Historically, flags have been used for a variety of purposes: to show your allegiance, to represent your familial line, and to identify your people on a battlefield. Interestingly, the many flags that appeared during the Civil War reflected all of these purposes and so much more. While it's not altogether unheard of to find an authentic Civil War flag, it's rather unusual thanks to their fragile conditions in the nearly 200 years since the battle. Yet, these flags are more relevant than ever as the past becomes intertwined with the present.
Significant Flags of the Confederacy
The common misconception about Confederate flags is that there's a single flag that was used during the war--a particular flag which has been embroiled in a significant amount of controversy considering its origins. However, there were multiple different flags that were used in various capacities over the course of the war, each of which have their own unique place in American history.
The Stars and Bars
The Stars and Bars is considered the first flag of the Confederate States of America. It was purposely designed to resemble the U.S. flag, but its similar design caused confusion on the battlefield because of this. While the Stars and Bars originally started out with only seven stars on, by the end of its tenure, it ended up with 13.
Battle Flag of the Confederacy
The best known, and most controversial, flag to come out of the Confederate States of America was the Battle Flag of the Confederacy. This flag was designed by General Beauregard following the first Battle of Bull Run and depicts thirteen stars across a blue and white x on a bright red background. It's this flag that's come to be representative of modern interpretations of the Confederate movement.
Stainless Banner was the second national flag of the Confederacy; it was created by an Act of the Congress of the Confederate States and made by the Richmond Clothing Depot. The flag had a white field with a red square in the upper left corner, on top of which was a blue cross decorated with thirteen stars.
Third National was the third flag of the Confederacy. It was decided that Stainless Banner should be modified to include a red bar on the right side so that it wouldn't be mistaken for the well-known white flag of truce.
Bonnie Blue was an all blue flag with a single white star in the middle, and it marked the Mississippi's secession.
Army of Northern Virginia's Flag
The Army of Northern Virginia was General Robert E. Lee's contingent, and the army flew a slightly downsized version of the Battle Flag of the Confederacy. General Lee's popularity and his army's continued advancements helped solidify this flag's design in America's cultural memory.
Contemporary State Flags
Several state flags are considered authentic Confederate flags including:
Significant Union Flags of the Civil War
Just like the Confederacy, the Union also had multiple flags that it used during the war; yet, the well-known American flag still remained a fixture of the country that the Union army was fighting to protect.
33-Star Union Flag
The 33-Star flag was the typical American flag with a 33rd star added for Oregon just prior to the breakout of the Civil War.
Fort Sumter Flag
The Fort Sumter flag flew over Fort Sumter during the Confederate bombardment in April of 1861. It was similar to the 33 Star flag, although the stars were arranged in a different order, and the original flag is currently on display at the fort's museum.
Updated Union Flag - 34th and 35th Stars
As the names imply, the 34th Star and 35th Star flags had one star added, for Kansas and West Virginia, respectively.
General Custer's Headquarters Flag
General Custer's Headquarters flag was made by the general's wife and flew over his headquarters. Unfortunately, the original was lost during a battle, though many copies have been created in its wake. The flag was half blue and half white and had two crossed white swords on it.
General Sheridan's Headquarters Flag
General Sheridan lead the cavalry of the Army of the Potomac, a substantial fighting contingent in the Union army, and his efforts to push back General Lee's forces in the Shenandoah Valley helped solidify the war in the Union's favor. His headquarter's flag is an interesting mixture of red and blue, with a pair of sabers crossing each other in white and a star and number 2 attached above and below.
Union Military Unit Flags
The 2nd Tennessee Infantry, 4th U.S. Infantry and 144th Regiment, New York Volunteers are flags which were all designed for specific military groups, as was common during the period. In this way, you might come across individualized flags for garrisons and units in your searches.
Collecting Authentic Flags vs. Replicas
Given the Civil War's popularity, it's unsurprising that there's a plethora of replica fabric and paper flags from the period that you can find online and in high tourist areas across the United States. While you can find genuine antique flags from the Civil War at auction websites like eBay and Etsy, there's only a small number of flags ever made available. Thanks to this high-demand and low-supply, when they do come available, their prices are incredibly high.
Watch History Fly By
So much meaning lies in the small shreds of fabric that made up the Civil War flags of yore. While it's unlikely that you'll ever find (or afford) an authentic flag from the period unless it's been passed own through your family already, you always have the opportunity to sit with these pieces of cultural memory in exhibits around the United States.