The Pink Confederate Battle Flags

ECW welcomes back guest author Bryan Cheeseboro

In a recent conversation I had with a friend, we discussed the painting The First Battle Flags by Don Troiani, which depicts the events of November 28, 1861, at Centreville, Virginia.  On that date, the Confederate Army of the Potomac (the same army that would eventually become the Army of Northern Virginia under Robert E. Lee) was presented with a new flag to be carried into battle.  While many flags were used by the so-called Confederate States of America on and off the battlefield, one design would become immortal: a white-bordered St. Andrew’s Cross of blue, decorated with white stars on a field of red… and also pink.  And though some of those bullet-torn, bloodstained battle flags survive to this day, it is hard for many people to grapple with the fact Confederate soldiers proved their manhood under a pink flag.  As Troiani said of various comments he received for his painting,

I was surprised to receive some criticism about the color of the battle flags in this painting.  Some people thought they looked washed out, as they did not fit into the preconceived notion of what a “real” Confederate battle flag should be.  Even after constant explaining, I am fairly certain that some still cannot bring themselves to accept the fact that the Confederate army used pink battle flags.[1]

The First Battle Flags, Centreville, VA (Don Troiani Historical Art)

To understand how the Confederate Army used pink, white, and blue battle flags, it helps to understand the story of how the battle flag came about in the first place.

Many Civil War enthusiasts know the story well. At the battle of First Bull Run, July 21, 1861, at Manassas Junction, Virginia, the Confederate flag (known as the 1st National Confederate flag) looked too much like the Stars & Stripes, flown by the Union Army.  The overwhelming smoke of cannon and musket fire, and the stifling heat of the hazy, humid summer day, provided no refreshing breeze and no energy to lift the banners aflutter.  The standards of both sides were indistinguishable that day and confused many inexperienced troops fighting in the first major battle of the war.

Though 1st Bull Run was a shocking victory for the Confederate Army of the Potomac (This name was first used by the South before the North adopted it.), Generals Pierre G. T. Beauregard and Joseph E. Johnston knew the confusion could not continue.  Plans to have Confederate regiments use their states’ flags in battle fell through.  Then, Colonel William Porcher Miles, Chairman of the Confederate House Military Committee, who had previously designed a prototype of what would become the iconic Confederate flag, offered that design to be used exclusively as a battle flag of the rebellion (Miles’ design had been previously rejected as the national flag).  The design was approved, and Johnston suggested making the pattern of the flag square for military use.[2] An order was put in for 120 flags.

The flags were to be made by the ladies’ sewing circles of Richmond.  C.S. Regular Army Second Lieutenant Colin McRae Selph was ordered by Johnston to go to Richmond to purchase all available silk to make the flags, as 19th Century flags were typically either made of silk or wool bunting.  Selph was apparently not too challenged in finding blue and white silk but as for the third color, he purchased “red of all tints- magenta, solferino, pink, etc.”[3]  Ladies’ sewing circles were then tasked with turning silk fabric into battle flags.  At the presentation ceremony in Centreville, Virginia, on November 28, 1861, regimental commanders came forward to receive their flags.  The ceremony was reported in the Richmond Whig:

The exercises were opened by Adjutant General Jordan, who, in a brief but eloquent address, charged the men to preserve from dishonor the flags committed to their keeping. The officers then dismounted and the colonels of the different regiments coming forward to the center, Gen. Beauregard, in a few remarks, presented each with a banner, and was eloquently responded to. The regiments then came to “present,” and received their flags with deafening cheers.[4]

At some point in the exercise, Colonel Robert E. Withers of the 18th Virginia took his pink flag.  “I have but one objection to it,” he told General Beauregard.  “Its color is indicative of fear; and looks too much like a flag of truce.”

Upon hearing Withers’ complaints, the General encouraged the Colonel to “Dye it red, sir!  Dye it in blood, sir!”

“It shall be, sir.  It shall be, in the blood of the enemy, General!”

Beauregard answered back, “In your own [blood] sir, if necessary.”

