What does the Confederate flag mean? The history and design explained.

The Confederate flag flies on the Capitol grounds on June 23, 2015 in Columbia, South Carolina (AFP Photo/Win McNamee)

In the wake of the Charleston church shootings that killed nine African-Americans, a long-simmering debate over public displays of the Confederate battle flag has boiled over in the South.

Lawmakers are listening and taking action, including many who have in the past supported the flag as a symbol of the South's history. Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley on Wednesday ordered four Confederate flags removed from the grounds of his state's Capitol. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, a Republican, on Monday said it was time for the flag to be removed from its post on the grounds of her state's Capitol.

The flag has long been divisive. Descendants of Confederate soldiers who served in the Civil War argue that the flag is an emblem of their heritage. Others say it carries an insignia that is inextricably linked to racism and hate, especially since it has been adopted by many neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups. Images of alleged Charleston shooter Dylann Roof posing with the flag pushed the debate to a tipping point.

Yet amid the controversy, many people seem unclear on the history of the flag, how it was first used and what its symbols mean. Queries seeking that information were trending on Google and social media sites Tuesday.

The flag's design explained

The "Confederate flag," as it is colloquially referred to, was the flag used in battle by the Army of Northern Virginia during the Civil War. The actual flag of the Confederate States of America featured red and white stripes offset by a blue canton (a term that usually describes a rectangular block in the upper-left corner of a flag) and white stars. The battle flag came into use in 1861, when Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard complained that the flag of the Confederacy appeared too similar to the American flag on the battlefield.

The battle flag, designed by secessionist William Porcher Miles, was incorporated into the second design of the Confederate flag and was also adopted as the Navy Jack, in 1863. The design remained a part of the Confederate flag until the fall of the Confederacy in 1865.

The origins and symbolism of the flag are the subject of heated debate. There were three flags of the Confederacy, none of which was the one so hotly contested today. The flag's look changed over time, as did its meaning.

The layout (often referred to as the "Southern Cross") is a Saint Andrew's cross, named after the X-shaped cross used to crucify St. Andrew. It also known as a saltire. Some believe the symbol represents freedom and independence from oppression and tyranny. The design can be found in the flag of Jamaica, Scotland and the United Kingdom.

The 13 stars represent the 11 states of the Confederacy as well as Kentucky and Missouri, two slave states that were claimed by the Confederacy but never actually seceded during the Civil War.

1. "Stars and Bars": This was the original flag of the Confederate States of America. It originally featured seven stars, representing the first seven states to secede. Today, the state flag of Georgia pays homage the the original flag of the Confederacy. Although the 13 stars are said to commemorate the original 13 colonies, it should also be noted that the final version of the Confederate flag also included 13 stars.

2. "Stainless Banner": This was the second flag of the Confederacy. It featured the battle flag, which had become quite popular by this time (1863). The rest of the flag is blank, white space. Although the official act to adopt the flag did not explain what the white space meant, its designer, W.T. Thompson, referred to it as the "white man's flag."

3. "Blood Stained Banner": This was the third and final flag of the Confederacy. A red stripe was added to the flag's design after many complained that the dominant white space could cause it to be mistaken for a flag of surrender from a distance.

Today, several state flags bear some resemblance or pay homage to the Confederate flags: (1) Alabama, (2) Arkansas, (3) Georgia, (4) Mississippi and (5) Tennessee.

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