The disgraced Confederate history of the ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ flag (2024)

On April 18, 1861, six days after the opening shots of the Civil War, the Philadelphia Inquirer described a “great sensation” in Boston.

A “strange craft” had appeared in the harbor: a merchant vessel from Georgia that flew “a white flag, having on it the emblem of a rattlesnake, with the motto underneath ‘Don’t tread on Me!’ and also below this fifteen stars, representing the fifteen slave States.”

The ship came from Savannah, where secessionists had embraced multiple variations on Christopher Gadsden’s Colonial flag after the election of Abraham Lincoln, eager to promote their cause as a second American Revolution. Stories about Savannah’s political rallies and “Don’t Tread” flag had been reported in newspapers nationwide, so when a ship with a version of it appeared in Boston, a large and angry crowd assembled.

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According to the Inquirer, as soon as the ship’s captain saw the mob, he lowered his flag and hoisted the Stars and Stripes, at which point “‘The Rattlesnake’ was eagerly seized and trampled upon by the multitude, and then torn completely to tatters.”

The episode comes from a chapter that’s usually overlooked in the history of the Gadsden flag, which has reemerged as a provocative antigovernmental symbol. Republican lawmakers from the tea party movement claimed the flag in their fight against federal overreach. Far-right extremists carried it in Charlottesville and at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Today, “Don’t Tread on Me” license plates are available from Virginia to Florida to Arizona, with Iowa this year proposing one of its own.


Little is said, though, about the Gadsden flag’s ties to the Confederates, who embraced it in their own fight against federal authority. From 1860 to 1862, the battle over Gadsden symbols resembled modern meme wars. Ultimately, the Union sacrificed Gadsden’s rattler — because Confederates had irreparably tainted it.

Gadsden, a Continental congressman and brigadier general from South Carolina, designed his defiant yellow flag in 1775 as a nod to Ben Franklin’s “Join, or Die” political cartoon, which presented the American colonies as a segmented rattlesnake. Gadsden became permanently associated with the rattlesnake/ “don’t tread on me” combination when he gave his new flag to Esek Hopkins, the first commander-in-chief of the American Navy. He presented a copy to South Carolina’s state legislature, too, and the Continental Marines flew Gadsden’s flag during the Revolutionary War.

The eagle largely had replaced the rattlesnake as the United States’ national symbol by the 1780s. But Gadsden’s flag took on new life on Nov. 8, 1860, when the Young Men’s Southern Rights Club in Savannah spread a banner across the Nathanael Greene Monument in Johnson Square. The top of it read: “Our Motto: Southern Rights and the Equality of the States.” Beneath, a rattlesnake twisted above the words “Don’t Tread On Me.”

Thousands gathered around the banner to cheer pro-secession speeches, and in subsequent weeks they marched through Savannah with their own homemade variations.

As the news from Savannah spread, so did the flag’s usage.


In December 1860, the Macon Daily Telegraph reported that a rattlesnake flag with “Don’t Tread on Me” had been raised by the Rev. J.R. Willis at a pro-secession rally in Indian Springs, Ga. That same month, Raleigh’s Weekly State Journal reported that a Southern Rights Club in Fayetteville, N.C., had held a meeting beneath “a beautiful representation of a pine tree and a rattlesnake in coil, with the motto, ‘don’t tread on me.’” Residents of Wytheville, Va., reportedly raised their version of the flag on a pole 80 feet high; Taylor’s Bridge, N.C., raised its own 85½ feet, the Wilmington Journal said, on “the tallest sort of a secession pole.”

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The use of Gadsden emblems stretched beyond flags, as their association with the Confederacy deepened. In March 1861, the New York Times reported that, in Baltimore, “Cards were in extensive circulation, bearing the flag of the Confederate states, with a rattlesnake wreathed among its folds, sibilantly couchant, and hissing out the warning ‘Don’t Tread on Me.’”

By the end of the year, Confederates were printing envelopes featuring a rattler and the phrase “Don’t Tread on Us.”


The Gadsden flag was not the official “Flag of the Confederacy,” as the Alabama Beacon called it, but several newspapers described it in those terms. In September 1861, when the Cincinnati Daily Press predicted that “Jeff Davis & Co.” might soon invade Maryland and Delaware, it stated that “the coiled snake, and ‘don’t tread on me’ will be sent at the head of the invaders.”

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When Confederates reverted to the rattler, Unionists countered with scenes of eagles devouring snakes, evoking mythological and religious battles between good and evil. “The Eagle shall bear the Rattlesnake in his beak and rend him with his talons,” declared one especially gory illustration for Union envelopes.

The Boston poet Mary Webb invoked the eagle-snake confrontation in her 1861 poem “Our Massachusetts Dead,” in which she mourned Northern losses: “Our eagle in the serpent’s coil !/But (bruising, soon, the serpent’s head).”


Webb was predicting the Confederacy’s defeat by alluding to Old Testament prophecy — a gesture echoed in Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” published in the Atlantic in February 1862. When Howe pronounced “Let the Hero, born of woman, bruise the serpent with his heel,” she joined a righteous battle of symbols that the South lost long before Appomattox.

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As images of stomped, stabbed and eaten snakes proliferated in Union illustrations, Confederates gradually relinquished their serpents. Instead, they embraced the “Southern Cross” battle flag, a symbol that has persisted to this day.

At the Capitol riot, that Confederate flag and the Gadsden flag flew side-by-side.

The disgraced Confederate history of the ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ flag (2024)
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