Battle Flag History

Jun 29th, 2016

Battle flags, also known as war and military flags, are flags that are designed to represent the nation or state that the military is fighting for. Today, most countries and states use the national or state flag instead of specifically designed battle flags. The use of battle flags dates back centuries. Early heraldic battle flags were called by different names including standards, banners and pennons, and were used to represent specific kingdoms or the leaders in those kingdoms. For example, the heraldic flag pictured below was the standard of Dr. Henry de Stafford, circa 1475.




During the Civil War, the Army of Northern Virginia carried what is falsely known as the confederate flag (pictured below). The Confederate Stars and Bars were very similar to the Union Stars and Stripes and it was hard to distinguish between the two. To resolve the confusion that resulted, a battle flag featuring a red field with two blue bars containing stars crossing the field diagonally was designed. That flag was used by some Confederate troops, including the Army of Northern Virginia, so that there was no confusion about who the troops represented.


Battle Fag Confederate


The Confederate battle flag was one of many that were used during the Civil War. In addition to identifying specific regiments, battle flags had other meanings that were important to the troops. Because regiments tended to be organized from individual states, the members of those regiments felt a strong loyalty and pride towards their regiment and, in turn, their battle flag. The same is true of Union regiments and their battle flags. Pictured below is the battle flag of the 20th Maine Regiment that was used during the Civil War.




By John McKean - Own work, Public Domain,


Because the battle flag was an important part of any battle, regiments had color guards. Typically, a color guard was made up of one color bearer that carried the national flag and one that carried the regimental battle flag. The color bearer’s were often protected by two other soldiers. Because of the size of the flags, it was impossible for them to carry the flags and protect themselves at the same time.


The American Civil War Museum, located in Virginia, contains a huge collection of both Union and Confederate battle flags. Its mission is “…to be the preeminent center for the exploration of the American Civil War and its legacies from multiple perspectives: Union and Confederate,
enslaved and free African Americans, soldiers and civilians.” This museum is one of many where original, preserved Civil War battle flags can be viewed.


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