an artillery bombardment, then to follow up with a main infantry assault. It was essential that the attack be coordinated and well timed. Lee’s plan for the grand infantry assault of July 3rd, which would come to be known as Pickett’s Charge, relied upon the assumption that the Confederate cannonade preceding it would do significant enough damage to the Union artillery to weaken and break it down. This assumption allowed Lee to believe that his troops could successfully make the attack.

General Longstreet was in a difficult position on the final day of the battle. Devoted to a defensive-offensive strategy at Gettysburg, which he hoped would force Union commander George Gordon Meade to attack first, Longstreet believed Lee was committed to the same fighting style and should execute the battle accordingly. When Lee demonstrated his desire to deviate from this plan on July 3rd, Longstreet tried – repeatedly but unsuccessfully — to caution Lee against making the charge. He could not, however, convince Lee to take another course of action. Longstreet believed his best option for ensuring that he carried out his commander’s orders and that any chance for success was not wasted was to put the opening bombardment, upon which the effectiveness of the entire operation weighed, into the hands of the gifted young artillerist Lieutenant Colonel Edward Porter Alexander. From his position at the Peach Orchard, remembered Alexander, he was to “give the enemy the most effective cannonade possible. It was not meant simply to make a noise, but to try & cripple him—to tear him limbless, as it were, if possible.” Continue reading ““I had tried to avoid the responsibility of the decision, but in vain.”: James Longstreet, Edward Porter Alexander, and Pickett’s Charge”