The Stars and Bars, which the Confederate Congress had adopted in March 1861 because it resembled the once-beloved Stars and Stripes, proved impractical and even dangerous on the battlefield because of that resemblance. (That problem was what compelled Confederate commanders to design and employ the vast array of other battle flags used among Confederate forces throughout the war.)Battle flags become totems for the men who serve under them, for their esprit de corps, for their sacrifices. They assume emotional significance for soldiers’ families and their descendants. Anyone today hoping to understand why so many Americans consider the flag an object of veneration must understand its status as a memorial to the Confederate soldier.
It is, however, impossible to carve out a kind of symbolic safe zone for the Confederate battle flag as the flag of the soldier be-cause it did not remain exclusively the flag of the soldier. By the act of the Confederate government, the battle flag’s meaning is inextricably intertwined with the Confederacy itself and, thus, with the issues of slavery and states’ rights—over which readers of Civil War Times and the American public as a whole engage in spirited and endless debate. By 1862, many Southern leaders scorned the Stars and Bars for the same reason that had prompted the flag’s adoption the year before: it too closely resembled the Stars and Stripes. As the war intensified and Southerners became Confederates, they weaned themselves from symbols of the old Union and sought a new symbol that spoke to the Confederacy’s “confirmed independence.” That symbol was the Confederate battle flag. Historian Gary Gallagher has written persuasively that it was Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, not the Confederate government, that best embodied Confederate nationalism. Lee’s stunning victories in 1862–63 made his army’s battle flag the popular choice as the new national flag. On May 1, 1863, the Confederacy adopted a flag—known colloquially as the Stainless Banner—featuring the ANV battle flag emblazoned on a white field. For the remainder of the Confederacy’s life, the soldiers’ flag was also, in effect, the national flag.