Someone I know asked me yesterday why the National Park Service allowed the Stars and Stripes to be lowered and replaced by a flag of secession at an NPS site. I hadn’t heard about this, but the event happened at Fort Pulaski National Monument on January 3. It was touted as a re-enactment of what occured 150 years ago when Georgia Governor Joseph Brown ordered state militia troops to occupy the federal facility. No shots were fired that day in 1861, because the fort was only manned by two caretakers. The State of Georgia had not even officially seceded, but the Governor was an ardent secessionist. According to this article:
“After President Abraham Lincoln’s election, Brown called on Georgia to follow South Carolina out of the Union, warning of the dangers of abolition that would lead to miscegenation and racial equality. He ordered the seizure of the undefended federal Fort Pulaski even before a popularly elected convention voted by a narrow margin to secede. The popular secessionist governor may well have tipped the balance in the Deep South state that was least inclined to leave the Union in 1861.”
Robert Moore argues on his blog that there were charges of voting fraud at the Georgia secession convention; that the common Georgian was “misrepresented” by the delegates, many of whom were slaveholders. Craig Swain also has an excellent post about the siezure of Fort Pulaski here.
The news coverage of the re-enactment that I can find (video here and articles here, here and here.) say nothing about why the state siezed a federal facility, other than its strategic location and that federal troops might actually decide to occupy it. Why was Governor Brown so afraid of the federal government? There is no mention of the issue of slavery that I have found. There is no questioning of what the legalities were of a state Governor ordering the seizure of a federal facility. Let me make this clear: Fort Pulaski (just like Fort Sumter) was the property of the United States of America, and therefore belonged to ALL the people of the United States. The federal government rightly viewed siezures like these occuring in various states, as an internal insurrection. Perhaps these issues were discussed as part of the program, I don’t know.
A ranger that is quoted in one of the articles says it is not even clear if the secession flag raised by the re-enactors was the actual flag the original militia raised at the fort that day in 1861. The ranger is also quoted as saying: “We felt like we needed to do something to honor this historic event.” The Superintendent is quoted as saying:
“The conflicting loyalties of the Civil War taxed those who lived through it, and even today, the issues defy easy answers,” continued Superintendent Wester. “It is appropriate that we honor the events of the past, and reflect on what they mean to us today.”
The person who questioned me about this didn’t think “honor” was an appropriate word. From my own point of view, I am reminded of when I worked at Wilson’s Creek NB and it was asked a few times, “If this was a Confederate victory, why don’t you fly the Confederate flag in front of the visitors center?” My favorite response from another ranger: “Well, you wouldn’t fly the Rising Sun over the Arizona would you?”
Is the proper flag, the flag of the United States, again flying over Fort Pulaski? I don’t know. Was this re-enactment appropriate? How many more re-enactments such as this are we going to see in the next few years? And, what exactly do these events of the past mean to us today?