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This is the second in a three-part blog series curated by Richard White about the Museum's new book, Civil War Flags of Tennessee (The University of Tennessee Press)
Civil War Flags of Tennessee, Stephen D. Cox, Principal Author and Editor-in-Chief (The University of Tennessee Press)
by Richard White.
The Tennessee State Museum’s new book, Civil War Flags of Tennessee, by principal author and editor-in-chief Stephen Cox, is currently available through the University of Tennessee Press. Our first blog in this three-part series focused on the importance of flags for the military. Flags are easily visible on a battlefield and mark the lines of units in opposing armies. They are also used by commanders to coordinate efforts by different portions of the army and to move troops on the battlefield. This installment focuses on the construction of these flags and the features present that instilled unit cohesion and morale in the face of daunting combat and the death of many comrades.
Flags, for the most part, were something that the opposing sides generally agreed upon. Both saw the need for flags to be present in their armies and both sides used flags for the same purposes. One of the strengths of Cox’s work is a collection of essays at the beginning of the book that place the flags in the context of the war. Rebecca Ansell Rose’s essay, “Presented by the Ladies: Flags from the Homefront,” details the early war efforts of women in the North and South to provide flags for the men marching off to war.
When the war began, local militia units were combined with volunteers to form regiments, the basic unit of Civil War armies. Almost all these militia companies marched off to camps of instruction carrying individual and unique flags. Generally, the best company flag was adopted as the regimental standard; the other flags went into the baggage train. Women were integral in the creation of these flags. Work was generally done in sewing circles, giving the women a sense of community as they made the flags.
Harper’s Weekly, June 29, 1861, “The War-Making Havelocks for the Volunteers.” While this image illustrates the making of headwear, similar sewing circles made flags. Courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/348790
The Federal government kept the United States flag as its standard during the war, and one of these was carried by each Union regiment, along with a distinctive regimental banner. The Confederate armies created new flags for their new nation. The St. Andrew’s Cross battle flag that is so commonly displayed in relation to the Confederacy was produced for the government by Hetty, Constance, and Jennie Cary, cousins in Richmond, Virginia, as detailed by Rose in the essay. One of the reasons these flags were so precious to the men who fought under them was the fact that they were generally made by women in their communities. As the war progressed, flags began to be made in government depots, but the manufactured parts were generally still sewn by women in the communities near the depots. Some of the personal touches seen on early flags disappeared, but the importance of the flag to the men never did.
The Meaning of Inscriptions on a Flag
The most common question asked when visitors see the flags in the State Museum’s collection is: what do the images and phases on the flags mean? Regiments in the Civil War, on both sides, were proud of their service and were equally proud of the flag they carried. Consequently, the men emblazoned their banners with their unit name, engagements they in which they fought, and representations of the accomplishments of the unit. One example from the Museum’s collection is the flag of the 5th Confederate Infantry. The design is known as a Hardee pattern, created early in the war by Simon Bolivar Buckner. It became associated with William J. Hardee’s division, and later more famously as the flag of Maj. Gen. Patrick R. Cleburne’s division. The blue flag, with white border and centered white disk, is supposed to represent a full moon in a cloudless sky.
Hardee Pattern Battle Flag, 5th Confederate Infantry, C.S.A. (Tennessee State Museum collection, 6.498)
In July 1862, by act of the Confederate Congress, the 2nd Tennessee Infantry and the 21st Tennessee Infantry were consolidated into a new regiment, the 5th Confederate Infantry. This was due to serious losses in the regiments early in the war, especially at the Battle of Shiloh. The newly consolidated regiment fought at the battles of Perryville, Stones River, Chickamauga, and the opening phases of the Atlanta Campaign. In the battles before the city of Atlanta, on July 22, 1864, the flag of the 5th Confederate Infantry was captured by the 15th Michigan Infantry, U.S.A. The handwritten inscription in the central white disk reads, "Captured by 15th Michigan Inftry (sic) 3d Brig 4th Div 15th AC July 22d 1864." The battle honors placed on the flag illustrate a regiment that was heavily engaged throughout the war, and include BELMONT, FARMINGTON, PERRYVILLE, MURFREESBORO, CHICKAMAUGA, and RINGGOLD GAP. The crossed cannon in the central white moon signify that the regiment had captured a battery of artillery.
Detail, 5th Confederate Infantry, C.S.A. Flag (Tennessee State Museum collection, 6.498)
It is important to remember that all flags, both Union and Confederate, have a long history, and many of them contain features that were important to the men who marched under them. This blog series has covered the history of flags for the military and highlighted some of the scholarly essays that begin the book and give context to the work.
The third and final entry in this blog series will focus on the stories behind three flags currently on display in the Museum’s permanent gallery, Civil War and Reconstruction.
Richard White is the Tennessee State Museum curator of 18th and 19th Century History