American Civil War


Confederate Symbolism in the Flags of the American South

Thought I’d do a slightly different post today. There’s been a lot more awareness recently of what the Confederate flag truly represents, and I think that’s a good thing. It’s an odious symbol and I think it’s important for it to be removed from public life.

But with all the obvious examples of Confederate flags (your statehouses and bumper stickers and what have you) it can be easy to miss some of the deeper, more buried Confederate imagery lingering on in the South. Case in point, the state flags. Nearly all of the former Confederate states have flags that can be clearly traced back to the Civil War. Some are directly from the era and some are just based on flags from that era, but the Confederate connection is always pretty clear once you know what you’re looking for.

Would there even be a strong tradition of state flags anywhere in America if not for the Civil War? I’m honestly not sure. There were a handful of antebellum examples, but it was secession from the Union that prompted the creation of most of the earliest state flags. Would these states have seen a need to symbolically distance themselves from the federal government if they hadn’t been pursuing this white supremacist mission?

Captain Samuel Richardson 

Company F, 2nd Texas Cavalry Regiment 

Confederate States Army

circa 1861-1865

 Above is a picture of Captain Samuel Richardson in his Jaguar-skin trousers with matching pistol holsters. Soldiers in the Trans-Mississippi theater (especially Texans) rarely followed Confederate uniform regulations. For the most part they wore whatever they pleased.

I imagine it went like this:

“Captain Richardson! The Yankees are coming!”

“Hold on…let me grab my FUCKING JAGUAR-SKIN PANTS!”


How the American Civil War almost started a World War 

The relations between Britain and the United States were tense during the American Civil War, and in the year 1863 the situation almost resulted in an international war between the US and the powers of Europe.  While officially the British Empire was neutral in the war, unofficially Britain was pro-Confederate, as her industry depended heavily on cheap raw materials from the south.  Throughout the war Britain supplied the Confederacy with weapons, ammunition, and ships.  British ports built ships which would later be sold to the Confederate Navy, the most famous was a merchant raider called the CSS Alabama.  The British made M1853 Enfield musket became the Confederate Army’s weapon of choice, and Britain would supply hundreds of thousands of such muskets during the war.  Along with Britain, it seemed that France would join the Confederate band wagon as well.  Like Britain, France also imported raw materials from the Confederacy.  French Emperor Napoleon III was indifferent to the Confederacy, but many in his government were enthusiastically pro-Confederate. In 1862 France invaded Mexico, hoping to take advantage of the United State’s inability to enforce the Monroe Doctrine. France loaned the Confederacy $15 million and at the time were in the process of building a small fleet of ironclad warships for the Confederate Navy.  Both acts brought Franco-US relations to a boiling point.  

Between 1861 and 1863 a number of incidents would occur between the US and Britain which further strained relations between the two countries.  The most notorious was the Trent Affair, in which a British mail steamship was seized by the US Navy to capture two Confederate envoys.  In October of 1862 the British Government warned that it would take “resolute action” in the war, though it did not elaborate on what action would be taken.  Finally in late 1862 the British government contracted with the Confederacy to produce two Laird Rams for the Confederate Navy.  Also called Scorpion Class warships, they were heavily armed ironclad battleships, then the most powerful warships in the world, easily capable of breaking the Union blockade.  The United States warned that if they delivered the Laird Rams to the Confederacy, there would be war.

By 1863 it was clear that Britain and France were going to intervene in the American Civil War.  But the construction of the Laird Rams and threats of war set off a domino like procession of events that would make them think twice about intervention.  First, the Prussian leader Otto von Bismarck warned that if Britain and France intervened, Prussia would side with the Union.  Bismarck wanted a war with France in the hopes of unifying the German states with Prussia. (Bismarck would get his war in 1870, defeating France and accomplishing his goals). Next, the newly unified nation of Italy expressed support for the Union, with the Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi even offering his services to Abraham Lincoln.  Then the Russian Czar Alexander II announced that if Britain and France went to war, he would side with the US.  At the time Russia and the United States had close diplomatic relations, while Britain and France were despised enemies after the Crimean War.  However, Alexander II did not merely announce his support, he upped the ante by sending the entire Russian Baltic fleet to New York City.  The fleet arrived in September of 1863 with orders to support the Union Navy.  Another Russian fleet was sent to San Francisco, chasing away the Confederate warship CSS Shenandoah, which was planning to bombard the city and harbor. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Wells shouted, “God bless the Russians!” upon hearing the news.  Likewise Oliver Holmes hailed Czar Alexander “who was our friend while everyone else was our foe.”

The presence of the Russian fleet in New York upped the raised the bar for the British and French.  Alexander’s placement of the fleet served a strategic purpose as well; preventing it from being bottled up in the Baltic if war did occur.  With the powers of Europe lining up and choosing sides, it was time for the lead actor, Britain, to decide if the war was worth it.  After the Union victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg, it became apparent that it was not.  The British withdrew their plans to deliver the Laird Rams to the Confederacy, instead commissioning them in the Royal Navy.  Once Britain backed down, France likewise withdrew from the war.  A number of Russian warships remained on patrol along the Atlantic coast after the incident, just in case things heated up again.  The Union of course, would win the American Civil War.

