Civil War flags were a carnival of sizes, shapes, designs and colors. The primary Union Civil War flags were the Unites States flag, known as the Stars and Stripes, and the regimental colors. The latter was a dark blue cloth, usually with gold fringe; stars for each state appeared at the top, above a version of the Great Seal of the United States: an American eagle with a stars-and-stripes shield on his chest and a banner with the motto “E Pluribus Unum” (“Out of many, one”) in his mouth. His talons hold arrows of war and an olive branch representing peace. Below is a banner with the regiment or battery’s name.
The Confederate States of America had three different national flags over the course of four years. The most recognizable Confederate flag, however, is not one of the South’s national flags but the Confederate battle flag, also known as the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia.
Additionally, on both sides there were corps, brigade and regimental flags, flags for various branches of military service, etc.
The United States flag: the red, white and blue standard—flying above ranks of blue-clad troops, changed slightly throughout the Civil War, due to the addition of new states: Kansas was admitted to the Union on January 29, 1861, followed by West Virginia in 1863 and Nevada in 1864. With each new state came a new star, so the U.S. flag boasted 36 stars by war’s end.
It also got a new nickname. When Union troops captured Nashville, Tennessee, in February 1862, an old shipmaster living there, Captain William Driver, brought out the large American flag he had hidden. Though it only had 24 stars—it had been given to Driver in 1831—it was raised above the Tennessee capital. He called the flag “Old Glory” and the name stuck.
Read more about Union Flags.
The Confederacy had several official flags during its lifespan. The first Confederate National flag resembled the U.S. flag and was called “Stars and Bars.” The Confederate Battle Flag was created so it would not be mistaken for the Union Flag in battle; it was used primarily by the Army of Northern Virginia. It has become the single most identifiable symbol of the Confederacy.
Read more about Confederate Flags.
Unit Flags of the Civil War
Many corps, divisions, brigades, regiments, and even individual companies carried unique flags, many of them designed and sewn by women “back home” who presented the unit with the flag.
In a number of cases, the state seal of a regiment would be embroidered or painted onto a flag. A unit that performed well in a battle might get permission to add the name of that battle on its flag, and veteran units might have a half-dozen or more battle names on their banners.
A few examples of unusual flags of the Civil War include:
- Army of the Potomac Headquarters flag: a swallow-tailed guidon of purple with a golden eagle sitting on a silver wreath
- The Irish Brigade, Union: Among the most famous Civil War flags, it is a field of green with a gold harp at center above shamrocks and below a sun peeking out from a cloud. A banner across the top names the regiment of the brigade and one across the bottom proclaims in Gaelic “Who never retreated from the clash of spears.” Each regiment within the brigade carried its own variation on this design.
- Company C, South Carolina 18th Artillery Battalion, Confederate: a white flag with a gold or red star at upper left; a green representation of a palmetto palm tree dominates the center.
- Van Dorn Flag, Confederate: A yellow rectangle around a red field containing 13 scattered stars and a white crescent moon at upper left, it was designed by the Confederate commander Earl Van Dorn.