July 29, 2011, 8:30 pm
The Southern Cross
By TERRY L. JONES
Confederate Gen. G.T. Beauregard was worried. It was the afternoon of July 21, 1861, and fighting had raged since daylight after General Irwin McDowell’s Union army attacked Beauregard from across the small Virginia stream known as Bull Run. The battle seesawed throughout the day, but fresh troops rushed in from the Shenandoah Valley had finally given Beauregard the advantage. Now, just as victory seemed certain, he spied a heavy column of troops more than a mile away maneuvering on his flank.
Gen. G.T. BeauregardBeauregard later explained, “At their head waved a flag which I could not distinguish. Even by a strong glass I was unable to determine whether it was the United States flag or the Confederate flag. At this moment I received a dispatch from Capt. [Porter] Alexander, in charge of the signal station, warning me to look out for the left; that a large column was approaching in that direction, and that it was supposed to be Gen. [Robert] Patterson’s command coming to reinforce McDowell. At this moment, I must confess, my heart failed me.”
Beauregard knew his exhausted men could not withstand a determined flank attack. “I came, reluctantly, to the conclusion that after all our efforts, we should at last be compelled to yield to the enemy the hard fought and bloody field.” Beauregard turned to an officer and instructed him to go to the rear and tell Gen. Joseph E. Johnston to prepare the reserves to support the retreat he was about to order. As the officer began to leave, Beauregard had second thoughts and told him to wait a minute so they could make sure that it actually was Yankees bearing down upon them.
It proved to be a fortuitous decision. “I took the glass and again examined the flag. … A sudden gust of wind shook out its folds, and I recognized the stars and bars of the Confederate banner.”
The mysterious flag turned out to be the Confederacy’s First National Flag, which resembled the United States flag in both color and design. It was carried at the head of Col. Harry T. Hays’s Seventh Louisiana Volunteers, one of the lead regiments in Col. Jubal Early’s brigade that was launching an attack on the Union flank. Hays’s second-in-command, Lt. Col. Charles de Choiseul, wrote home after the battle that the regiment happened to carry the national colors that day instead of its blue regimental flag, but he did not explain why. Early’s bold attack helped turn the tide, and the First Battle of Bull Run ended in a complete Confederate victory. Few people knew how close Beauregard had come to throwing that victory away simply because he could not identify one of his own side’s flags.
As it turned out, Beauregard was not the first person to mistake the Seventh Louisiana for the enemy at Bull Run. In his memoirs, Early wrote that earlier in the day Confederate Gen. David R. Jones saw Hays’s regiment approaching his position and he, too, thought it might be the enemy. Early galloped over to confer with Jones and found him scrutinizing the Louisianians through his binoculars and preparing his men to fire on them. Fortunately, Early got there in time to clear up the confusion.
Early also experienced a moment of uncertainty when he prepared to make his flank attack that afternoon. An officer came up to warn him that a Virginia regiment was on the other side of the hill in his front and not to fire on it. Early was sure there were no friendly forces in that position, but he rode ahead to check and saw soldiers dressed in what appeared to be Confederate uniforms. They, too, carried a flag but it lay limp in the dead air, and Early could not tell whether the troops were friend or foe. It was not until Jeb Stuart’s horse artillery opened fire on the men and they retreated that Early saw it was a United States flag.
Determined to avoid such cases of mistaken identity on future battlefields, General Beauregard decided the Confederates needed a distinctive national flag. It just so happened that William Porcher Miles, a South Carolina congressman, was serving on Beauregard’s staff at the time, and Miles had considerable experience dealing with flag issues.
William Porcher Miles As chairman of the confederate Committee on the Flag and Seal, Miles had overseen the adoption of the First National Flag a few months earlier. During the committee’s deliberations, it became apparent that opinions were split between those who wanted a flag that was similar to the United States because of fond feelings for the old Union and those who wanted something completely different to mark a new beginning. Miles was among the latter, and he submitted a flag design containing a blue St. Andrew’s Cross on a red background, with white stars on the cross to represent the Confederate states.
Miles’s pattern was based on a South Carolina secession flag that displayed a traditional, or upright, St. George’s Cross. However, a Southern Jew objected to the cross and requested of Miles that such a specific religious symbol not be made into a national symbol. Miles agreed to change the design to a St. Andrew’s Cross: “It avoided the religious objection about the cross (from the Jews & many Protestant sects), because it did not stand out so conspicuously as if the cross had been placed upright thus.”
In the end, the committee rejected Miles’s entry and chose a design that was similar to the United States flag. The Confederates’ First National Flag would have red and white bars, rather than stripes, and in the upper corner seven white stars (representing the Confederate states at the time) on a blue background. The flag, which became known as the “Stars and Bars,” somewhat resembled the original United States flag used during the Revolutionary War.
When, after the Battle of Bull Run, Beauregard mentioned to Miles his desire for a distinctive national flag, Miles told him of his rejected design. Then, acting on behalf of Beauregard, Miles suggested to the Committee on the Flag and Seal that a new national flag be adopted in order to avoid confusion on the battlefield. When the committee refused by a vote of four to one, Beauregard decided there should be two flags.
Beauregard (who by then had embraced the St. Andrew’s cross) wrote Gen. Joseph E. Johnston that he had recommended to Miles “that we should have two flags — a peace or parade flag, and a war flag to be used only on the field of battle — but congress having adjourned no action will be taken on the matter — How would it do for us to address the War Dept. on the subject for a supply of Regimental or badge flags made of red with two blue bars crossing each other diagonally on which shall be introduced the stars. … We would then on the field of battle know our friends from our Enemies.”
Johnston agreed and suggested the battle flag be square instead of rectangular so as to be better proportioned. Beauregard introduced the new banner to his officers at a dinner party on Nov. 27, 1861. A reporter for the Richmond Daily Dispatch attended the event and wrote a detailed account for his readers. After telling the story of the confusion at First Bull Run, Beauregard brought the new flag out. The reporter was impressed and wrote, “The flag itself is a beautiful banner, which, I am sure, before this campaign is over, will be consecrated forever in the affections of the people of the Confederate States.”
The next day, the new flags were officially issued to the Virginia army with great ceremony. Shortly afterward, Beauregard was transferred to the Western Theater and the new battle flag took root there as well.
The Confederate battle flag. Eleven states officially seceded and joined the Confederacy, but the battle flag also included stars for the slave states of Kentucky and Missouri because they formed Confederate governments in exile.
The Southern Cross, as it is sometimes known, was never an official flag of the Confederate government, and it never flew over public buildings, despite what Hollywood might have one believe. Instead, it was simply a military banner that was carried by troops in the field. Nonetheless, it became more popular than the Stars and Bars and was incorporated into the Confederacy’s Second and Third National Flags. For 150 years, the Southern Cross has been the symbol of the Rebel cause.
Sources: John M. Coski, “The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem”; Terry L. Jones, “The American Civil War”; Richmond Daily Dispatch, Nov. 27, 1861; Jubal A. Early, “Autobiographical Sketch and Narrative of the War Between the States”; Charles de Choiseul to Louisa Watson, Nov. 6, 1861, Historic New Orleans Collection, Tulane University.
Terry L. Jones is a professor of history at the University of Louisiana at Monroe. He has written a number of books on the Civil War, including “The American Civil War “and “Lee’s Tigers: The Louisiana Infantry in the Army of Northern Virginia.” Dr. Jones is a member of the Sons of Confederate Vetearns