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Alabama Secession Banner of 1861 (U.S.)

Last modified: 2006-08-26 by rick wyatt
Keywords: alabama | secession banner | republic of alabama |
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[Alabama Secession Banner of 1861] image by Joe McMillan, 25 February 2005

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Reverse of the flag

[Alabama Secession Banner of 1861] image by Joe McMillan, 25 February 2005

Discussion about the flag

It is generally accepted by most scholars that the American state of Alabama had no official state flag during the Civil War (War Between the States) era. There was a blue flag with Liberty carrying a sword and a flag on the obverse and a rattlesnake under a cotton bush on the reverse, often called the flag of the Republic of Alabama, but this is usually described by vexillological experts as a "secession banner" that was never officially adopted as a state flag. This flag is preserved in the Alabama Department of Archives and History (ADAH) and a reconstruction is shown in Whitney Smith's Flag Book of the United States [smi70].

At most, Smith and others are willing to concede that a variety of lone star flags flew in Alabama during the period immediately following secession (January 1861), but they conclude that these flags had no official status. However, the journal of the January 1861 statewide convention that passed Alabama's resolution seceding from the United States implies otherwise. This journal, William Russell Smith's _History and Debates of the Convention of the People of Alabama_, was published in Montgomery and Tuscaloosa that same year. Smith himself was a delegate to the convention from Tuscaloosa. He not only recounts the presentation of the flag now preserved in the archives, but makes several references that would suggest there was indeed an accepted state flag in use with official blessing, and that it was indeed some type of lone star design. On page 56 of this journal, reporting the secret session of January 9, 1861:
"Mr. [J. F.] Dowdell moved an amendment, that when this Convention is in open session, the flag of Alabama shall be raised from the Capitol. The amendment was accepted, the motion [to go into open session] adopted, and the doors of the Convention opened."

Note that no one questioned Dowdell about this flag or objected that the state had no flag--the amendment evidently passed without significant debate. Presumably this was because no one present was in any doubt as to what the "flag of Alabama" was. This resolution would seem to constitute official recognition of this design, whatever it was.

Two days later, on the day the secession vote took place, January 11, 1861, Smith records (page 119): "Guns had been made ready to herald the news, and flags had been prepared, in various parts of the city [Montgomery], to be hoisted upon a signal [that the ordinance of secession had been adopted]."

Now as to the secession banner itself, immediately after the ordinance of secession was voted, "a magnificent Flag was unfurled in the centre of the Hall, so large as to reach nearly across the ample chamber!" He goes on to say that "Mr. [William Lowndes] Yancey addressed the Convention, in behalf of the ladies of Montgomery, who had deputed him to present to the Convention this flag--the work of the ladies of Alabama. In the course of his speech he described the mottoes and devices of the flag."

Unfortunately, Smith says he was unable to obtain a copy of the speech or to take notes at the time, so we don't know how Yancey explained the flag, but there can be no doubt that it was the flag that has been preserved in the ADAH, since Smith quotes his own remarks on its presentation (on page 121) "I see upon it, a beautiful female face.... We accept this flag; and, though it glows with but a single star, may that star increase in magnitude and brilliancy...." The so-called "secession banner" is blue with the figure of Liberty on the obverse holding up a sword in her right hand and a blue flag in her left, fringed in gold and depicting a gold star beneath the word "Alabama" in an arc of gold letters. Across the top is an arc of gold letters reading "Independent now and forever."

The reverse, not described by Smith, shows a rattlesnake beneath a cotton plant with the Latin motto "Noli me tangere (Do not touch me)." According to descriptions, but not shown on most modern images of this flag, the arms of the state--a map of the state nailed to a live oak tree--appeared on the reverse in the upper fly.

After the presentation, according to the journal of the proceedings, "Mr. Dargan offered the following resolutions... That the flag shall hereafter be raised upon the Capitol, as indicative whenever the Convention shall be in open session."

Immediately after this ceremony, as planned, "The roar of cannon was heard at intervals during the remainder of this eventful day. The new flag of Alabama displayed its virgin features from the windows and towers of the surrounding houses." Obviously the "secession banner," unveiled for the first time just before this, could not have been duplicated for display throughout the town so quickly. As in the case of the flag referred to in the Dowdell resolution of January 9, the flags flown must have been some other design that was generally known to be the flag of independent Alabama.

What was the design of this flag? One possibility would be a flag derived from the regimental colors of state militia units that had been in use for some years before secession. Like most militia colors of the period, they were blue with the state coat of arms. I have seen pictures of several of these, and an example of the shield as depicted on the color of a company of the 4th Alabama Volunteer Infantry is in the ADAH collection. (Interestingly, the reverse of this color, made in 1860, has the same rattlesnake under a cotton bush motif as the reverse of the "secession banner".) This design could reasonably been used as a state flag, as was done in Virginia and elsewhere.

It seems more likely, however, that some lone-star pattern was recognized as the state flag. First, it is known that such flags were in use. Secondly, the figure of Liberty on the secession convention flag is shown carrying a flag in her left hand, blue with a gold star below an arc of letters spelling out the name of the state. It seems to me that if the ladies of Montgomery who made the secession flag were going to portray Liberty carrying a flag to represent the state, they would follow the pattern already in use. Finally, Smith includes in the convention journal (with apologies for its extravagant rhetoric) a short poem about the state flag entitled "The Lost Pleiad Found" which makes clear that the main feature of the flag of Alabama was a star:

Long years ago, at night, a female star
Fled from amid the Spheres, and through the space
Of Ether, onward, in a flaming car,
Held, furious, headlong, her impetuous race:
She burnt her way through skies; the azure haze
Of Heaven assumed new colors in her blaze;
Sparklets, emitted from her golden hair,
Diffused rich tones through the resounding air;
The neighboring stars stood mute, and wondered when
The erring Sister would return again:
Through Ages still they wondered in dismay;
But now, behold, careering on her way,
The long-lost PLEIAD! lo! she takes her place
This poem is obviously not about the secession convention banner; there is no reference to the figure of Liberty, the sword she carries, the inscriptions, or the snake-and-cotton motif on the reverse. I can only conclude that some version of a lone star flag enjoyed a status in Alabama that was recognized by the state government, or at least by the secession convention. It was not simply an "unofficial" flag as generally believed.

Joe McMillan, 25 February 2005

Other comments

No state flag existed from 1819-1861. On January 11, 1861, the Secession Convention passed a resolution designating a flag designed by a group of Montgomery women as their official flag. This flag has often been referred to as the Republic of Alabama Flag. One side of the flag displayed the Goddess of Liberty holding in her right hand an unsheathed sword; in the left a small flag with one star. In an arch above this figure were the words "Independent Now and Forever." On the other side of the flag was a cotton plant with a coiled rattlesnake. Beneath the cotton plant are the Latin words : Noli Me Tangere, (Touch Me Not). This flag was flown until February 10, 1861, when it was removed to the Governor's Office after it was damaged by severe weather. It was never flown again.
Dov Gutterman, 26 March 1999

According to research done by Peter Brannon of the Alabama Department of Archives and History the flag was not officially adopted as the Republic of Alabama flag. He perused the documents of the Secession Convention and nothing turned up to support its official adoption.

Like the flag of Georgia, it was flown in an unofficial capacity until the storm ruined the flag. It had been captured by Iowa troops in 1865 and taken back to Iowa. It was returned to Alabama in this century.
Greg Biggs, 26 March 1999

The symbolism of Confederate rattlesnake flags was not just the "don't tread on me" sentiment but a conscious effort to link what they called the "Second American Revolution" to the first one.
Joe McMillan, 14 July 2000