It's said that Social Security is the third rail of American politics, but an honest look would turn up something just as deadly. Though it lacks New Deal stature, nothing is more hazardous to a political career than the Confederate flag. Like Sherman's march, it lays waste to everything in its path. In recent years alone the flag has ruined governors from both parties (the Democrat Roy Barnes, of Georgia, and the Republican David Beasley, of South Carolina); debased the honorable John McCain, who first dodged it and then awkwardly renounced it; and stalled Howard Dean's momentum when no one and nothing else could. Yet the Confederate flag lacks Social Security's reputation as an issue not to be tampered with—and is all the more lethal because of that. Politically, it is truly the Lost Cause.
The latest chapter in this saga will unfold this month, when Georgia holds a referendum on its state flag. For years the banner above Georgia's capitol dome prominently incorporated what historians know as the Beauregard battle flag, popularly called the Southern Cross—white stars emblazoning a broad blue saltire against a scarlet background, a design most Americans consider the classic symbol of the Confederate South. Since state lawmakers adopted it to protest school integration, in 1956, it has encouraged the image of Georgia as an unreformed backwater.
The flag's fiercest critics, in Georgia as elsewhere, have been black leaders angered by its association with segregation and slavery and white businessmen hurt by the economic dislocations that accompany such strife. In an effort to extinguish the controversy and celebrate a New South of tolerance and prosperity, in 2001 Governor Roy Barnes replaced the flag with one that did not feature the Southern Cross. Voters responded the following year by replacing Barnes. They elected Sonny Perdue, the state's first Republican governor since Reconstruction, who appeared as untroubled by the flag's legacy as he was attuned to its power. This stunning upset of Barnes (once a dark-horse presidential candidate) was led by rural white voters who turned out in record numbers on the strength of Perdue's promise to hold a referendum on the state flag—and the implication that they would be allowed to restore the Confederate emblem. "It's like a family secret," Perdue explained to The New York Times. "The only way to heal this is with the sunshine of coming together and dealing with it in a very forthright manner."
What happened next was anything but forthright. Even before assuming office Perdue began backing away from the flag. He suddenly grew vague about the referendum, and he banned the flag from his inaugural ceremony—fruitlessly, it turned out, because flag supporters, sensing that their man was weaseling out of his commitment, chartered planes to circle overhead towing banners that displayed the 1956 flag and the message "Let us vote—You promised!" When details of the referendum finally emerged, flag supporters were apoplectic: they would be offered the choice of replacing the Barnes flag not with the 1956 one but with another, designed by a state legislator, that didn't feature the Southern Cross. Perdue has been beset by angry "flaggers" ever since. Polls show that a majority of Georgians want to vote on the 1956 flag. They also show that Perdue is among the least popular new governors. The man who once led the charge to restore the symbol of the Confederacy appears ever more likely to be another of its victims. Regardless of how the referendum is decided, the issue will end as it always does: with neither side appeased, and with this family secret, like most, continuing to exact its toll long after everyone hoped it was forgotten.
I'm no Georgian, and certainly no ally of Perdue's. But I can't help feeling implicated each time a do-gooder like Barnes is felled by the flag, or an opportunist like Perdue profits from it. As it happens, I have my own family secret: my full name is Joshua Beauregard Green, and according to family lore I am directly descended from the very man who created the Confederate flag—General P.G.T. Beauregard. As a child I hated the name. I can still recall the moment when it was revealed to my classmates—broadcast, really—by a teacher calling the roll on the opening day of first grade. Had I been raised in the South, my middle name would no doubt have conferred great honor. I was raised, however, in Connecticut, where an exotic, mellifluous middle name conferred only torment from the instant my peers discovered it.
And yet as I grew older, the name instilled a certain curiosity about the Confederacy, the flag, and above all P.G.T. himself. Flag supporters rarely invoke Beauregard's name, and never seem to dwell on the man, though the lionization of Robert E. Lee and other Confederate leaders increases by the year. I recently discovered that there's a reason for this. The details of Beauregard's life point to a great irony: if General Beauregard were alive today, he'd be in the front ranks of those trying to get rid of the Southern Cross.
To the extent he is remembered at all, Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard is the "Hero of Fort Sumter" and the man who led Confederate forces to victory in the First Battle of Manassas. Early in the Civil War there was no more romantic figure among Confederate officers than Beauregard, a vainglorious French Creole from New Orleans. He won the nickname "Little Napoleon," chiefly because of his French heritage and his obsession with Napoleonic warfare, though his diminutive stature and general comportment suggest that the name was more broadly fitting—Beauregard exhibited every Gallic tendency save the impulse to surrender.
The bombardment of Fort Sumter was in fact not much of a battle. The squat brick fortress that commands Charleston Harbor was manned by fewer than a hundred Union soldiers and not yet completed when Beauregard demanded its surrender, in April of 1861. When its chief officer refused, Beauregard initiated the first action of the war, in the early morning of April 12. The fight ended without a single death—save that of one Confederate horse (not Beauregard's)—when Sumter's commander capitulated, thirty-four hours later.
Overnight Beauregard became the Confederacy's first hero, a status that suited his dramatic self-image. In the words of T. Harry Williams, the author of the biography P.G.T. Beauregard, Napoleon in Gray (1955), "He was the South's first paladin," a flamboyant figure who stood out alongside the bearded austerity of his colleagues. Beauregard was rumored to travel with hordes of concubines and wagonloads of champagne; he was known to have been a favorite of Charleston ladies, who smothered him with letters, flowers, flags, and scarves. According to Tony Horwitz's Confederates in the Attic (1998), Beauregard had a servant to wax his moustache daily, and summoned his own cow from New Orleans, claiming that his delicate stomach could abide no other milk. Southerners were smitten with Beauregard's aristocratic mien and aloof distinction, and his legend quickly radiated throughout the Confederacy.
Though his bloodless victory at Sumter was a dubious achievement, as the most celebrated general in the South, Beauregard was next assigned to its most important theater, northern Virginia, to stop the Federal advance on the newly established capital of Richmond. Here he exhibited a tendency that would come to define him. Though a talented military engineer, he had a flair for arriving on the scene with little knowledge of the enemy and dashing off grandiose battle plans that couldn't possibly be put into effect. Dutifully adhering to the Napoleonic principle of concentration of force, he proposed that General Joseph E. Johnston's army in the Shenandoah Valley join his in Manassas to "crush successively and in detail the several columns of the enemy, which I have supposed will move on three or four different lines of operations." He helpfully instructed his President, Jefferson Davis, that his plan "should be acted upon at once." This was despite glaring deficiencies, ranging from the logistical difficulty of combining armies to Beauregard's implication that he, a brigadier general—and not his senior, Johnston—would command the force. Davis swiftly rejected the plan.