The United States of America, while fighting the American Civil War against the Confederate States of America, went through a variety of different flags. However, the Civil War Union flag, although it changed, was not all that different. The reason for this change in the Civil War Union flag was the addition of new states to the Union, thus, new stars.
As we will see, when the Civil War began, the Union national flag had 33-stars but ended the Civil War with a 36-star flag. Right before the outbreak of the Civil War, Oregon was added to the Union. This resulted in a 33rd star being added to the flag. Then, over the course of the war, Kansas, West Virginia, and Nevada were added to the Union. Thus, the flag went from 33-stars to 34, 35, and finally, 36-stars.
The Civil War began in April of 1861 when Fort Sumter, a federal installation in South Carolina, was fired on.
Fort Sumter was situated on a man-made island that was located four miles from Charleston, South Carolina. The fort had walls made of brick that sat forty feet high and somewhere between eight to twelve feet thick. The fort was built to house 146 big guns and 650 men. While the fort was designed to protect the harbor, in December of 1860, the fort was not yet completed.
Background on Sumter
In December of 1860, before the Civil War began, Fort Sumter was still being completed. The majority of the 80 United States soldiers who were stationed in Charleston were situated at Fort Moultrie. This fort was situated a mile from Sumter.
The issue with Fort Moultrie was that it was attached to the land. Thus, it was susceptible to being surrounded and taken by ground forces. South Carolinians believed that to capture the forts, all they would have to do was ask. They went to the current presidential administration under James Buchanan and did just that. If they were denied, they planned to take the forts by force.
However, Buchanan refused to just hand the fort to the Southerners. He did, however, vow not to send reinforcements. In response, South Carolina promised not to attack the forts while they were negotiating their transfer to the Confederacy. However, while President Buchanan promised to do little, the commander of the forts, Major Robert Anderson, took action.
Anderson was from Kentucky, and he had owned slaves. While Anderson was sympathetic to the cause of the Confederacy, he chose to remain loyal to the United States. Anderson decided to move his soldiers from Fort Moultrie to Fort Sumter, a much more tenable position as Fort Moultrie could easily be accessed and taken by land.
Anderson and his men made this move on December 26 under cover of darkness. This move outraged Southerners who felt it was a breach of the deal made with the Buchanan administration. When pressed on the matter, Buchanan refused to send the soldiers back to Fort Moultrie.
It was then that General-in-Chief and War of 1812 hero General Winfield Scott proposed a plan to send reinforcements to Charleston. Two hundred soldiers were sent to South Carolina on the Star of the West. However, when the ship reached the harbor on January 9, it was fired upon by Confederates.
Upon taking a hit, the ship turned around without completing its mission. This easily could have been the start of the Civil War. However, cooler heads prevailed as Anderson chose to keep the guns at Fort Sumter quiet.
South Carolina continued to try to negotiate with the Buchanan administration to gain control of the forts. However, while attempting to negotiate, Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy also prepared for a different route if need be. Davis put Confederate General Pierre G. T. Beauregard in control of thousands of Confederate soldiers and dozens of mortars and big guns around the harbor. This force was established and ready to fire on the fort if they felt it necessary.
A New President
This was the situation inherited by the new president and his administration, Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln refused to give the fort over to the South Carolinians but the new president also tried to avoid an armed conflict. However, emissaries sent to Charleston appear to have told the Confederates that the fort would be given up. This miscue, whether deliberate or accidental, would lead the Confederates to believe that actions would play out much differently.
This confusion came to a head when General Winfield Scott informed the president that he planned to give up the forts. His reasons were as stated, “The evacuation of both the forts would instantly soothe and give confidence to the eight remaining slave-holding States, and render their cordial adherence to this Union perpetual.” This plan presented by Winfield Scott caused great division amongst Lincoln’s cabinet who had a special meeting to discuss what to do next.
After much deliberation and debate, Lincoln decided to send an expedition into the harbor to attempt to resupply the forts. The force was not to shoot their way into the harbor as was originally proposed. This plan was devised as a way to keep the Union clear of any guilt should fighting begin. However, it also allowed the Union soldiers stationed at Fort Sumter to be resupplied without seeming the aggressor.
As famed historian James B. McPherson wrote, “If Confederates opened fire on the unarmed boats carrying ‘food for hungry men,’ the South would stand convicted of an aggressive act. On its shoulders would rest the blame for starting a war… If southerners allowed the supplies to go through, peace and the status quo at Sumter could be preserved, and the Union government would have won an important symbolic victory.” This action by Lincoln displayed the president’s cunning skills as a politician.
