The Confederate Battle Flag and its meanings
The Confederate battle flag has been the topic of much discussion regarding its meaning and symbolism. We asked our historian, John Coski, to discuss the flag and its meanings. John is an acknowledged expert on the Confederate battle flag, and is author of The Confederate Battle Flag: America's Most Embattled Emblem (2005, Harvard University Press). His answers can be seen in this video.
The Confederate Battle Flag: Evolution of a Symbol
Over time, the symbolism associated with the Confederate battle flag has evolved, from its original use on the battlefield to its use as a political and social symbol. Historian John Coski discusses this evolution in this video.
Civil War Flags
During the Civil War, there were practical reasons that the color guard, a military force, was devoted to carrying and protecting the colors or flag for a military unit. Flags identified troops and provided a moveable landmark on the battlefield. Flags held patriotic, religious and emotional symbolism. Soldiers formed an emotional bond and the flag attained a nearly religious significance.
While the majority of flags were produced and issued by the military quartermaster clothing depots, many units, especially at the onset of the war, carried individual unit colors privately produced and financed. As the men of communities organized themselves into units, the women showed their patriotism by organizing in support of the units. These women worked hard, spending a great deal of time making flags, since the newly formed Confederacy had very few, and presented them to the troops with great fanfare.
In Our Vaults
Since 1892 when the first flag was donated to the Museum of the Confederacy, we have continued to preserve these important artifacts, culminating in a collection that includes more than 822 total flags and flag fragments. These include wartime, postwar, miniatures, and reproductions. The Museum houses the largest single collection of Confederate and Union national, state, presentation, company and regimental flags including nearly 500 wartime flags. More than half of the Museum’s flag collection are captured flags entrusted to the Museum by mandate of the United States Congress and the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1905 and 1906. The remaining flags are from private donations. This collection continues to increase in this manner today. If you would like to inquire about donating a flag or related object to The American Civil War Museum, please email us.
The Museum’s flag collection is housed in a dedicated 1,300 square-foot storage and examination facility. The 100 extra-fragile silk flags are preserved in a custom-built flat storage system. In the 1990s, the Museum embarked upon a systematic program to conserve the flag collection and increase research and access to the flags. Requests for research information and access to the flag collection have steadily increased over the years. Individuals, researchers, authors and publishers all over the world seek out the Museum for research information on its flag collection.
Flag Conservation and Preservation
Would you like to help preserve these important artifacts from the past? Please click here to learn more about our flag conservation and research efforts, or to donate to the Museum's Flag Conservation Program.
Explore our Civil War flags
For a listing of all flags in the Museum's collection, please type "flags" in the "Search our Collection" link.
Interested in seeing some of our flags on exhibit? Several flags are on display in the permanent galleries of our museums in Richmond and Appomattox, and for a limited time in the Richmond museum, see the exhibit Colors of the Gray: Consecration and Controversy, which is devoted entirely to Confederate flags, and their evolution over time as symbols.