The Stars and Bars was not, in fact, readily distinguishable from the American flag, which would prove problematic on the battlefield. On July 21, 1861, about 30 miles southwest of Washington, D.C., Confederate and Union soldiers met in the First Battle of Bull Run. The Confederacy prevailed, but not without tactical confusion and distress. Some Confederate soldiers wore blue uniforms instead of gray and some Union soldiers wore gray ones instead of blue. And when soldiers and officers on either side looked out over the field of smoke and blood and bodies, they could not easily tell the difference between the Stars and Bars and the Stars and Stripes.
After the battle, the Confederate general P. G. T. Beauregard appealed for a new flag so as to avoid such dangerous confusion, and in November of 1861, new Confederate battle flags began to appear. There were multiple iterations of the design, but the most common version included 13 stars (for the 11 states that seceded, plus Missouri and Kentucky) inside a blue diagonal cross trimmed with white, all against a red backdrop. In 1863, this design was placed in the top-right corner of a larger white flag to become the Confederacy’s first official national flag, known as the “Stainless Banner.” That version, however, was criticized because it looked too much like the bare white flag of surrender.
Over the course of the past century and a half, the design of the Confederate battle flag became inextricably linked to the story of the Confederacy. The flag’s symbolism cannot be disentangled from the cause of those who fought beneath it. It cannot be separated from the words of its vice president, Alexander Stephens, who wrote in his infamous Cornerstone Speech that slavery was “the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution” and that the Confederacy had been founded on “the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man.”
As I looked at the photograph on Wednesday, I thought of how the flag had expanded and evolved in meaning, how it had become a staple of Ku Klux Klan rallies, how it had been waved by white people attempting to intimidate Black children who were integrating schools after Brown v. Board of Education, how it had been made a part of flags in states whose legislatures worked tirelessly to disenfranchise Black citizens. And now it will forever be associated with the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the Capitol, when the nation watched a new iteration of white-supremacist violence, incited by a deranged and cowardly president.
During the Civil War, the Confederate Army never reached the Capitol. The rebel flag, to my knowledge, had never been flown inside the halls of Congress until Wednesday. Two days ago, a man walked through the halls of government bearing the flag of a group of people who had seceded from the United States and gone to war against it. Then, presumably, he walked out—carrying so much of this country’s history with him.
*A previous version of this article misstated that Preston Brooks was a congressman from Mississippi. In fact, he was from South Carolina.