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.
While Beauregard lamented his fate, Federal troops attacked his left flank, and the First Battle of Manassas began. From a technical standpoint it was for both sides a marvel of military incompetence. His original hope for an offensive dashed, Beauregard quickly devised a ludicrously complex plan that failed when a series of his orders never reached subordinates. A third plan also was near collapse when Beauregard spotted an approaching column to his rear. He could not make out whether it was Union or Confederate. The soldiers turned out to be his own, and the added strength proved sufficient to break the Federal line and secure the most important Confederate victory to date. Beauregard was fêted even more vigorously than after Sumter—promoted to full general, and briefly (and through no lack of encouragement on his part) mentioned as a challenger to Jefferson Davis within the Confederate hierarchy.
The confusion at Manassas led Beauregard to resume his search for a way to better distinguish his troops from the enemy. He had first submitted a rather theatrical request that his men be allowed to wear brightly colored scarves on the battlefield. This was declined. Next he pointed out how difficult it was to differentiate the official Confederate flag from the Stars and Stripes, after which it had been designed, and suggested that Congress be asked to adopt a new flag. This, too, was declined. So Beauregard resolved to design a battle flag—the flag that most Americans now think of as the Confederate flag, and the one to which Howard Dean was referring when he mentioned southerners in their pickup trucks. (The three official Confederate flags have been largely forgotten.) The Beauregard battle flag was formally presented to the troops on November 28, 1861.
It was early in the war, but this marked the pinnacle of Beauregard's military career. He would travel west to lead the failed assault at the Battle of Shiloh, where his army was eventually vanquished by Grant's. He did go on to achieve intermittent minor victories, and played a crucial part in the defense of Richmond. But Beauregard was continually hampered by his penchant for elaborate plans and his rigid adherence to Napoleonic strategy—particularly when enemy forces did not conform to these same principles and tactics, as he invariably expected they would. He may have been best summed up by a reporter for The New York Times who interviewed him after the war and concluded that Beauregard was not a first-rate military man but a first-rate second-class man.
Those most nostalgic for the Old South and the Confederacy tend not to look much beyond Lee's capitulation to Grant at Appomattox and the end of the Civil War. They might be less nostalgic were they more familiar with the postbellum career of Beauregard, who was one of the critical southern figures of Reconstruction. Like other Confederate leaders, he was stripped of his right to vote and hold office, and his papers and possessions were seized and examined for evidence of treason. (Officials discovered that Beauregard's papers consisted "mainly of mash notes from the general's female admirers." These may have been the only compromising documents he could not bring himself to destroy.) But unlike virtually all his former colleagues, Beauregard understood, and prospered during Reconstruction. His driving ambition for military glory was redirected to business success, which he pursued with singular purpose.
He also participated in Louisiana politics, generally with an eye to his own gain. After an 1872 election descended into violent chaos, Beauregard became involved with a now long-forgotten effort, the Louisiana Unification Movement. In an effort to dislodge Reconstruction—and stabilize the business climate—a group of conservative Democratic business leaders, Beauregard prominent among them, founded the Reform Party, a major platform of which was better race relations and acceptance of blacks' political and civil rights. This was not out of any special concern for the plight of blacks but for purely pragmatic reasons. The Republican government held power mainly because of its ability to draw the support of black voters. Reformers like Beauregard, Williams wrote, "were convinced that the salvation of the state lay in persuading the colored voters to leave the Republicans and unite with the whites in a new political organization," which would drive out the carpetbaggers.
It would be an understatement to say that these sentiments were not widely shared in New Orleans. But Beauregard, beloved throughout the state and always eager to be the focus of attention, campaigned vigorously on behalf of the movement, which in due course attracted many of the city's prominent black leaders. In 1873 a party committee that Beauregard chaired put forth a detailed written plan for conciliating the races. In Williams's words,
[It] advocated complete political equality for the Negro, an equal division of state offices between the races, and a plan whereby Negroes would become landowners. It denounced discrimination because of color in hiring laborers and in selecting directors of corporations, and called for the abandonment of segregation in public conveyances, public places, railroads, steamboats, and public schools.
Beauregard himself introduced this document, which was later presented at a public meeting beneath a banner that read "Equal Rights—One Flag—One Country—One People." Lest there be any doubt about which flag this referred to, Beauregard's plan resolved, as one of its concluding pronouncements, to cultivate "a broad sentiment of nationality, which shall embrace the whole country, and uphold the flag of the Union." (italics added)
This was a program that must have delighted Beauregard: in true Napoleonic fashion, it proposed a concentration of forces to defeat a superior enemy. But like Beauregard's military plans, it was wildly ambitious and flawed. It assumed, somewhat remarkably, that white landowners would willingly give over their land to blacks, and that working-class whites would accept blacks as social equals. Unremarkably, the movement collapsed. Beauregard withdrew from politics and found the best way to profit within the corrupt Reconstruction South: for sixteen years he was the public face of the notorious Louisiana state lottery. He died in 1893, a rich man.
The argument that Beauregard would today oppose the return of the Confederate flag is not a revisionist one put forward by a sympathetic descendant. Beauregard's ignorance and racism were unmistakable. He once predicted that "seventy-five years hence, the traveler in this country will look in vain for traces of either an Indian, a negro, or a buffalo." It is simply an argument that takes into account Beauregard's coldly pragmatic nature and thoroughgoing self-interest. He put his financial well-being above his racist instincts, and led the unification movement sheerly for the sake of economic expediency.
Beauregard has slid into obscurity, his early military triumph and Confederate heroism clouded, in the eyes of present-day southern romantics, by his positively northern ability to prosper in the New South. By becoming rich, his biographer Williams believed, Beauregard became "a forgotten man in the Southern tradition."
Economic reasons also appear to be at the heart of Perdue's capitulation on the referendum. The governor rightly fears the economic damage that a newly risen Confederate flag would inflict on Georgia—not to mention his political career. Twice more since his inauguration he has been besieged by airplanes towing banners, and these have moved beyond the pleading tone at his inauguration to a more threatening one suggesting that Perdue may not be long for public office. "The GOP is DOA," a recent banner warned. (I can't help thinking that Beauregard would approve of this approach—Napoleon was a great exponent of surprise attacks.)
Each side in today's debate over the flag insists on moral and ethical absolutes, offering little room for compromise. Neither will be satisfied by a court decision or the executive decree of an easily ousted governor. Flag supporters who speak of heritage and historical accuracy would best honor Beauregard's legacy—and help their beloved South in the process—by shifting their battle to the economic front and fighting to make the South more competitive with the North. That's a cause the flag's inventor would have eagerly, and no doubt showily, rushed to endorse.