History: The American Flag vs. The Confederate Flag

by Jennifer Sierra

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Grand Union Flag

When the Continental Army was reorganized on January 1st, 1776, after taking over Boston from the British Army, the first U.S. Flag, which was the Grand Union flag, was ordered by George Washington to be hoisted above his base at Prospect Hill. It had 13 alternate red and white stripes and the British Union Jack in the upper left-hand corner.

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The flag Betsy Ross is commonly recognized for.

In May of 1776, Betsy Ross reported that she sewed the first American flag. The Betsy Ross flag is an early design of the flag of the United States,  but not the first version of our flag.  The Betsy Ross version of the flag was designed during the American Revolution and features 13 stars to represent the original 13 colonies. The distinctive feature of the Ross flag is the arrangement of the stars in a circle.

On June 14, 1777, in order to establish an official flag for the new nation, the Continental Congress passed the first Flag Act: “Resolved, That the flag of the United States be made of thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new Constellation.”

Between 1777 and 1960, Congress passed several acts that changed the shape, design and arrangement of the flag and allowed for additional stars and stripes to be added to reflect the addition of each new state.

  • Act of January 13, 1794 – provided for 15 stripes and 15 stars after May 1795.
  • Act of April 4, 1818 – provided for 13 stripes and one star for each state, to be added to the flag on the 4th of July following the admission of each new state, signed by President Monroe.
  • Executive Order of President Taft dated June 24, 1912 – established proportions of the flag and provided for arrangement of the stars in six horizontal rows of eight each, a single point of each star to be upward.
  • Executive Order of President Eisenhower dated January 3, 1959 – provided for the arrangement of the stars in seven rows of seven stars each, staggered horizontally and vertically.
  • Executive Order of President Eisenhower dated August 21, 1959 – provided for the arrangement of the stars in nine rows of stars staggered horizontally and eleven rows of stars staggered vertically.

Today the flag consists of thirteen horizontal stripes, seven red alternating with 6 white. The stripes represent the original 13 colonies, the stars represent the 50 states of the Union. The colors of the flag are symbolic as well: Red symbolizes Hardiness and Valor, White symbolizes Purity and Innocence and Blue represents Vigilance, Perseverance and Justice.

Current United States Flag

Current United States Flag

The Confederate flag also went through different variations and is not what you think of as today’s Confederate Flag. The first official national flag of the Confederacy, often called the “Stars and Bars”, was flown from March 4, 1861 to May 1, 1863. It has commonly been known as the “Stars and Bars” and was criticized for its similarity to the U.S. flag also known as the Yankee Flag.

Original "Stars and Bars" Flag

Original “Stars and Bars” Flag

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Second Flag of the Confederacy

The second flag of the Confederacy had a square version of the rebel flag in upper left corner and the rest of the flag was white. It was unofficially designed that way to symbolize white supremacy. Initial reaction to the second national flag was favorable, but over time it became criticized for being “too white”. They also discovered that the flag looked like a white flag of surrender when hanging still on the pole in the battlefield. So another design was created.

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Third version of the Confederate Flag

The Third Confederate Flag was created and commonly known as “The Blood Stained Banner”. Its design added a red, vertical bar on the right side of it which broke up the solid white section of the flag.

Rebel Flag

Rebel Flag

The “Rebel Flag” or what is commonly referred to as the Confederate flag was rejected as the national flag in 1861. It was instead adopted as a battle flag by the Army of Northern Virginia under General Robert E. Lee. Despite never having historically represented the Confederacy as a country nor officially recognized as one of the national flags, it is commonly referred to as “Confederate Flag” and has become a widely recognized symbol of the American south. It is also known as the Rebel flag, Dixie flag, and Southern Cross and is often incorrectly referred to as the “Stars and Bars”. Again, it was never used officially as the Confederate flag and it is incorrect to refer to it as the “Stars and Bars”.


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