The Confederates chose to fire upon the fort before the relief could arrive. On April 12, 1861, at 4:30 a.m., the first shots of the Civil War were fired. The firing on Sumter continued for thirty-three hours. Four thousand shots and shells were fired at the fort. Fort Sumter was damaged, and a fire started inside of the fort. Anderson and his men had retaliated with one thousand rounds. This response did little to the Confederate force.
Fort Sumter Surrenders
On April 14, the fort surrendered to the Confederate forces and took down the U.S. flag that was flying high above it. The U.S. flag was replaced with a Confederate one. The flag that was lowered from Fort Sumter had 33-stars on it. This flag was created two years earlier, in 1859, when the state of Oregon was admitted to the Union. This fort would not return to Union command until April of 1865.
In the 1830s, settlers from New England and the Midwestern states began heading west. Part of this migration was led by missionaries. The first permanent settlement was established in the Oregon Territory in 1834 by Methodists. Then, in 1838, the U.S. government began dealing with the rights and claims to the region as the settlers of the territory wanted to become a state. In 1843, a provisional government was established at Champoeg, following the laws of Iowa.
However, by 1844, the British decided to give up the Columbia River boundary that had previously been established. The Hudson’s Bay Company then moved its main depot to Fort Victoria. In response to this, President James K. Polk threatened to go to war with Britain. However, the 49th parallel was eventually accepted, and Oregon was adopted as a U.S. territory in 1846. The original boundaries of the territory were revised and included what would become Idaho.
A Battle Over Oregon
However, the Oregon Territories boundaries did not last long. Free soilers began to pour into the territory, which led to a rise in political tensions in the territory. In 1853, the lands north of the Columbia River were granted a status of independence. This became the Washington Territory.
This new territory allowed African-Americans to travel freely. Tensions also arose over where the legislative body of the territory would sit. Congress resolved this issue by declaring Salem would be the seat of the territory’s government.
Then, in 1859, Oregon was adopted into the Union as the 33rd state. When the American Civil War broke out, Southerners in the state threatened to secede. In response to this, free African-Americans were not allowed to enter the territory.
Later that year, on July 4, a 34th star was added to the American flag. This star was added to represent the admission of the state of Kansas. Kansas had been a focal point of American politics in the 1850s. Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois had attempted to get the Kansas-Nebraska Act passed in 1954. This act called for popular sovereignty to replace the Missouri Compromise line that had been established in 1920.
The Missouri Compromise had been brokered by Henry Clay, “the Great Compromiser”, in 1820 and helped to settle the question of slavery for the time being. This line had prohibited slavery north of the 36°30’ line. It had also allowed Missouri to join the Union as a slave state and Maine as a free state. This helped to keep the balance of power in Congress between slave and free states.
However, with popular sovereignty replacing this imaginary 36°30’ line, the state would be allowed to decide for themselves whether or not to be slave or free states. This gave the power to the people of their respective territories instead of being decided by the line that Clay created.
This ideology of popular sovereignty led to pro-slavery Southerners and abolitionist Northerners pouring into the Kansas territory. Since the people of the territory could now decide for themselves whether to be a slave or free state. Violence erupted across the territory, and a mini-civil war ensued.
Then, in 1854, elections took place for a congressional delegate. Six thousand three hundred seven people voted in this election, while only 2,905 legal voters lived in the territory. “Border Ruffian” Southerners had crossed the border and cast illegal votes in the election. This led to the establishment of a pro-slavery government.
This government then passed laws that were incredibly harsh on anti-slavery proponents. If someone helped aid a fugitive slave or spoke out against slavery, they were punished. This led to Northerners in the Kansas territory establishing their own Free State Legislature in Topeka.
A Battle Over Kansas
With this fight over the government of Kansas taking place, 1,200 New Englanders traveled to Kansas in 1855. They were led by Henry Ward Beecher, a preacher, and were armed with rifles known as “Beecher’s Bibles.” The following year, pro-slavery proponents burned down the State Hotel in Lawrence and raided shops and homes there. In response to this, John Brown led a group of men, including his sons, to Pottawatomie Creek. Here, they killed five pro-slavery men by “hacking them to death with swords.”
These groups also began drafting constitutions in hopes that theirs would be accepted by Congress and would lead to the admission of the territory into the Union as a state. There was the Topeka Constitution, written in 1855 by anti-slavery advocates. Then, two years later, there was the Lecompton Constitution which was written by pro-slavery border ruffians.
Another constitution was created in 1858 called the Leavenworth Constitution, written by anti-slavery proponents. Finally, a constitution called the Wyandotte Constitution was passed, which would have established Kansas as a free state. However, none of these constitutions were adopted by Congress before the Civil War began.
