On February 23, 1894, the Pascagoula Democrat-Star, in its “State News Boiled Down” section, listed news from across the state alerting readers to items like public resignations and appointments, legislative actions, warnings of floods, and new businesses. Situated between an announcement speculating that state senator C. Kendrick would run for a seat in the United States Congress and a notice concerning the state legislature’s recent repeal of the “paregoric-laudanum-morphine law” was the following sentence: “The last Legislature provided for a state flag and coat-of-arms.” No description of the state flag or its symbolism followed, and the news of its approval was represented by this single sentence amidst a series of other public notices. Without much attention or even public knowledge, the 1894 Mississippi Legislature, acting on the recommendation of Governor John M. Stone, approved a flag with three bars of blue, white, and red and a canton in the top left corner that contained the Confederate Battle Flag. The 1894 design remained until 2020. During a 2001 statewide referendum, Mississippi voters were asked whether they supported the continuance of the 1894 flag or a new design. More than sixty percent of voters approved the continuation of the 1894 version, and until 2020, Mississippi had the last official state flag in the United States containing the Confederate Battle Flag. In the wake of protests surrounding the murder of George Floyd in 2020, the state legislature passed a bill to get rid of the 1894 flag and created a commission to design a new one. Voters overwhelmingly approved the new "In God We Trust" flag on November 3, 2020, with seventy three percent voting in favor.
Original flag debate
Much of the 1894 flag’s controversy was rooted in debates over the context within which the inclusion of the Confederate flag was made. A generation removed from the Civil War, the number of Confederate soldiers applying for state pensions increased in the 1890s, as did calls for a state-funded facility to provide greater assistance to the state’s aging veterans. In his State of the State address on January 7, 1894, Governor Stone outlined his agenda for the upcoming legislative session. Among his priorities were tax codes and the future of industry in the state, both critical to funding the increasing number of pension applications from ageing Confederate veterans. In response, Stone pledged in his January address to “cheerfully sanction any proper legislation for the benefit of the Confederate soldiers and sailors, and their widows.” He made this pledge in the midst of an unprecedented number of lynchings in the state, primarily aimed at African American men.
Penal farm versus veterans’ home
As the 1894 legislative session progressed, however, support for a state penal farm surfaced as the most likely item of success. Amidst growing support for the construction of a new state penitentiary, the proposal to create a state veterans’ home was defeated, and there was only a slight increase to the state’s pension funds for Confederate veterans. In February, the New York Post reassured its readers that Confederate sentiment in the South was waning, a fact the Post argued was evidenced in the Mississippi legislature’s refusal to support its former soldiers. “This,” the Post declared, “is only one of many signs that the new generation in the South is fast receding from the old era, and that the Confederacy is no longer a name to conjure with.” The Vicksburg Herald agreed. In response to the Post, the Herald lamented that too many Mississippians had relegated the Civil War to “ancient history” and were “too stingy and indifferent to buy the helpless old ‘Confeds’ a cheap home!” Veterans groups regularly articulated their fears that the memory of the Confederate cause would be lost to future generations; however, the Grenada Sentinel’s coverage of a Birmingham, Alabama, gathering of ex-soldiers in May of 1894 described a bittersweet reality where the joy of reunion was tempered by the reality of time and aging. “Every meeting henceforward,” the story read, “will [find the] ranks thinned, and from thousands they will dwindle to hundreds, and from hundreds to tens, until the last one will disappear.”
On January 22, 1894, amidst fear that the Confederate cause would be lost with the death of the state’s aging Confederate veterans and disappointment regarding the state’s ability to properly support its ex-soldiers, Stone asked the state legislature to establish a state flag and a coat of arms as an act of good faith toward the reassurances of “patriotic ardor” and “State pride.” In a letter issued from the executive office to members of the state’s Senate and House of Representatives, Stone recounted the fact that only during the years 1861-1865 did Mississippi have an official flag and coat of arms. Those years, as most Mississippians would have understood, were the very years in which Mississippi fought a civil war alongside ten other southern slaveholding states in pursuit of independence from the United States of America. Stone, however, did not reference the war by name. He only indicated that “a state convention” in 1861 had approved a flag that contained, “a white ground, a magnolia in the center, a blue field in the upper left hand corner, the flag surrounded with a red border, and a red fringe at the extremity.” The statute establishing the flag and coat of arms, he explained, was duly withdrawn at “another convention” in August 1865. However, Stone did not indicate that this convention represented the first meeting Mississippians attended after the Civil War and that it had convened under orders from President Andrew Johnson to abolish slavery, approve the Thirteenth Amendment, and extend voting rights to Black male property owners. The 1865 convention failed to meet any of those directives, but its withdrawal of the wartime flag and coat of arms signified an end to the state’s active rebellion.
