Ask Rufus: The magnolia flag

March 3, 2014 10:02:03 AM

Rufus Ward - [email protected]


Last week a magnolia flag was posted on a Columbus Facebook page with a question about its history. Several people commented on what an attractive flag it was but knew nothing about it. What is the Magnolia Flag? It is a flag, with origins dating back to 1810, which in its final design flew over Mississippi from just before the Civil War until 1894. Its elements make it much more historic than just a Civil War flag. 


The flag contains two striking features. Its canton or the square in the upper inside corner is a dark or royal blue with a single white star in the center. The rest of the flag consists of a white field containing a green magnolia tree in bloom. The flag sometimes had either a red fringe surrounding it or a red band on the along the outside vertical edge. 


The flag's canton is often referred to as the Bonnie Blue flag which was popular in the South during the Civil War but its origins actually go back to the early days of America. In the first decade of the 1800s a blue flag with a single white star in its center was used during skirmishes with Spain over the Territory of West Florida (south Alabama, South Mississippi and that part of Louisiana east of the Mississippi River).  


A variation of this "standard of independence" became a symbol of the fight for freedom and independence across the Americas. It flew in the Republic of Texas and still adorns the Texas flag. It became the standard of an ill-conceived effort by some along the Gulf Coast to attempt to annex Spanish Cuba to the United States. That attempt was reported in a Savannah, Ga., newspaper as "the Cuban Excitement in the South West." The article further reported that the proposed expedition's flag of a "single star and stripes" was unfurled at Pass Christian in July 1851. 


The single star on a blue field apparently became a symbol of freedom and independence across all of the Americas. The flag of Chile, a white star on a blue background with red and white stripes, dates to the Chilean revolution against Spain in 1817. That was only five years after the last use of the lone star flag in west Florida. Even today a single white star is found, though on a red background, incorporated into the flags of Cuba and Puerto Rico.  


On Jan. 9, 1861, Mississippi seceded from the Union and became the Republic of Mississippi. Not having a flag the old flag of West Florida independence was unfurled at the state capitol. It took the name of the Bonnie Blue Flag. It was quickly realized that Mississippi needed an official flag and a committee was organized to design one. The flag which was proposed and adopted was described as "A flag of white ground, a magnolia tree in the center, a blue field in the upper left hand corner with a white star in the center ..." That flag which had incorporated the flag of West Florida became known as the Magnolia Flag. It remained the state flag until after the war when ordinances passed by the former Confederate legislature were overturned. 


When the movement arose a few years ago to change the state flag, I never understood why the Magnolia Flag was not more seriously considered as an option. There are only two main elements of the flag. There is the 1810 flag of West Florida and the magnolia tree.  


It is far more rooted in our history than our current flag, which was adopted in 1894. I wonder why we might not even be allowed to use it as an alternative state flag. This is especially true as we would be using the alternative to the present flag not because anyone is making us but because it is a more historic flag that we want to use.

Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]