AP Explains: Confederate flags draw differing responses

Full Screen
1 / 6

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

FILE - In this Friday, July 3, 2020, file photo, Civil War reenactors marching with Confederate battle flags during their reenactment of Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg National Military Park in Gettysburg, Pa. The banner, with its red field and blue X design, is the best known of the flags of the Confederacy, but the short-lived rebel nation also had other flags. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

Public pressure amid protests over racial inequality forced Mississippi to furl its Confederate-inspired state flag for good, yet Georgia’s flag is based on another Confederate design and lives on. Why the difference?

The Confederacy used more than one flag while it was fighting the United States to preserve slavery, and most of the designs are largely forgotten more than 150 years after the Civil War ended. Here are some facts about the flags of the Confederacy and how those symbols are viewed today.


It depends on how you count, but lots. The Confederate States of America had three different national flags during its brief existence from 1861 through 1865, and multiple other flags were used by individual states, army and naval groups.

The flag that's best known today — a red background split by a blue X that's decorated with white stars — is often called the “Confederate battle flag.” It originated in late 1861 as the fighting flag of the nation's main eastern force, the Army of Northern Virginia, said John M. Coski, a historian and author with the American Civil War Museum in Richmond, Virginia.

Other Confederate units to the west adopted the battle flag as the war went on, and it became the banner most commonly carried by troops, said Peter Ansoff, president of the North American Vexillological Association. The X design was incorporated into the nation's national flag in 1863 and remained there through the end of the war.


With multiple variations in size, shape and decorations, the battle flag of the defeated South lived on after the war, largely because of the soldiers who fought under it, Coski said.

“This was a continuation of its wartime prominence. I think the reason for it is that it was the flag most closely associated with Confederate soldiers,” he said. The banner took hold across the defeated region like nothing else.

The battle flag became an unofficial symbol of the “lost cause” movement that sought to emphasize the supposed nobility and righteousness of the South while downplaying the fact that the Confederacy was meant to perpetuate slavery. White supremacists in South Carolina during Reconstruction used at least one wartime flag, Coski said, and the Ku Klux Klan began using the battle flag in the 1930s or early '40s.

Today's KKK still uses the battle flag, which also is part of the emblem of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a Southern history and heritage organization. A similar group for women, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, uses the first Confederate national flag, which has two red stripes, one white stripe and a blue square with stars.


While the battle flag is recognized almost universally as “the Confederate flag,” its association with hate and white supremacy has taken a toll. The flag has lost much of its official prominence, a trend that accelerated during protests over the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota. With biracial and bipartisan support, Mississippi last month retired the final state flag with the rebel design.

Meanwhile, Confederate national flags like the “Stainless Banner” and the “Blood-Stained Banner" or the unofficial “Bonnie Blue Flag” are virtually unknown to many. Southern historical parks and museums, some of which perpetuated the lost cause mythology, often display and store them, but generally without the controversy attached to the battle flag.

Georgia's current state flag, adopted after the state removed the battle flag from its state flag in 2003, even includes the design of the first Confederate national flag, the “Stars and Bars.” While some complained that the new design also was Confederate, the national flag design generally doesn't have the “racist associations” of the battle flag, Ansoff said.

The state flags of Alabama and Florida resemble the battle flag, with a red X on a white background; Florida's also has a state seal in the middle. Both one-time Confederate states adopted the flags while the "lost cause" movement was growing after the war.