However, when the war broke out, the pro-slavery Southern senators left the territory, which paved the way for the Wyandotte Constitution to be adopted and Kansas to be added to the Union as a free state on January 29, 1861.
The 34-star flag would stand until June of 1863. This 35th star was added when the state of West Virginia joined the Union. West Virginia broke off from the Confederate state of Virginia. This region of the state had strong Union sentiment. This region of West Virginia saw very few slave owners or enslaved peoples. The economic and cultural sentiments of the region were tied much more strongly with Pennsylvania and Ohio, both of which were Union states. Even geographically, they were closer to the north. The major city of Wheeling was only sixty miles from Pittsburgh. On the other hand, it was 330 miles from the Confederate capital of Virginia.
This region felt and was vastly underrepresented by the Virginia legislature, which was highlighted by the fact that only five out of the thirty-one delegates who came from northwest Virginia voted to secede from the Union. Virginia nonetheless succeeded in the wake of Lincoln’s call for volunteers following the firing on Fort Sumter. Unionists began to meet across the region and held a convention on June 11 in Wheeling.
One issue stood in the way of this convention and the idea of forming a new state, however. That issue was found in the Constitution. The Constitution states that a legislature must give consent to create a new state out of one already in formation. This, obviously, would not be ratified by the Confederate government. As a way around this, the Wheeling convention deemed the Confederate legislature illegal and established a new administration. The convention appointed Francis Pierpoint as the new “legitimate” governor of Virginia. This government was recognized by President Abraham Lincoln, and two senators were added from Virginia to Congress. Three members of the House of Representatives were also added.
The convention met again in August of 1861. Here, a debate took place over whether or not the northwest section of the state should break off and form its own Union state. Conservatives in the convention opposed this idea as the convention only represented ⅕ of the state. Despite this pushback, an “ordinance of dismemberment” was passed on August 20, 1861. This ordinance was subject to ratification by a referendum four days later. This referendum would also allow voters to elect delegates to a convention to decide whether or not a new state would be formed.
A Battle Over West Virginia
While this movement to form a new state was taking place, military actions between the Union and Confederate soldiers were also taking place. This fighting began when Union forces under George B. McClellan crossed the Ohio River into what would become West Virginia. This invasion resulted in the first Union victory of the war as McClellan and his force, including William S. Rosecrans, defeated Confederate forces under Robert S. Garnett.
The victories that McClellan was able to secure in the region gave legitimacy to the convention government. This allowed the referendum to take place on October 24. Not many voters came out to vote, but of those who did, the majority voted to create a new state. Then, in January of the following year, the convention created boundaries for fifty counties. They also sanctioned the creation of West Virginia on May 23, 1862. The new state of West Virginia was then added to the Union on June 20, 1863. Finally, in 1865, Nevada was added to the Union, and another star was added, bringing the total to 36-stars.
Nevada came under the control of the United States as a result of the Mexican-American War. When the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed in 1848, the land that would become Nevada was a part of the territory of California. Two years later, in 1850, this land would be reorganized and added to the Utah Territory. Few people lived in this territory until 1859 when the Comstock Lode was discovered there. Then, when the American Civil War began, the territory became even more important.
President Abraham Lincoln needed the valuable resources of the territory. He also wanted a Northern state in the region to support anti-slavery Constitutional amendments and to create a buffer zone to Confederate activity in the west. With only a fifth of the population that was required for statehood, Nevada sent a telegraph to Congress mere days before the election of 1864 took place. The cost of this telegram was the most expensive in history. The reason this was done just before the election was to “ensure three electoral votes for Abraham Lincoln’s reelection and add to the Republican congressional majorities.”
The United States flag during the American Civil War remained fairly constant. The significant change was the addition of stars to the flag. These stars were added each time a state was added to the Union. As we have seen in this article, several states were added to the Union prior to and over the course of the Civil War.
Oregon was added in 1859 before the war broke out. However, the state still saw the tensions over slavery and threats of secession that the rest of the nation saw. Then, in 1861, after years of fighting and tension over the territory, Kansas was added to the Union. This settled the dispute over the territory and resolved what had been known as “Bleeding Kansas” once and for all. Then, in 1863, West Virginia managed to break off from the Confederate state of Virginia and form a new state. Finally, in 1864, Nevada was adopted by the Union for economic and political reasons that we have discussed.
The addition of each of these nations resulted in the addition of a new star to the Union flag. This resulted in the flag that flew above Fort Sumter being different from the flag that ended the American Civil War in 1865.