The headquarters flag of Robert E. Lee

The colors were that of Old Glory; red, white, and blue. The symbolism of the banner was worthy of legends. It was a sense of pride for the general, as well as a reminder of home and the cause for which he was fighting. It never flew in battle, yet it was known by all. If flew over his headquarters and adorned his dwelling. It was endeared to the general and those who followed him. As with the sacred cross of St. Andrew, the standard had a deep religious significance and a reminder of a bygone era. It was the headquarters flag of General Robert E. Lee created stitch by stitch via the crippled hands of his wife, Mary R. Custis Lee and her daughters. It flew from June 1862, until the summer of 1863. (D. Chaltas)

The Robert E. Lee Headquarters Flag that was used by Confederate General Lee during the War Between the States was designed by the General’s wife and daughters. The flag was used during the early part of the war and was only flown over stationary camps. It was never used on the battlefield.

In 1829, Robert Edward Lee graduated, without a single demerit, from West Point. He was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant of Engineers and served the United States during the Mexican War. During the War with Mexico, Lee was promoted to Colonel, not only because of his outstanding ability but also due to his gallantry and distinguished conduct. In 1855, the US Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis commissioned Lee as Lieutenant Colonel, Second Cavalry. When southern states began to secede from the Union and residents of Virginia voted to join that secession, Lee resigned his commission just two days after being offered the Command of the US forces. He then became Commander-in-Chief of the Army of Virginia.

One thing that clearly drove Lee was devotion to his home state. “If Virginia stands by the old Union,” Lee told a friend, “so will I. But if she secedes (though I do not believe in secession as a constitutional right, nor that there is sufficient cause for revolution), then I will follow my native State with my sword, and, if need be, with my life.” Since Virginia did vote to secede in April of 1861, Robert E. Lee vowed his allegiance to his mother state.

Lee had married Mary Anna Randolph Custis in 1831. The Lees had seven children, three sons and four daughters. All three sons followed the footsteps of their father and served Virginia during the War. The oldest son, George Washington Custis Lee served as Major General in the Confederate Army and aide-de-camp to President Jefferson Davis. Their second son, William Henry Fitzhugh Lee (“Rooney”); served as Major General in the Confederate Army (cavalry). The next son, Robert Edward Lee, Jr. (Rob), served as Captain in the Confederate Army (Rockbridge Artillery).

Mary Custis Lee, the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington and step great-granddaughter of George Washington, first president of the United States, had much invested in this war. Her husband and their three sons were serving on the battlefields and she was losing her beloved family estate of Arlington to the advancing Northern Army. Even during this time when she was suffering from crippling arthritis, sending her husband and sons off to war, and losing her home, Mrs. Lee continued to offer moral support to her husband and his soldiers. She knitted an unknown number of socks which she sent to the front lines along with any food that could be spared from home. Early in the war, Mrs. Lee used her talent for artistic design and stitched a flag for General Lee’s personal use.

The flag is a variation of the Stars and Bars but had a different star pattern. It was made of wool and cotton material. There is much discussion and some disagreement about the flag’s unusual design and odd arrangement of stars. There are 13 stars which, obviously, represent the southern states that had seceded from the Union. The first eleven states to secede were South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina. The flag’s thirteen stars represent these eleven states, along with Missouri and Kentucky, which remained in the Union but had contributed to the Confederacy.

Some researchers call the arrangement of stars on Lee’s headquarters flag, the “bread of life” pattern. According to the historian Joseph H. Crute Jr. the pattern represents the Ark of the Covenant and was “symbolic of the Bread of Life which is the symbol of spiritual nourishment.” The strong spiritual conviction held by both General and Mrs. Lee, who were devout Christians themselves, gives merit to this explanation.

In National Geographic magazine, an article entitled, Ark of the Covenant: Many Legends, No Evidence, the Ark is described as follows: “This legendary artifact is the ornate, gilded case built some 3,000 years ago by the Israelites to house the stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written. Biblical accounts describe the Ark as large, about the size of a 19th-century seaman’s chest, made of gold-plated wood, and topped with two large, golden angels. It was carried using poles inserted through rings on its sides.”

If one refers to the Bible to find information about the Ark of the Covenant, the biblical account relates that during the Israelites exodus from Egypt, the Ark was carried by the priests some 2,000 cubits in advance of the people and their army. Whenever the Israelites camped, the Ark was placed in a special and sacred tent. When the Ark was borne by priests into the Jordan River, water separated, opening a pathway for the entire host to pass through (Joshua 3:15-16; 4:7-18). The city of Jericho was taken with no more than a shout after the Ark of the Covenant was paraded for seven days around its wall by seven priests sounding seven trumpets (Joshua 6:4-20). The physical description of the Ark, as described in Book of Exodus, calls it a chest that contains the Tablets of Stone on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed. Golden staves were held in place by rings on each side of the Ark so that it could be carried on the priests’ shoulders. When carried, the Ark was always covered by skins and then by blue cloth.

Knowing that Mary Custis Lee studied her Bible daily and referred to it often, it is easy to believe she would have wanted a flag that represented the powerful protection of the Ark of the Covenant to fly above the tent of her husband. Just as the inside tent of the Israelites, Mrs. Lee must have wanted the tent where her Captain slept to also be sacred. Many, many years after the original Ark was built, and many years after Mary Custis Lee lived and died, a movie was made about the Ark. The movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, is a story of the power of the Ark and how two warring countries fought to obtain that power. Perhaps Mrs. Lee shared the belief of Brody in that movie when he stated, “The Bible speaks of the Ark leveling mountains and laying waste in entire regions. An Army that carries the Ark before it… is invincible.”

It is also plausible that Mary Lee might have simply chosen the design that resembles the letter A, which stands for Arlington. Mrs. Lee was taught the art of embroidery by her mother, who learned that skill from her grandmother, Martha Dandridge Washington. Mrs. Washington took great pride in her embroidery skills and insisted that each of her granddaughters be well schooled with needles. According to some researchers, an embroidered pillowcase was constructed by Mrs. Lee before the headquarters flag was designed. The pillowcase had the same star design as the flag. Since there is no known written record of the reason for Mrs. Lee’s choice of design, we are left to draw our own conclusion. Sadly, after the War, the flag was found stored with the Confederate War Department’s records, packed among captured Federal colors. The original flag is now housed at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, VA.

-By Janice Busic

Mrs. Janice Busic is a well-known living historian who portrays Mrs. Lee at numerous venues. She has researched the Lee family for years and has a thorough knowledge of the dynamics of the iconic American family. Her portrayal captures the essence of why we are so passionate about passing the torch of knowledge to the rising generation.

– Dave Chaltas