Footprints of the Civil War
Stone’s omission of an explicit reference to the state’s secession, the Civil War, and the subsequent period of Reconstruction is curious considering his previous recognitions of aging Confederate veterans, the future of ex-soldiers’ pensions, and the possibility of the establishment of a veterans home. The footprints of the Civil War in Mississippi were, in other words, quite visible in 1894. The governor’s support for a flag promised to offer unity and recognition as support for the proposed penal farm became a more pressing priority. However, the unity for which Stone advocated was limited to White Mississippians. On the same day that Stone called for a new flag, he reminded legislators to stay focused on critical issues—tariff reform, an unequal tax code, and “repealing the federal election laws which, as long as they remain on our statues [sic] are a menace to the South.” The voting laws to which he referred had enabled Black male voting in the state, igniting White-driven violence against Black Mississippians throughout the state. A wave of “whitecapping” in 1893 exacerbated this terror, with Whites-only secret societies leading mobs against Black farmers they perceived as competition. (In Mississippi, “whitecapping” specifically refers to violence and the threat of violence used by White Mississippians against African American farmers as a means to force Black farmers to abandon their homes and farms.) Not coincidentally, Stone’s concerns about unchecked crime and lynching were inextricably tied to this White-led violence.
The state legislature’s inability to substantially increase Confederate pensions, and its decision to prioritize funding of a penal farm over a Confederate veterans’ home--despite Stone’s support for a Whites-only voting privilege—threatened to further destabilize an already volatile political environment in Mississippi. By the 1880s, farmers throughout the state joined farmers in other parts of the country in an agrarian revolt that challenged Democratic solidarity in Mississippi and elsewhere. Provisions in the Constitution of 1890 requiring literacy tests for voter registration, threatened a wide swath of undereducated White voters in the state and further alienated poor Whites from the Democratic Party, an entity that, for all intents and purposes, was the only effective political organization in the state at the time. All of these factors were already creating political, economic, and social rifts throughout the state when fears over the possibility of Confederate oblivion arose in the 1890s.
The Confederate Battle Flag and its inclusion within the design of Mississippi’s state flag was an effort to unify White political, economic, and social divisions in the state, at a time when political schisms threatened to destroy the Democratic coalition that prevailed in Mississippi during 1875 and effectively ended Reconstruction in the state. As Confederate veterans aged and a second generation of White Mississippians matured, the memory of the Civil War and the Confederate cause merged to form a universal celebration of White sacrifice that ultimately erased the basis for Mississippi’s secession: the defense and continued protection of slavery. Doing so not only reassured Confederate veterans who feared that their service and cause would be forgotten, but it also shored-up the persistence of White supremacy as the state proceeded to eliminate voting rights, deny access to educational equality, and strip basic safety from Black communities.
In May 1894, Stephen D. Lee, a former Confederate lieutenant general and the first president of the Agricultural and Mechanical College of the State of Mississippi (Mississippi A&M), made a statement signifying the contribution Confederate imagery and memorialization would make for subsequent generations. Lamenting that all history textbooks in Mississippi schools were written by northern writers, Lee described them as “naturally biased, especially in regard to the war and the causes which led to it.” His recommendation to employ a distinctly “southern” version of history that eliminated the defense of slavery as a cause for the Civil War complemented the deification of Confederate symbolism within the state flag. (Note: Stephen D. Lee also served as chairman of the Vicksburg National Military Park Commission which oversaw the creation of the Vicksburg National Military Park. Established in 1899, the Vicksburg National Military Park currently contains more monuments than any other national military park in the United States.) In total, the unification of White memory around this version of Civil War history enabled continued marginalization of Black Mississippians who would wait another century before they would realize the freedoms of basic citizenship. They would do so under the same 1894 flag approved, in part, to reassure the persistence of White supremacy.
Stephanie R. Rolph is an associate professor of history at Millsaps College. Her first book, Resisting Equality: The Citizens’ Council, 1954-1989, is available from Louisiana State University Press. This article was updated in September 2021.
Sources and suggested readings:
The following are primary sources which can be found in the Library of Congress, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers,
“State News Boiled Down,” Pascagoula Democrat-Star, February 23, 1894.
“Governor Stone’s Message,” Macon Beacon, January 13, 1894.
“Mississippi News,” Macon Beacon, January 20, 1864; “Miscellaneous,” August 25, 1894.
The Southern Herald, February 7, 1894.
The Grenada Sentinel, May 5, 1894.
“A Flag and Coat of Arms,” The Sea Coast Echo, January 27, 1894.
John M. Stone, Letter to Democratic Legislature Caucus, January 22, 1894, Macon Beacon, January 27, 1894.
“They Wore the Gray,” The Grenada Sentinel, May 5, 1894.
For a comprehensive treatment of political divisions and party affiliations after 1875 in Mississippi see:
Cresswell, Stephen. Rednecks, Redeemers, and Race: Mississippi after Reconstruction, 1877-1917. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2006.
Cresswell, Stephen. Multiparty Politics in Mississippi, 1877-1902. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995.
For more information on lynchings in the United States and Mississippi, consult the work of the Equal Justice Initiative (https://eji.org/), specifically the organization’s original report on Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror which is available online at: https://lynchinginamerica.eji.org/report/.
For more information on monuments, flags, and Confederate memory see:
Blight, David W. Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American History. New York: Belknap Press, 2001.
Coski, John M. The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem. New York: Belknap Press, 2005.
Cox, Karen L. Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003.
Cobb, James C. Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Wilson, Charles. Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865-1920. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2009.