FORT WORTH HISTORIAN ROBERT MABERRY, Jr., is the author of Texas Flags (Texas A&M University Press, 2001), which debunks the myth of the six flags over Texas by studying the more than fifty banners that have represented first the province, then the Republic, and finally the state over the course of five centuries. His study of these sacred relics is the first of its kind, and by analyzing the origins of Texas patriotism and pride, he reveals the deeper emotions—the psychology of the Texas identity—tied to these fragile decorations of cloth.
texasmonthly.com: How important are flags to the psychology of a people, especially Texans?
Robert Maberry: Since the 1830’s the flags of Texas have reflected the will of its people. Unlike monarchies and powerful central governments, which decree the banners their subjects will honor, Texas flags represent the consensus of a vital democracy. In the early days it was not uncommon for communities to openly debate what designs to display on their flags so that the message the symbols conveyed would represent the wishes of the majority of their citizens. Based on this, local women would then make the flags as their personal artistic expression of the community’s decision.
In 1835 the majority of the Anglo people of Texas decided that a break with Mexico and a union with the United States was in their best interest. Thus the designs of their flags evolved from variations of the Mexican tricolor to various depictions of the lone star of independence often melded to the Stars and Stripes. When statehood for Texas was denied, a new flag (today’s Lone Star Flag) that bestowed pride in the Republic was embraced by the people. In 1845, when Texas joined the Union, the people joyfully cast aside this flag in favor of the Stars and Stripes. In 1861 the people of the state reached a new consensus: They should leave the Union and join the Confederacy. Thus they embraced the flags of this new republic. And so it goes. Today, with the Stars and Stripes flying beside the Lone Star Flag, questions of Texas sovereignty are firmly settled—or are they? On private homes, businesses, and at public gatherings a third banner is becoming more common—the tricolor of the Republic of Mexico. If one wishes to gauge the state of Texas society, look to the flags the people fly.
texasmonthly.com: What is your theory about the Alamo flag?
RM: Two flags flew over the Alamo during the famous 1836 siege. Neither was a Mexican tricolor with “1824” inscribed. The presence of such a flag is pure myth, and its description was not based on any eyewitness account. The story of the 1824 flag originated in 1860 as conjecture that the Texians were fighting to restore the tenets of the Mexican Constitution of 1824. This story of the 1824 flag was repeated so many times that it became a matter of faith and assumed an undeserved place in the mythology of Texas. In reality, the defenders of the Alamo wanted no part of 1824. Eyewitnesses do, however, report a green, white, and red Mexican tricolor at the Alamo. But it had two stars, one for Texas and one for Coahuila, not 1824. This flag emphasizing the union of Texas with Mexico made only a brief appearance and probably was associated with the Tejanos of the Texian garrison. The fort’s main flag, the one Travis reported “still waves proudly from the walls” in his February 24 message “To the people of Texas and all Americans in the world” resembled not the flag of the Mexican Republic but that of the American one. A preponderance of contemporary evidence suggests the flag of the Alamo had a field of thirteen red and white stripes like the Stars and Stripes of the United States, but in the canton [the square or rectangle in the upper hoist or the rectangle closest to the pole] was the lone star and between each point a letter of the word “Texas.” This was a flag the Anglo-Celtic defenders of the Alamo would have died for.
texasmonthly.com: What is your favorite flag in the book and why?
RM: While I do not have a favorite flag, one old banner seems to me to be especially worthy of the reverence of modern Texans. The original battle flag of the First Texas Infantry of Hood’s Brigade was one of the few examples of the classic Lone Star Flag being use as a Confederate battle flag. Nineteenth-century Texans referred to it as Mrs. Wigfall’s wedding dress, because it had supposedly been made out of that lady’s nuptial gown. Mrs. Wigfall was the wife of Texas politician Louis T. Wigfall, the regiment’s original commander. His family supplied the flag, which was presented to the regiment in Richmond by Confederate president Jefferson Davis in the summer of 1861. The flag led the regiment through the hard-fought early campaigns and had the names of four battles inscribed on its bullet-torn folds. But it was at the Battle of Antietam, fought on September 17, 1862, that Mrs. Wigfall’s wedding dress entered the annals of Texas legend. On that day, the First Texas led Hood’s Brigade into a small cornfield that became the battle’s most sanguine killing ground. The First Texas lost 83 percent of its men, the largest percentage loss suffered by any regiment, North or South, during the entire war. The regiment’s Lone Star Flag was the epicenter of this great conflagration. Eight Texans fell while waving it defiantly at the foe; dozens more died directly in its defense. In the end, after the few exhausted survivors had at last given up the field, the tattered battle flag adorned a pile of mangled gray-clad corpses. A Pennsylvania corporal then claimed it there and, for his effort, was awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor. Mrs. Wigfall’s wedding dress remained a trophy of war until 1905, when it was returned to Texas. To early twentieth-century Texans, the flag became one of the state’s most revered icons. It led patriotic parades in the state capitol and for years hung in a place of honor in the chamber of the Texas House of Representatives. But time eventually took its toll on the fragile silk flag, and by the last decades of the twentieth century, much of the fabric had crumbled to dust. But thanks to the conservation efforts of the Texas Historical Commission, Mrs. Wigfall’s wedding dress is now fully conserved and is on display for the first time in more than seventy years at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Texas Flags serves as a guidebook for the exhibit “Texas Flags, 1836—1945,” which is on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, through April 28.