“Aye, aye, General!” Withers replied as he took with him the colors of the Confederate Army of the Potomac.[5]

It is unknown exactly how many of the 120 were pink in the midst of a variety of “red of all tints.”  Many of that number did not survive the war.  This article will focus on a few known pink flags that were a part of the 120, and all carried by infantry regiments.  These are as follows:

15th Alabama: This pink flag may have seen the longest service in the Civil War.  The regiment fought in the Valley Campaign of 1862 at First Winchester, Cross Keys, and Port Republic.  It was also used by the 15th at Cold Harbor in June 1864.  When the regiment received a new flag, commanding officer Colonel Alexander A. Lowther took possession of the pink flag.  It was never surrendered to the Yankees.  On March 18, 1927, the flag was presented to the Alabama Department of Archives and History by Virginia Lowther, Colonel Lowther’s daughter [6]

16th Mississippi: This flag went into battle at Gaines’ Mill (also known as First Cold Harbor), June 27, 1862.  In the upper quadrant of the flag the handwritten inscription proclaims, Through God We Shall Do Valiantly, For He Is That Shall Tread Down Our Enemies.  In that Confederate victory, the flag was pierced 11 times and the color sergeant was killed.[7]

4th North Carolina: This regiment charged a Federal battery at the battle of Seven Pines on May 31, 1862.  When the color-bearer, 1st Corporal James Bonnets, was killed as the regiment advanced “yelling and firing,” the regiment’s Major Bryan Grimes seized the flag.  The 4th went on to capture six Yankee guns that day.[8]

5th North Carolina: The 5th’s color guard were “shot down one by one” and the regiment sustained 265 casualties in 23 minutes at the battle of Williamsburg, May 5, 1862.  Not only was the flag captured, it was the first Confederate battle flag to be captured in Virginia.  However, the U.S. War Department had no set procedure at that point on how to process captured enemy flags.  After making its way to the Adjutant General’s Office, it was loaned to the Chicago Sanitary Fair for exhibition in October 1863.  When it was returned to the War Department, it was included with Confederate flags captured at the battles of Chattanooga and Knoxville and was mislabeled as a “Western Flag.”  It was then sent to Arkansas when the battle flags were returned to the states in a national reconciliation gesture in 1905.  On display at the Old State House Museum in Little Rock, it was listed as “an unidentified” flag.  In 2002, intensive research by historian Thomas L. McMahon finally identified it as the 5th North Carolina’s flag.  In July of that year, it was presented to the North Carolina State Museum as a gift from the state of Arkansas.  While the flag survived an ordeal on and off the battlefield, it remains preserved in a very fragile condition.[9]

4th South Carolina: Private Jesse Walton Reid, Company C, wrote about the presentation ceremony of November 28, 1861:

The biggest day yet.  The morning at 10:30 o’clock everybody and the cook was called out, and each regiment was presented with a battle flag.  General Beauregard was present and so was everybody else.  It was the grandest time we ever had.  We were told that the flags were made and sent to us by our wives, mothers, and sisters with an order from them to defend them.  There were several bands of music on hand and as each regiment filed off toward their quarters, every band struck up “Pop Goes the Weasel.” … The noise of the men was deafening.[10]

5th South Carolina: Bearing the battle honors “WILLIAMSBURG” and “SEVEN PINES!” For some reason, Seven Pines is always emphasized with an exclamation point on several Confederate battle flags.  At Frazier’s Farm, during the Seven Days’ battles, the banner was hit 30 times by enemy fire.  The original flag no longer exists.[11]

Flag of the 6th South Carolina (Confederate Relic Room, Columbia, SC)

6th South Carolina: The large block letter battle honors on white fabric, like those of the 5th’s flag, were the first style produced for battle flags.  While this flag survives in good condition, the pink has considerably faded.  It is preserved in the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room & Museum in Columbia, SC.  It is unknown how late it was carried by the regiment in the war.[12]

A group of soldier reenactors and living historians currently commemorate the 6th and its history.  The unit’s website has a specific page about the 1861 issue flag.  It mentions “dress silk was purchased on the open market, red silk was scarce, so various shades of pink and yellow were substituted,” and “the field is rough silk that has been dyed.  It is impossible to tell what color the original might have been.  A color was chosen that may or may not approximate the original; the key factor in choosing a color is that it was ‘not red.’”[13]  It’s hard to know what to take from this narrative.  It admits that the regiment’s flag was “not red,” but at the same time, it seems to struggle with the idea that the flag’s color could have ever been pink.

