One day I was walking through the beautiful grounds of Cave Hill Cemetery where my parents and other family members are buried in my home town of Louisville, Kentucky, and a marker I’d never noticed before struck my eye – the name was Nicola Marschall, and I knew that name, he’d been the man who designed the first Confederate Flag. But what was he doing in Louisville, Kentucky? There had to be answers.
Marschall did indeed die and was buried far away from his native home of the small town of St. Wendell, Prussia, where his father was a very well off tobacco manufacturer. It was presumed that young Nicola would follow in his footsteps and take over the family business, but that was not to be.
Fate stepped in when at the tender age of six, he began sketching pictures of people he knew or saw, very good ones, and his family became reconciled to the fact that he would be “just an artist.” They wisely fostered this talent, and before long his teenage years saw him studying in Paris, London, Berlin and Munich, among others.
He appeared gifted in more than just art, playing both the piano, the violin and the guitar, and spoke both German and French extremely well. It was said that his command of English gave no hint of his Prussian background, quite an accomplishment.
With his family’s blessing, he sailed away from LeHarve in France to New Orleans, La, and on to Mobile, Alabama where he stayed with a relative. The year was about 1849 and people in droves were leaving for the promised golden mining fields of California and sure riches. This may have been appealing to the young man, but he decided to stay where he was and soon was tapped as an instructor in a female seminary there in Marion, AL. He had landed in one of the wealthiest areas in Alabama, and he began a career of teaching painting and his beloved guitar, as well as the violin.
His art did not suffer – he began painting the likenesses of well-known people of the area, and word of his talent spread. This was 1861, and the civil war loomed on the horizon. Several states had already seceded – South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas and Florida had cast their lot with the Confederacy, which was in its infancy and had no proper flag to denote its existence.
One of the wealthier ladies of the area, a Mrs. Napoleon Lockett, was aware of Marschall’s talent, and asked the young artist if he would like to submit a flag design to them. He came up with two designs, one with red, white, and red horizontal stripes, a blue field in the top left showing seven white stars, indicating the number of seceded states. The second proposed design differed in the field with its stars was to the left of the middle white stripe.
The first one was the final choice, and even today is known as the First National Flag of the Confederacy. Because of its obvious design, three broad bars and a canton or field of stars, it became officially knownn as the “Stars and Bars.” As time passed and more Southern states seceded, additional stars were added to the canton, the star for Kentucky being the final one of the thirteen which ultimately graced the flag.The flag is a prominent part of the insignia of the United Daughters of the Confederacy to this day. Frequently the St. Andrews Cross battle flag is erroneously given this title, but it is incorrect to do so.
Pleased with the flag effort, Mrs. Lockett asked him if he could possibly design a uniform for the soldiers to wear. The U.S. or Union troops would be wearing blue, he assumed, so he needed a different base color.
Thinking of the grey uniforms which Austrian soldiers wore, he sketched up a design in pale grey. He used the banding on the collar to indicate the different branches of the Army…red for artillery, blue for infantry, yellow for the cavalry, etc.
Nicola Marschall’s involvement with the Confederate Army was not to end there, and even though he had left Germany specifically to avoid the draft, he joined the Confederate Army in Mobile as a private. Unfortunately he was deaf in one ear, and so was discharged, where he paid two substitutes to serve for him.
His interest continued and when a call for more soldiers was made in 1864, Marschall again enlisted, this time in the 2nd Alabama Regiment, Engineers. To his shock, his commanding officer was Col. Samuel Lockett, the son of the woman who had had him design the flag and uniform!
He served with distinction, and his art talent was put to use drawing maps as well as enemy fortifications for the Confederacy.
He continued his painting doing portraits of prominent people from Henry Clay to President Abraham Lincoln, as well as other wealthy folk and Confederate personages as well. It is said that he was the only portrait artist for who General Nathan Bedford Forrest would sit to me memorialized.
In Montgomery, in 1931, a marble tablet was dedicated at the capitol building, commemorating the raising of the first Confederate flag there. It reads:
“From the dome of this Building, the First Capital, floated the First Flag of the Confederacy, known as the ‘Stars and Bars’ designed by Nicola Marschall of Marion, AL, at the suggestion of Mrs. Napoleon Lockett of the place. Adopted by the Confederate Congress, March 4, 1861, and raised that day by Miss Letitia Tyler, grand-daughter of former U.S. President John Tyler.”
At the end of the war he returned to the Seminary and married one of his students there, Martha Elizabeth Matshall, even though she was considerably younger than he was. A few years later they moved to Louisville, where he lived out his years, until he died in 1917 at the age of eighty-eight, buried nor far from my parents in Cave Hill.
And people go there every Sunday, both to leave flowers on the graves of loved ones, and to feed the dozens of ducks, geese and swans in the beautiful lakes. It is a place of death, but also one full of life and the happy voices of little children.
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