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Symbolism abounds in the American flag, and in many cases, the meaning behind the symbolism is readily apparent--for example, 13 stars and 13 stripes for the original 13 colonies, or a large center star to represent an incoming state.  On rare occasions, however, a flag surfaces that has deep symbolism that is not readily apparent.  Such is the case with this flag.  The flag surfaced in Michigan, and its construction and materials, including its aged cotton, metal rings, treadle stitching and hand sewn stars, are consistent with a flag of the Civil War era. American flags from the opening years of the war typically have 34 stars and 13 stripes, and flag makers often heeded the wishes of President Lincoln to keep the flag intact, with the full complement of stars. That, however, is not the case with this fascinating flag.

This flag has several most unusual traits, each of which points to its use as an "exclusionary flag", perhaps designed as a signal flag for slaves to identify a safe house along the Underground Railroad. In 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which allowed southern bounty hunters to track down and return escaped slaves that found their way to the northern states. The law enraged abolitionists. It was one of the primary catalysts leading up to the outbreak of the Civil War. Escaped slaves moving north throughout a system of abolitionist safe houses were no longer safe by just reaching the northern-most states. Abolitionists helped many reach Canada where they were truly out of the reach of southern bounty hunters.  Escaped slaves navigating through the night learned to identify the four stars in the bowl of the Big Dipper, to find the edge stars which point to the North Star, and to follow the North Star to safety.

By the time war erupted in 1861, the Union had 34 states, 15 of which were slave states.  In 1861, 11 of the slave states declared secession and formed the Confederacy. In addition to the 11 states that seceded, four states--Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri--chose to remain with the Union despite being slave states.  These states were known as the "Border States". For a period of time, whether these states chose to remain loyal to the Union or chose to secede and join the Confederacy was uncertain.  Regardless, they were not considered safe territories for escaping slaves, being slave states themselves.

Flags that are attributed as Civil War "exclusionary flags" usually have between 18 and 23 stars on them, and often between 9 and 13 stripes.  Given that we had between 33 and 36 stars on the American flag during the Civil War years, and a varying tally of "southern" states that included 11 seceded states, 4 slave-holding border states, and 2 Confederate territories, there are many ways to make the math work to arrive at a particular star or stripe count.  Sometimes, it's a stretch of the imagination to arrive at meaning, but in this flag's case, it's very apparent.

The seven stripes of the flag represent the 13 original colonies, minus the 6 slave-holding original colonies (Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia): 13 - 6 = 7 Free Original Colonies.  The 19 stars of the flag's reverse represent the 34 states at the outbreak of the Civil War, minus the 15 slave-holding states: 34 - 15 = 19 Free States.  The intentionally trapezoidal canton with four corner stars and large center star on the flag's obverse, easy to see from a distance, represents the Big Dipper bowl and North Star, two known symbols of the Underground Railroad and guide markers for sanctuary.  The star arrangement would have been instantly recognizable by fugitive slaves who had traveled night after night guided north by the North Star. The confluence of these several traits in this single flag are not accidental. In all aspects, the symbolism of the flag unambiguously signifies the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad.  It is a wonderful and extraordinarily rare American flag of the Civil War era with unparalleled symbolism and meaning.


"We remained in the woods during the day, and as soon as darkness overshadowed the earth, we started again on our gloomy way, having no guide but the North Star.  We continued to travel by night, and secrete ourselves in woods by day; and every night, before emerging from our hiding-place, we would anxiously look for our friend and leader,--the North Star."

"After dark, I emerged from the woods into a narrow path, which led me into the main travelled road.  But I knew not which way to go. I did not know North from South, East from West.  I looked in vain for the North Star; a heavy cloud hid it from my view.  I walked up and down the road until near midnight, when the clouds disappeared and I welcomed the sight of my friend--truly the slave's friend--the North Star!"

- William Wells Brown, 1847

Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave. Written by
Published in Boston, Massachusetts, June 1847

1 Narrative of William W. Brown, A Fugitive Slave. Written by Himself.  William W. Brown, Boston, June, 1847
2 The Fugitive Slave's Apostrophe to the North Star.  Reverend John Pierpont, 1839
3 Note: Frederick Douglass' abolitionist newspaper, first published on December 3, 1847, was called "The North Star".

A Tale of Two Flags - A Northern Abolitionist Flag and a Southern Secessionist Flag Star Count: 5 Stars Obverse, 19 Stars Reverse

Dates: 1861

War Era: Civil War

Statehood: 19 Free States

Construction: Cotton

Catalog Number: IAS-00400

Click here to learn about Center Stars.
Click here to see a gallery of flags from the Civil War.

34 Stars, Gilt Painted Silk
Civil War Era, 1861-1863

Except where cited otherwise, all content 2010-2014 by Anthony Iasso   

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