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    Follow the Stories | Salt Lake City, Utah (2007)

    What's the Deal with Confederate Flags?


    Posted: 4.13.2007

    Close-up of the socks showing the Confederate flag

    Because of the design of the Confederate flag on the heel, appraiser Christopher Mitchell was able to date the making of these socks to sometime in 1861.

    First national flag

    The "Stars and Bars," the first national flag of the Confederate States of America, in use between 1861 and 1863.

    Second national flag

    The second national flag of the Confederacy.

    Third national flag

    The third national flag of the Confederacy.

    Naval jack

    The Confederate naval jack, today an undisputed symbol of the Confederacy, though it was never the official flag of the C.S.A.

    It's well known that the Civil War divided families, that it pitted "brother against brother"; but a pair of Civil War brevet colonel's socks — brought to the Salt Lake City Roadshow in June 2006 — which bear a Union flag on the upper part of the socks and a Confederate flag on the lower, raised this question: did the war also pit calf against heel?

    A closer look at why there are so many forms of the famous Confederate symbol

    When Tommy, the socks' owner, brought the set to the Roadshow, he told the appraiser he thought the original owner must have been a Confederate soldier, since the socks originated in Virginia, home to the Confederacy's second capital, Richmond. But Christopher Mitchell, of J. Christopher Mitchell American Antiques & Militaria, unraveled the meaning of the socks' unusual design by revealing some historical clues he said could be found in the details of the fabric.

    First, the version of the Confederate flag on the heel was one used only between 1861 and 1863. Second, and further narrowing the timeframe, the flag depicts only seven stars, representing the seven states that constituted the Confederate States Of America at its founding, meaning the socks could not have been produced any later than mid-1861 when the next group of southern states joined the Confederacy. At this point, Virginia had not yet seceded from the Union, so the Virginian who owned the socks would likely have been marching to war as a Union soldier "wearing," in Christopher's words, "his pride on his calf," with the Confederate flag's position on the heel indicating his wish to "stamp out the rebellion." Textiles from the Civil War era are rare; but ones such as these, with original, one-of-a-kind hand-stitched designs, are rarer still, inflating the socks' value from about $100 to between $1,500 and $2,000. The socks appear never to have been worn, so their condition is immaculate.

    Barely four years passed from the C.S.A.'s inception in 1861 to General Robert E. Lee's surrender in 1865 — not long as the lifespan of a country — yet its flag went through several redesigns during that short time. To help make sense of the story, below is a brief chronology of the Confederate flag's evolution.

    First National Flag
    During its brief existence, the Confederacy produced three different national flags. The first, known as the "Stars and Bars," was flown between 1861 and 1863, and featured one white and two red horizontal stripes, with a blue field in the upper left corner on which white stars, arranged in a circle, represented the seven states that were the first to secede: South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. (This is the flag that appears on the heel of Tommy's socks.) But it quickly became evident that the first national flag resembled the Union flag too closely; they could be easily confused for one another in the smoky conditions of the battlefield.

    Second National Flag
    The second national flag flew between 1863 and 1865. Its design corrected the previous flag's problematic likeness to the Union flag by scrapping the blue field with white stars as well as the red and white stripes — in short, all the distinguishing elements of the contemporary (and current) U.S. flag. It was known as the "Stainless Banner" on account of its being about three-fourths pure white, with the upper corner taken up by a red square with two blue bars forming an X. By this point, the Confederacy had grown to its largest size — 11 states, plus Kentucky and Missouri, neither of which officially seceded from the Union — and so featured a total of 13 stars inside the blue bands. (In fact, the first national flag would eventually display 13 stars as well.) But this design introduced its own problem: when furled, or viewed in poor light or hectic conditions, it was nearly impossible to distinguish from a white flag of surrender.

    Third National Flag
    The final redesign was completed about a month before the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, in April of 1865. It was identical to the second national flag except for the addition of a vertical red border down the right-hand edge. This addition, while evoking the catastrophic bloodshed of the preceding four years, was functional, too: it corrected the second flag's accidental resemblance to the flag of defeat. Very few of these flags were disseminated during the war, though many were produced afterward.

    ... But what about that other Rebel flag?
    Despite all that, the image that most people call to mind when they think of the Confederacy — a rectangular flag with blue, star-filled bars crossed on a red field — was actually the Confederate Naval Jack from 1863 to 1865, and never the national flag of the Confederacy. Nor was it even the battle flag, as it is often called: the battle flag was square, not rectangular.

    So why were there so many flags for a nation that only existed for four years (if it can be said to have existed at all)? Communications were much slower in those days, for one thing, so it would have taken a long time for flaws in a flag's design to become apparent and for word to have reached the Confederate congress, which was responsible for the flag's appearance. And subsequent to a redesign, it would have taken many weeks for word to get out to the scattered Confederate army that the flag had changed, and many more weeks for the flags themselves to arrive via the military supply chain. Consequently, there were many more unofficial flags than even the ones listed above, with unit commanders often taking matters into their own hands and designing their own.

    But the profusion of flags has a beneficial side effect for those of us wanting to date a Civil War artifact. By figuring out which version of a Confederate flag is represented on a piece, and by counting the stars depicted on it, it's often possible to trace quite precisely the provenance of an antique, and to put to rest any questions about its origin. And in the case of the $2,000 socks, the historical details lead to the unexpected conclusion that a Virginian served as a brevet colonel not for the Confederacy, but for the Union.

    See the Salt Lake City, Utah (2007) page for a list of all appraisals from this city.

    More ANTIQUES ROADSHOW articles from the Arms & Militaria category:
    "American Indian" or "Native American"? (Bismarck, 2006)
    Translation, Please ... (Tampa, 2006)
    So, Whose Pistol Is It? (Honolulu, 2007)
    Armed With a Colt Letter ... (Mobile, 2007)

    Ben Phelan is a freelance writer in Louisville, Kentucky. He has been a contributor to ANTIQUES ROADSHOW Online since 2007.

    Flag images from Wikipedia.

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