The history of the Southern Cross
Nov. 24, 2011
Editor's Note: Dr. Terry L. Jones is a professor of history at the University of Louisiana at Monroe. To mark the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, a series of articles by Dr. Jones about the war will be published in The News-Star. Dr. Jones is also a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. This is the eighth article in the series.
Louisiana in the Civil War
On November 27, 1861, Louisiana General P.G.T. Beauregard hosted a dinner party for his officers. Beauregard was the South's first hero, having captured Fort Sumter in April and then defeated the Yankees at the First Battle of Bull Run in July. Now, he commanded the Confederate army stationed in Northern Virginia to block any enemy advance out of Washington, D.C.
During the evening, Beauregard told his guests how the fog of war had caused him to nearly throw away the victory at Bull Run by ordering a headlong retreat. The fighting had raged since daylight on July 21, 1861, after General Irwin McDowell's Union army attacked Beauregard from across the small Virginia stream known as Bull Run. The battle seesawed back and forth throughout the day, but fresh troops rushed in from the Shenandoah Valley had finally given Beauregard the advantage. Then, just as victory seemed certain, he spied a heavy column of troops more than a mile away maneuvering on his flank.
Beauregard 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 General 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 to 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 Colonel Harry T. Hays' 7th Louisiana Volunteers, the lead regiment in Colonel Jubal Early's brigade that was attacking the Union flank. Early's bold move helped win the day, and the First Battle of Bull Run ended in a complete Confederate victory. Few people knew how close Beauregard had come to throwing away that victory simply because he could not identify a flag on the battlefield.
Determined to avoid similar mistakes in the future, Beauregard decided the Confederates needed a distinctive battle flag. Collaborating with Joseph E. Johnston and others, he settled on a design that South Carolina Congressman William Porcher Miles had submitted earlier for consideration as the First National Flag. Miles' submission was a blue St. Andrew's Cross on a red background, with white stars representing the Southern states.
After telling his tale, Beauregard had the new flag brought out to show his officers. A reporter for the Richmond Daily Dispatch 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." Shortly the dinner, Beauregard was transferred to the western Confederacy and the new battle flag took root there, as well.
The Louisiana-inspired battle flag became known as the Southern Cross, and it was adopted by the other armies when General Beauregard was transferred to the western theater of war. However, it was never an official flag of the Confederate government and it was never flown over public buildings despite what Hollywood might have one believe. The Southern Cross was simply a military banner that troops carried in the field. Nonetheless, it became the iconic symbol of the Rebel cause, and it was later incorporated into the Confederacy's Second and Third National Flags.
Dr. Terry L. Jones is a professor of history at the University of Louisiana at Monroe and has published six books on the American Civil War.