Current State Flag
     

State Flag in Civil War*

North Carolina State Flag History

On May 20, 1861, the day that the secession resolution was adopted by the state of North Carolina, an ordinance to adopt a state flag was presented by Colonel John D. Whitford. A committee of seven was formed with Colonel Whitford appointed chairman. The original ordinance stated that "...the flag of this State shall be a blue field with a white V thereon, and a star, encirling which shall be the words, "Sirgit astrum, May 20, 1775."

The design intended by this original description for the flag was never to be. Colonel Whitford and his committee consulted an artist from Raleigh, William Jarl Browne, for advice. Mr. Browne prepared a model for a state flag and submitted it to the committee for approval. The "Browne" flag was not at all like that described in the original proposal but was, nevertheless, approved by the North Carolina Convention on June 22, 1861.

The design provided by William Jarl Browne and adopted by the Convention was described as having a red field with two bars making up the fly; the top one blue and the bottom bar white. Centered on the red field was a white five pointed star. Above the star, in a semi-circular mold, was the date May 20, 1775 representing the much questioned "Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence." Below the star was the date, May 20, 1861 representing the date of North Carolina's secession from the union.

This flag was carried by the North Carolina Regiments, along with the Confederate colors, throughout the Civil War. After the war, North Carolina like other secession states, adopted a revised design for their state flag. In March of 1865, a bill introduced by General Johnstone Jones, was passed and the design of the North Carolina State Flag change for the last time. The flag's field was changed from red to blue. The top bar of the fly was changed from blue to red. The gilt letters "N" and "C" were placed on either side of the white star and gilt scrolls were added above and below the star. The scroll above still displays the date of the "Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence" but the date displayed in black letters on the lower scroll displays April 12, 1776, the date of the "Hallifax Resolves" instead of May 20, 1861, the date of secession.


Legislative records show that a "state flag" was not established or recognized until 1861. The constitutional convention of 1861, which passed the ordinance of secession, adopted a state flag. On May 20, 1861, the day the secession resolution was adopted, Col. John D. Whitford, a member of the convention from Craven County, introduced an ordinance, which was referred to a select committee of seven. The ordinance stated that "the flag of this State shall be a blue field with a white V thereon, and a star, encircling which shall be the words, Sirgit astrum, May 20, 1775."

Colonel Whitford was made chairman of the committee to which this ordinance was referred. The committee secured the aid and advice of William Jarl Browne, an artist of Raleigh. Browne prepared and submitted a model to this committee and this model was adopted by the convention of June 22, 1861. The Browne model was vastly different from the original design proposed by Colonel Whitford. The law as it appears in the ordinance and resolutions passed by the convention is as follows:


AN ORDINANCE IN RELATION TO A STATE FLAG

Be it ordained by this Convention, and it is hereby ordained by
the authority of the same, That the Flag of North Carolina shall
consist of a red field with a white star in the centre, and with the
inscription, above the star, in a semi-circular form, of "May 20th,
1775," and below the star, in a semi-circular form, of "May 20th,
1861." That there shall be two bars of equal width, and the length
of the field shall be equal to the bar, the width of the field being
equal to both bars: the first bar shall be blue, and second shall be
white: and the length of the flag shall be one-third more than its
width. [Ratified the 22nd day of June, 1861.]

This state flag, adopted in 1861, is said to have been issued to North Carolina regiments of state troops during the summer of 1861 and borne by them throughout the war. It was the only flag, except the national and Confederate colors, used by North Carolina troops during the Civil War. This flag existed until 1885, when the Legislature adopted a new model.

The bill, which was introduced by General Johnstone Jones on February 5, 1885, passed its final reading one month later after little debate. This act reads as follows:


AN ACT TO ESTABLISH A STATE FLAG

The General Assembly of North Carolina do enact:


SEC. 1. That the flag of North Carolina shall consist of a blue
union, containing in the centre thereof a white star with the letter
N in gilt on the left and the letter C in gilt on the right of said
star, the circle containing the same to be one-third the width of
the union.


SEC. 2. That the fly of the flag shall consist of two equally
proportioned bars; the upper bar to be red, the lower bar to be
white; that the length of the bars horizontally shall be equal to
the perpendicular length of the union, and the total length of the
flag shall be one-third more than its width.


SEC. 3. That above the star in the centre of the union there
shall be a gilt scroll in semi-circular form, containing in black
letters this inscription "May 20th, 1775," and that below the star
there shall be similar scroll containing in black letters the
inscription: "April 12th, 1776."


SEC. 4. That this act shall take effect from and after its
ratification. In the General Assembly read three times and ratified
this 9th day of March, A.D. 1885.