7th South Carolina: On December 27, 1862, Colonel D. Wyatt Aiken wrote the following letter to The Southern Guardian (Columbia, SC) describing the action of his color guard at the Battle of Maryland Heights on September 13, 1862:

When the second half was ordered, and the men, commanded to lie down, my color sergeant, Charley Burress, stood erect and kept his colors unfurled. I shouted to him to lie down, but he, believing it his duty to keep our tattered flag aloft, still stood up. I approached and ordered him down. In the act of obeying this last stern command he received a fatal wound in the abdomen. Another member of the color guard, Belton Adams immediately arose, and catching the falling staff, raised it over his head. In an instant he fell mortally wounded. Before the colors reached the ground, they were snatched up by still another member of the color guard, Middleton Quarles, who whirled them over his head, and rushed forward only to meet another messenger of death. Two of my color guard, Gus White, and L. Coleman, had previously been severely wounded. There being but one remaining, I ordered the colors to be left as they lay, a temporary winding sheet for poor Quarles.[14]

There is no evidence that this flag survived the war.

Flag of the 8th Virginia (American Civil War Museum, Richmond, VA)

8th Virginia: This flag had battle honors on it when it was presented to the 8th Virginia.  The regiment fought bravely at Leesburg/Ball’s Bluff on October 21, 1861.  In the ceremony at Centreville on November 28, the name of that battle was emblazoned on the flag at the intersection of the saltire, with “8th VA INF” on the pink field.  It is believed the other battle honors in the field were added after the flag was retired after the battle of Antietam.  While some sources claim the flag was made by Mrs. Caroline Deslonde Beauregard from her dress material, it could have been sewn by her using the silk acquired by 2nd Lieutenant Selph, as opposed to coming from her wardrobe.[15]

The first time these pink flags went under fire was at the battle of Dranesville, Virginia, December 20, 1861.  While various regiments eventually replaced their battle-worn colors with flags of wool bunting, a pink battle flag is known to have been on the field at least as late as 1864.  In the life of the Confederate States of America, many different flags were used at the national, regimental, and individual company level.  Though the slaveholders’ rebellion only lasted four years, the St. Andrew’s Cross battle flag lives on as the best remembered symbol of the Confederacy.  The battle flag, with its striking design and red, white, and blue colors became a pop culture symbol.  But the pink Confederate flags have been largely forgotten or denied as ever having been of that color at all.

In the mid-19th Century American climate, the flags were presented in, pink was not a gender-specific color as we see it today.  Generally speaking, there was nothing considered unmanly about the color; and some research has shown that it was even considered acceptable for boys as a step towards the bolder color red, which saw a lot of military use in flags and uniforms.  Gender exclusivity of pink and blue began in the early 20th Century.[16]   In any case, what pink meant to the people of the 1800s was different in association and use than it is for us today, as the color has been popularized by florists and Barbie dolls, commercialized alongside red by Valentine’s Day, marketed by clothing designers, and, most of all, associated with femininity.  Today, even before birth, the color is exclusively connected to females.

While the battle flag never really went away despite Confederate defeat, the pink version of the flag does not survive in popular memory.  But to be fair, the color was intended to be specifically red as opposed to varying shades.  I think we can all agree that had Lieutenant Selph been able to purchase a sufficient supply of red silk for the 120 flags, other shades would not have even been needed.  But shortages and substitutes were typical of the Southern rebellion, which always had to make do with what it had to stay alive.  So, while the flag is remembered in the colors it was intended to have, we know that is not always the way it happened.  As a result, descendants of some Confederate soldiers may not even be aware that their ancestors fought and died under a pink flag, further disconnecting the flag from memory and Confederate iconography.

[1] Troiani, Don, and Robert Krick. Don Troiani’s American Battles: The Art of the Nation at War, 1754-1865. Southbury, CT: Stackpole Books, 2013.  Pp. 60-62.

[2] Cannon, Devereaux D. The Flags of The Confederacy: An Illustrated History. Memphis, TN: St. Luke’s Press and Broadfoot Publishing, 1988.

[3] “Battle Flag of the Confederate States.” Times-Democrat, New Orleans, Louisiana, April 26, 1906.

[4] Richmond Whig, November 28, 1862, as quoted in William S. Connery, Civil War Northern Virginia 1861 (Charleston, The History Press, 2011).  p. 100.

[5] Harrison, Peleg Dennis. The Stars and Stripes and Other American Flags: Including Their Origin and History, Army and Navy Regulations Concerning the National Standard and Ensign, Flag Making, Salutes, Improvised, Unique, and Combination Flags, Flag Legislation, and Many Associations of American Flags, Including the Origin of the Name “Old Glory”, with Songs and Their Stories (Boston, Little, Brown, & Co; 1908).  p. 351.

