What Defenders of the Confederate Flag Don't Know Is that the Emblem's Creator Almost Certainly Would Want to Hide It If He Were Alive Today

Roundup: Talking About History

Joshua Green, in the Atlantic Monthly (March 2004):

The [Confederate] 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 [Georgia] 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. ...

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) ...

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.

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