It is interesting to examine the significance of the dates found on the flag. The first date, "May 20, 1775," refers to the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, although many speculate the authenticity of this particular document. The second date appearing on the state flag of 1861 is that of "May 20th, 1861." This date commemorated the secession of the State from the Union, but as the cause for secession was defeated, this date no longer represented anything after the Civil War. So when a new flag was adopted in 1885, this date was replaced with "April 12th, 1776." This date commemorates the Halifax Resolves, a document that places the Old North State in the very front rank, both in point of time and in spirit, among those that demanded unconditional freedom and absolute independence from any foreign power. This document stands out as one of the great landmarks in the annals of North Carolina history.

For more than 100 years, there was no change to the flag, until the 1991 General Assembly made some minor modifications, changing the total length of the flag to one-half more than the width (rather than one-third), and eliminating the commas from the two dates (see ch. 361 of the 1991 Session Laws).

For the most part, the flag has remained unknown and a stranger to the good people of our State. However, as we became more intelligent, and therefore, more patriotic and public spirited, the emblem of the Old North State assumed a station of greater prominence among our people. One hopeful sign of this increased interest was the act passed by the Legislature of 1907, requiring the state flag to be floated from all state institutions, public buildings, and courthouses. In addition to this, many public and private schools, fraternal orders, and other organizations now float the state flag. The people of the State should become acquainted with the emblem of that government to which they owe allegiance and from which they secure protection, and to ensure that they would, the legislature enacted the following:


AN ACT TO PROMOTE GREATER LOYALTY AND RESPECT FOR THE SOVEREIGNTY OF THE STATE

The General Assembly of North Carolina do enact:


SEC. 1. That for the purpose of promoting greater loyalty and
respect to the state and inasmuch as a special act of the Legis-
lature has adopted an emblem of our government known as the
North Carolina State flag, that it is meet and proper that it shall
be given greater prominence.


SEC. 2. That the board of trustees or managers of the several
state institutions and public buildings shall provide a North
Carolina flag, of such dimensions and materials as they deem
best, and the same shall be displayed from a staff upon the top of
each and every such building at all times except during inclement
weather, and upon the death of any state officer or any prominent
citizen the flag shall be put at half-mast until the burial of such
person shall have taken place.


SEC.3. That the Board of County Commissioners of the several
counties in this state shall likewise authorize the procuring of a
North Carolina flag, to be displayed either on a staff upon the
top, or draped behind the judge's stand, in each and every term of
court held, and on such other public occasions as the Commis-
sioners may deem proper.


SEC. 4. That no state flag shall be allowed in or over any
building here mentioned that does not conform to section five
thousand three hundred and twenty-one of the Revisal of one
thousand nine hundred and five.


SEC. 5. That this act shall be in force from and after its
ratification.

In the General Assembly read three times, and ratified this 9th day of March, A.D. 1907.

Many North Carolinians have questioned the legitimacy of having the date of the Mecklenburg Declaration, May 20th, 1776, on the flag. Historians have debated its authenticity because of the lack of any original documentation. The only evidence of the Declaration is a reproduction from memory many years later by one of the delegates attending the convention. Historians' main argument, other than the non-existence of the original document, is that the Mecklenburg Resolves, adopted just eleven days after the Mecklenburg Declaration, are comparatively weak in tone, almost to the point of being completely opposite.

Many historians find it difficult to believe that the irreconcilable tone of the Declaration could have been the work of the same people who produced the Resolves. Efforts have been made to have the date taken off the flag and the seal, but so far these efforts have proved fruitless. Removal from the seal would be simple enough, for the date of the Halifax Resolves could easily be substituted without changing the basic intention of the date. The flag would prove to be more difficult, for there is no other date of significance which could be easily substituted.

The preceding information is largely taken from The North Carolina State Flag, originally written by W.R. Edmonds in 1942, and subsequently revised and reprinted by D.L. Corbitt in the NC Department of Archives and History (7th printing, 1974). Minor revisions have been compiled by the Information Services Branch of the State Library.

Information on the Mecklenburg Declaration may be found in the following article: Current, Richard. "That Other Declaration." North Carolina Historical Review, April 1977, 169-191.

No changes have been made to the North Carolina flag since 1885, but legislation passed in 1907 has increased the flag’s visibility. That law requires the flag to be flown at all state institutions, public buildings, and courthouses. Many schools and organizations also fly the flag. It seems only right that the emblem of the Old North State should fly proudly for all of its citizens to enjoy.


*Civil War Flag - The first ten regiments of North Carolina State Troops (Volunteers - and renumbered later as the 11th through 20th regiments of North Carolina Troops) received silk state flags made in Norfolk, Virginia by a private contractor. Later on, in 1862, the state provided these regiments wool and cotton versions of the state flag made at the Raleigh Depot. These flags were issued at least through the 55th NCT research shows. The only other Confederate state that made such an effort to issue state flags (of those that had them), was Virginia. Virginia issued state flags from 1861 into 1865 for her regiments.

 


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