Do the Confederate Battle Flag’s Colors Have Religious Significance?

An image circulating online claims, among other things, that the use of red represents "the blood of Christ."

  • Published 15 March 2017

Claim

Each of the Confederate battle flag's colors symbollizes a religious concept.

Rating

Origin

An image circulating online promotes the claim that the colors of the Confederate battle flag were chosen for their religious meanings:

However, that interpretation runs counter to historical analysis.

According to the image, the use of red in the flag — which has become known as the “Stars and Bars” (not a historically accurate term) — symbolizes “the blood of Christ,” while the white border around the blue cross represents “the protection of God.” The cross itself, the claim states, hearkens to Saint Andrew, the first disciple of Jesus:

But author John Coski, the historian for the American Civil War Museum in Richmond, Virginia, pointed out in his 2005 book The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem that the battle flag’s designer, William Porcher Miles, actually strove to avoid attributing any religious meaning to it:

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.

In a report to the Confederate Congress, Miles said that the original Confederate national flag’s colors were red, white, and blue because they were “the great republican colors.” But here, again, he declined to ascribe religious meaning to them, instead saying that they were “emblematic of the three great virtues — of valor, purity and truth.” A picture of Miles’ report can be seen below:

Miles also explained the significance of the flag’s colors in a 27 August 1861 letter to Confederate Gen. P. G. T. Beauregard. The museum provided us with a scan of the letter, which can be seen below:

In the letter, Miles explained that the diagonal blue cross was preferable because it “avoided the religious objection” about the upright cross. He called the diagonal cross “more Heraldric [sic] than Ecclesiastical” and “significant of strength and progress.”

Historian John Coski told us in an e-mail that:

In short, according to the man who was most responsible for promoting what we call the Confederate flag, it was an explicitly secular flag and its colors represented republican virtues. As I wrote in my book, others promoted the “Southern Cross” for religious reasons and the flag took on religious meaning to many southerners even before the end of the war, but its original intent was not religious and its religious significance is primarily a 20th-century product.

Coski also noted that, while the battle flag has come to be known as the “Stars and Bars,” that nickname was actually coined for its predecessor, which was approved by the Confederate States Provisional Congress and used between 1861 and 1863.

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