[6] “Provenance Reconstruction.”  Alabama Civil War Period Flag Collection. Accessed September 11, 2020.  https://archives.alabama.gov/referenc/flags/033.html

[7] Henry Woodhead, eds. Echoes of Glory: Arms & Equipment of the Confederacy.  Alexandria, Virginia: Time-Life Books Inc., 1996.  p. 243.

[8] Woodhead, p. 242.

[9] McMahon, Thomas L. “The Flag of the 5th North Carolina, the First Southern Banner Captured in the East, Has Been Recovered.”  America’s Civil War, May 2002.

[10] Private J. W. Reid, Co. C, 4th S.C. Infantry, November 28, 1861, as quoted in Glenn Dedmondt, The Flags of Civil War South Carolina (Pelican Publishing Co., Gretna, Louisiana, 2000).  p. 80.

[11] Dedmondt, p. 81.

[12] Dedmondt, p. 88.

[13] “Unit Flag,” 6th South Carolina Volunteers: A Historical Reenactment and Living History Society, accessed September 5, 2020.  https://www.6thregimentsc.org/unitflag

[14] David Wyatt Aiken, F&S, 7th S.C. Infantry, as quoted in The Flags of Civil War South Carolina, p. 89.

[15] Woodhead, p. 243.

[16] McGlaty, Jean.  “When Did Girls Start Wearing Pink?” smithsonianmag.com, Smithsonian Institution, April 7, 2011.

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14 Responses to The Pink Confederate Battle Flags

  1. John Davis says:

    The “so-called Confederate States of America”????? They were not “so-called”, an obviously derisive comment, they were the Confederate States of America!

    • Tami Cheeseboro says:

      adjective: so-called;
      used to show that something or someone is designated by the name or term specified.

      • Philip Ennis says:

        I would still love to see “period” descriptions referring to the silk flags as more pink than red. The fading of dyes over long year in both direct light and little or no light exposure is a conundrum. Also one must look into the stability of natural red dye on silk fabric.

  2. scott campbell says:

    The flag of the 13th Virginia Infantry Regiment was a rose color flag and made by AP Hill’s Wife, from her wedding dress. The flag is in the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond Virginia.

  3. Jonathan Deiss says:

    Well done.

  4. Philip Ennis says:

    They may appear pink today but I am certain that age has taken a major toll on the dyes. Rest assured when made the shade was much deeper and closer to a blood red!

  5. Pingback: Week In Review: October 5-11, 2020 | Emerging Civil War

  6. Eugene Adcock says:

    I feel “slaveholder’s rebellion” is far beneath the authors of ECW. I am distressed by such gratuitous .
    bias.

    • Philip Ennis says:

      Kiss my ass!! You moron!! I am a historian and involved in Confederate military history since 1961. I am married to a Southern black women and I have 2 black children. I look back at the history of this country, good and bad, and do not judge from a modern or politically correct perspective. You sir are an asshole! Webmaster have the guts not to remove this post!!

  7. Lisa Fulton says:

    There is a mention of pink flags in “The Diary of Miss Emma Holmes, 1861-1866,” a journal kept during the Civil War by Emma Holmes (1838-1910), a young lady in Charleston. She was ferociously patriotic, and the book is quite interesting. I have a paperback copy; as far as I know there is no digitized version, so I will type up a passage that touches on the Pink Flag topic.

    “The Diary of Miss Emma Holmes, 1861-1866.” Edited, with an Introduction and Notes by John F. Marszalek. Louisiana State University Press, 1979 and 1994. Page 100. (The editor’s notes are not mine – they are in the book.)

    “November 22 [1861]

    Cousins John [Holmes], Liz [Barnwell] & Mary [Holmes] were here this evening. He gave us some interesting accounts of his camp life, of picket duty, and the various signals used, & sketched the new battle flag just prepared for our Army of the Potomac [Army of Northern Virginia]. One [is] for each regiment, which cannot be readily imitated by the enemy, as they did the Confederate flag at Manassas, at one time causing a Miss. regiment to fire into [Micah] Jenkins’ So. Ca. reg. through a fearful mistake. The flags were prepared in Richmond, and Sam Ferguson, Beauregard’s especial aid, carried them to each general and but few had seen them. The field is a delicate pink silk, with a yellow border an inch deep. The cross [is] of blue and the stars [are] white. He says the whole really has a beautiful effect. . . .”

    The book contains a rough sketch of the flag, drawn by Emma Holmes in her journal, and inserted in the typeset page. It shows the familiar design of the Confederate flag.

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