It is good to have one real American here
—  General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House, when he found out that one of the high-ranking Union officers he was surrendering to was Seneca. Ely Samuel Parker – a lawyer, engineer, diplomat and one of Grant’s top aides – was not just present during the solemn meeting, he is the one who drafted the terms of surrender. Parker replied: “Sir, we are all Americans.” This was not the only notable thing about Ely Parker. He was the highest-ranking Native American officer during the American Civil War. At age fourteen, the Council of Chiefs for the Tonawanda Seneca Nation appointed him to translate dealings with the state because of his English. He studied to become a lawyer, but was not licensed to practice law because of his heritage. So Parker studied engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy. He later met Grant in Galena, Ill., where Grant worked as a clerk in his father’s general store. When the Civil War broke out, Ely Parker volunteered, and because he was an engineer, he was commissioned as a captain. Parker was reunited with Grant at Vicksburg, and the following year Grant appointed Parker his official military secretary, and Parker drafted all of the general’s legal papers. Including the surrender terms at Appomattox Court House.

August 31st 1895: Ely Parker dies

On this day in 1895, Ely S. Parker, the first Native American Commissioner of Indian Affairs, died in Connecticut aged sixty-seven. Born Hosanoanda at Indian Falls, an Indian reservation near Akron, New York, he was the son of a Seneca chief. Taking the name Ely Samuel Parker, he studied at a Baptist boarding school and eventually mastered English and became an interpreter, assisting Seneca tribal delegations to Washington DC seeking to regain land titles. He went on to study to be a lawyer, but was denied admittance to the New York state bar as Indians were not classed as citizens of the United States; Parker instead became a civil engineer. At the outbreak of Civil War, Parker struggled to receive an army commission, but eventually joined the war effort on the Union side, quickly climbing the ranks and becoming General Ulysses S. Grant’s military secretary. In this role, Parker drafted the terms of Confederate surrender at Appomattox, where General Robert E. Lee said to Parker “I am glad to see one real American here”, to which Parker replied “We are all Americans.” Parker’s friendship with Grant continued - the general was best man at his wedding - and in 1869 President Grant made Parker Commissioner of Indian Affairs. The first Native American to hold the office, Parker spearheaded Grant’s ‘Peace Policy’, which aimed to end the constant Indian wars and assimilate Native Americans through reservations and boarding schools. However, Parker was accused of corruption and resigned from office. After pursuing a career in business, Ely Parker died in August 1895.

“A son will be born to you who will be distinguished among his nation as a peacemaker…he will be a wise white man, but will never desert his Indian people or lay down his horns as a great Iroquois chief…His sun will rise on Indian land and set on the white man’s land.
- a Seneca dream interpreter to Parker’s mother shortly before his birth


The American Civil War battle near France — The Battle of Cherbourg

The CSS Alabama was one of the most notorious and feared Confederate commerce raiders during the American Civil War.  Under the command of Captain Raphael Semmes (pictured above, right), she was active from 1862 until 1864, the Alabama sailed the high seas raiding Union merchant ships.  Much of her raids were conducted in the North Atlantic, however her two year voyage included raids as far away as the Indian Ocean and the Straits of Malacca near Indonesia.  Altogether, the CSS Alabama boarded 450 ships, sunk 65 Union merchant ships, and capture 2,000 prisoners without any losses to her 170 man crew.

The Alabama’s streak of luck was bound to end, as Union warships were dispatched world wide with orders to find and destroy her.  The Alabama’s luck would end when she docked in the port of Cherbourg in France on the 11th of June, 1864 to receive repairs and supplies.  However on June 14th the Union warship USS Kearsarge, commanded by Capt. John A. Winslow (pictured above, left), received word of the Alabama’s location and blockaded the port, sending a telegraph requesting assistance from the nearby USS St. Louis.  The blockade lasted 5 days, during which time Capt. Semmes drilled his men for battle.  On the 19th, the CSS Alabama left Cherbourg at full sail and prepared to do battle with the Kearsarge.

The Alabama came out swinging, firing her six 32 pound cannons, a 68 pound gun, and a 110 pound gun. The Kearsarge returned fire with four 32 pound guns, one 30 pound parrot rifle, and a massive 11 inch Dahlgren gun.  For an hour the two ships circled each other while trading shots.  On land the citizens of Cherbourg eagerly watched the battle, cheering on both sides and taking bets who would win.  The Alabama was able to lay down a heavier volume of fire, discharging 370 shots during that hour.  However, the gunners of the Kearsarge were more methodical and disciplined, firing more accurate shots and striking the Alabama at various vital points across the ship.  In addition, the Kearsarge was equipped with a special chain link armor which was woven over her hull. 

At the end of the hour of fighting, the Alabama had sustained six blows below her waterline, causing the ships to rapidly take on water.  It was then that Capt. Semmes ordered the Alabama’s colors struck, and replaced with the white flag of surrender.  40 Confederate sailors were killed, 70 were captured.  30 sailors were rescued by a British yacht, where they would be taken to England and granted asylum, among them Capt. Semmes.  Only one sailor on the Kearsarge was killed, with another two wounded.  As for the CSS Alabama, she quickly sank, taking up residence in Davy Jone’s Locker.

By the war’s end some 180,000 blacks had served in the Union army – over one-fifth of the adult male black population of the United States below the age of forty-five. … Although treated with anything but equality in access to promotion and, initially, in pay, black soldiers played a crucial role not simply in winning the Civil War but also in defining the war’s consequences. Their service helped transform both the nation’s treatment of blacks and blacks’ conception of themselves.

Excerpted from “Rightsand the Constitution in Black Life during the Civil War and Reconstruction,”published in the Journal of American History. Explore our gateway to the Civil War, featuring free content, including this article in full, fresh insights and new releases, and reflect on the sesquicentennial of the war that shaped the nation.

Image: Black soldier in Union Army Sergeant uniform 1864. The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.