Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

The Politically-Correct Origin of the Confederate Battle Flag

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on May 17, 2013

MilesFor many True Southrons™ today, the Confederate Battle Flag (or “Southern Cross”) has taken on a significance not only as a symbol of the Confederate military forces of 1861-65, but of the South as a whole. Some go farther still, insisting that the flag itself is a sacred Christian object, bearing the Cross of St. Andrew, reflecting the Confederate cause as explicitly Christian one.

While some folks choose to project their own religious interpretation onto the Confederate Battle Flag, the origin of the design was not only not sectarian, it was explicitly designed to avoid religious symbolism. As John Coski relates in his definitive study, The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem, the banner was designed by Confederate Congressman William Porcher Miles (right, 1822-1899), who set out in March 1861 to create a distinctive pattern for a national flag for the new Confederacy. Miles began with a familiar secessionist emblem, but subsequently modified his original layout with the intent to remove any overt Christian symbology:


SCSecessionWilliam Miles’s disappointment with the Stars and Bars [i.e., the “First National” flag of the Confederacy] went beyond his strong ideological objections to the Stars and Stripes. He had hoped that the Confederacy would adopt his own design for a national flag-the pattern that later generations mistakenly and ironically insisted on calling the Stars and Bars. The design that Miles championed was apparently inspired by one of the flags used at the South Carolina secession convention in December 1860. That flag featured a blue St. George’s (or upright) cross on a red field. Emblazoned on the cross were fifteen white stars representing the slaveholding states, and on the red field were two symbols of South Carolina: the palmetto tree and the crescent. Charles Moise, a self-described “southerner of Jewish persuasion,” wrote Miles and other members of the South Carolina delegation asking that “the symbol of a particular religion” not be made the symbol of the nation.
In adapting his flag to take these criticisms into account, Miles removed the palmetto tree and crescent and substituted a diagonal cross for the St. George’s cross. Recalling (and sketching) his proposal a few months later, Miles explained that the diagonal cross was preferable because “it avoided the religious objection about the cross (from the Jews & many Protestant sects), because it did not stand out so conspicuously as if the cross had been placed upright thus.” The diagonal cross was, Miles argued, “more Heraldric [sic] than Ecclesiastical, it being the ‘saltire’ of Heraldry, and significant of strength and progress (from the Latin salto, to leap).” [1]


Miles’ design didn’t get much traction as a national flag in early 1861, but it was remembered by General P. G. T. Beauregard later that year, and was soon adopted as the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia. [2] In that capacity is gained wide popularity in the South, and eventually became the key element in both the Second National and Third National Flags of the Confederacy. Miles’s original design was ultimately vindicated, and remains today one of the most widely-recognized flags anywhere.

Miles had made a point of using the heraldic term “saltire” to describe the diagonal pattern he settled on, and explicitly distanced his design from any intent at religious symbolism – “more Heraldric [sic] than Ecclesiastical.” This may come as a shock to some present-day Confederate heritage activists, some of whom wield their own religious beliefs like a cudgel and project back onto the Confederacy their own brand of Christianism. Nonetheless, the reality is that the revered Battle Flag was the result of a conscious attempt by Miles and his collaborators to make its design less Christian, and so less offensive to people of other faiths. Miles rejected the notion that his flag was a religious symbol at all, and instead sought to make it an explicitly secular one. And he did so as a member of the congressional delegation from South Carolina, the fire-eating state that led the South into secession in the first place. To put it in terms familiar to those who follow debates about its use and meaning, the design of the Confederate Battle Flag was, in the context of its time and place, a cave-in to “political correctness.”

Furthermore, as Coski pointed out recently in an essay at the New York Times Opinionator blog, contemporary references to the design as the “Southern Cross” were allusions to the astronomical constellation, not the Cross of Calvary. For patriotic Southerners like George Bagby, editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, it was the constellation — usually invisible below the southern horizon to those in the northern hemisphere — that was a symbol of the Confederacy’s future greatness. Channeling the imperialistic ambitions shared by groups like the Knights of the Golden Circle, Bagby saw in the constellation the destiny of the Confederacy:


The “Southern Cross” holds its place steadily in the Southern heart. It was in every mouth long before the war began; it remains in spite of all arguments against it. These arguments are ridiculous. First, we don’t see the Southern Cross in the heavens. Indeed! Do the British see the lion and the unicorn on the land or in the sea? Do the Austrians behold the double headed eagle anywhere in nature or out of it? What has seeing got to do with it? The truth is, we shall see the Southern Cross ere the destiny of the Southern master and his African slave is accomplished. That destiny does not stop short of the banks of the Amazon. The world of wonders in the animal and vegetable kingdom, of riches incalculable in the vast domain, watered by that gigantic stream, is the natural heritage of the Southron and his domestic slave. They alone can achieve its conquest and lay its untold wealth a tribute at the feet of commerce, the Queen consort of King Cotton. [3]


Anyone looking for the “Southern Cross” known to the Confederates of 1861 should look to the night sky, not the Holy Bible.

People can, and always will, find religious imagery and inspiration in all manner of temporal objects. That’s a matter of their particular belief, and they’re welcome to it. But neither should we confuse what people believe as a matter of faith, with the historical record. While symbols like the Confederate Battle Flag evolve through their use and association to have many different meanings to people, it’s also important to keep discussions about those meanings grounded in the words and actions of those associated with them, over the last 152 years. Open and frank discussion about those things will avail a far more comprehensive understanding of this symbol and its troubled past – and its future.


[1] John M. Coski, The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006), 5-6.

[2] Devereaux D. Cannon, Jr., The Flags of the Confederacy: An Illustrated History ( Memphis: St. Lukes Press, 1988), 58.

[3] George Bagby, “Editor’s Table,” Southern Literary Messenger, January 1862, 68.


Image: William Porcher Miles, Library of Congress.