December 20, 1861: The Battle of Dranesville and the Confederate Battle Flag’s Debut

On a chilly morning, four regiments of Confederate infantry started off from their camps near Centreville, Virginia. They accompanied a battery of four cannon, 150 cavalry troopers, somewhere between 200-400 wagons, and were led by Brig. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart. The force, equaling about 2,500 men, did not know that they were headed to the small town of Dranesville, about sixteen miles north of their location, nor did they know that when they got there, they would run into a Federal force about twice their number. A battle ensued; one that sent the defeated Confederate forces scrambling from the field, leaving their dead where they lay.

An image showing the Federal line at Dranesville. The Confederates are in the background. (LOC)

 

In the grand scheme of history, it was a small engagement, one that barely registers a footnote in many histories, if anything at all. But for today, to mark its anniversary, I want to look into a theory I have, and one that’s been bouncing around my head for a while as I have researched, written, and presented about the battle. And that is this: I believe that the small Battle of Dranesville marked the first time in history that a Confederate Battle Flag was carried into action.

Some background. Following the Confederate victory at Manassas, General G.T. Beauregard worried over the numerous occasions of mistaken identities and friendly fire incidents due to the fact that the Stars and Bars, with its three horizontal bars and circle of stars, looked so similar to the Stars and Stripes.[1] He there “determined that the Confederate soldier must have a flag so distinct from that of the enemy that no doubt should ever again endanger his cause on the field of the battle.”[2]

Beauregard met with fellow General Joseph Johnston and a staff officer, William P. Miles, to work out the details on how exactly the flag should Miles look. would forever claim credit for the design of the soon-to-be famous look of a cross on a field of red, with gold stars (at least at first) crisscrossing each other. With Johnston’s approval of the plan, the specifics were hashed out. Infantry regiments, for example, were to have a flag forty-eight inches square, while cavalry had smaller thirty-inches square banners. The generals looked to the army’s quartermaster, William Cabell, to fulfill the mission of procuring the new flags.[3]

Cabell, in turn, gave the assignment to Lieutenant Colin Selph, who rushed to Richmond to procure as much silk, bunting, and other fabrics needed for the flag. Working alongside three woman—Constance, Hetty, and Jennie Cary—Selph had protypes of the new flags made up. And then the women of Richmond, in church groups and sewing circles, went to work like beavers on a dam. In a short period of time, 75 women had created 120 battle flags.[4]

Colin Selph

The flags were uniform in shape and design, but hardly in color. Selph wrote in 1905 that when he went to every Richmond merchant he could find, “I bought the silk, red, blue and white (red of all tints, magenta, solferino, pink, etc.”[5] That did not matter, though. Beauregard had his new flags.

They were distributed to the Confederate army’s camps around Centreville in November. Most famously, on November 28, the entire army was turned out for a grand spectacle of politicians and processions. Thomas Blackwell, a soldier in the 6th South Carolina (which would soon fight at Dranesville), wrote home, “We had a general turn out today for the purpose of presenting us with the Battle flags and it was quite a military scene.” A South Carolinian in the same brigade wrote, “Each regiment was presented with a battle flag. . . It was the grandest time we have ever had.”[6]

By early December, even the forward outposts of the army, like the regiments stationed at Leesburg, had received their flags. Every single regiment in the Confederate Army of the Potomac now had their new flag.[7] And Beauregard made it clear that he fully expected the army to use those flags. He issued Special Orders No. 505 on November 24, 1861: “In the event of an action with the enemy, the new battle flag recently issued to the regiments of this army corps will alone be carried on the field. Meanwhile regimental commanders will accustom their men to the flag, so that they may become thoroughly acquainted with it.”[8]

Which brings us back to December 20, 1861. As Stuart’s four regiments of infantry came into contact with the brigade of the Pennsylvania Reserves at Dranesville, it had been twenty-three days since they had received their new banners. In those preceding days, there had been no substantial combat between the armies. And per Beauregard’s orders, the 1st Kentucky, 6th South Carolina, 10th Alabama, and 11th Virginia Infantry would have carried no other flag with them. Which is all to say that on December 20, the four Confederate infantry regiments carried into action, and with no other banners beside them, their new battle flags for the first time.

1861 Pattern battle flag of the 6th South Carolina. Originally a pinkish color, the flag has faded, and had battle honors added to it later. (Confederate Relic Room, Columbia South Carolina)

Over the next two hours the soldiers carrying those flags were shot to pieces. Attacking through thick pine trees, the Confederate infantry was caught in a crossfire between Federal infantry and a well-placed Federal battery that made shrapnel and canister rain from the sky. In the 6th South Carolina, Color bearer William McAlily was shot in the hand, dropping the new flag to the ground. Another soldier picked the flag up, but they were shot, too. A Federal soldier wrote, “The flag of the regiment in our front went down several times from the time they left the woods until they returned to it.”[9]

 

And so, the debut of the Confederate battle flag was met with a less than auspicious result. Stuart’s men, having suffered close to 200 casualties, retreated back to Centreville. The flags, dipped with the blood of the men who fell carrying them, were brought safely back. Throughout the rest of the war it would be a constant sight. As we continue to ponder the flag’s place in memory and place, its premiere at Dranesville reveals that every story has a beginning. Its end has not been written yet.

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[1] While most historians refer to Beauregard’s first initials as “P.G.T.”, he had long before the Civil War dropped the “P” and signed his correspondence just “G.T. Beauregard.” T. Harry Williams, P.G.T. Beauregard: Napoleon in Gray (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, Second Edition 1995), 6. 

[2] Carlton McCarthy, “Origin of the Confederate Battle Flag,” in Southern Historical Society Papers, ,Volume 8, January to December 1880, 498.

[3] John M. Coski,  The Confederate Battleflag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005, 9.

[4] Ibid., 9-10; Kent Masterson Brown, The Confederacy’s First Battle Flag: The Story of the Southern Cross (Gretna: Pelican Publishing Company, 2014), 60-61, 72-73.

[5] The Times-Democrat, New Orleans, April 26, 1906.

[6] Coski, 10; Thomas Blackwell Letter November 28, 1861, South Carolina Historical Society;  J.W. Reid, History of the Fourth Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers. Greenville: Shannon & Co., 1892), 60.

[7] The Confederate army still used “Army of the Potomac,” a title it had had even before Manassas. “Army of Northern Virginia” would not become prevalent until the spring of 1862.

[8] Official Records of the War of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, Series 1, Volume 5, 969.

[9] William McAlily Compiled Service Record; John Bard,  John Bard’s History of the Old Bucktails (West Conshohocken: Infinity Publishing, 2013) 9.

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3 Responses to December 20, 1861: The Battle of Dranesville and the Confederate Battle Flag’s Debut

  1. Pingback: Week In Review: December 16-22, 2019 | Emerging Civil War

  2. William Anderson says:

    I acquired a map over 35 years ago of the battle but the location is spelled “Drainsville.” The map appears to be similar ones in the Civil War Atlas and dated 1875. Dimensions about 11 x 15 inches. Have you ever seen this map or the spelling variation? Thanks. Email me and I can send a photo.

    • Ryan Quint says:

      Hi, thanks for commenting. I have indeed seen the map you’re mentioning. There’s a couple of maps of Dranesville that appeared in the Official Records Atlas. As far as spelling, Drainsville is a very common, albeit incorrect spelling of the town. I’ve also seen Drainesville written pretty frequently. The town was named for Washington Drane, so Dranesville is the correct variation of the spelling. Thanks again

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