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Pensacola to correct its Confederate emblem

Almost 135 years after the Civil War, Pensacola is retiring the Confederate battle flag.

But it isn't abandoning its Confederate past.

In place of the familiar battle flag, the less familiar _ and less divisive _ Stars and Bars, the First National Confederate flag, will fly over city property.

The Stars and Bars will join the U.S. flag and three others from Pensacola's past _ of Spain, the French kings and Britain _ as Pensacola's symbol, the City of Five Flags.

"It's a matter of historical accuracy," said City Manager Tom Bonfield, who ordered the change last week.

"Let's take a step back at how this came about," said the St. Petersburg native.

"The city about two years ago was embattled over naming a street after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and it came about last year," he said. "When the South Carolina debate (over the battle flag flying above the state Capitol) began, we started chatting about it at staff level.

"When (the battle flag's image on Georgia's state flag) came up again in Atlanta at the Super Bowl last week, we decided to get ahead of the curve."

Bonfield, who was Temple Terrace city manager from 1985 to 1998, turned to local historians for help.

"Lo and behold," he said, "with the help of the historians, we learned the only official flag (that flew over Pensacola during the 14 months it was part of the Confederacy) was the first Confederate flag. We decided, without complaints from any groups, for us to be proactive, to be historically correct and to use the correct flag."

When word of the change got out Tuesday, Bonfield heard complaints aplenty. Hundreds of them, and most from outside of Pensacola, he said.

"Reaction from one group _ the Sons of Confederate Veterans _ has been very negative. They are very upset," said Bonfield.

"What I've heard from the minority community is that it's very positive, from the rest of the community it's positive and council has been very positive," Bonfield said. "It has a factual basis and moves away from the emotion."

"This is our heritage," said council member Mike Wiggins, who supports the change in flags. "I don't see how we can avoid it."

In 1994, Hillsborough County commissioners chose a new county seal, replacing one that had included the Confederate battle flag for almost 30 years.

The Stars and Bars, the official Confederate flag until May 1863, has two red stripes separated by a white stripe. The are seven white stars on a blue field in an upper corner. It was replaced on the battlefield by the more familiar battle flag to avoid confusion with the U.S. flag.

The Confederate battle flag is a starred blue St. Andrews cross on a red background.

The original hand-sewn Confederate flag that flew over the city _ a variation on the First National Stars and Bars _ rests behind glass in a Pensacola museum. There are seven roughly cut four-pointed stars in crude circle. A larger eighth star is at the circle's center.

Bonfield said his order affects only flags on city property _ at City Hall, the Pensacola Bay Bridge and Osceola Golf Course.

"We're not saying the battle flag can't be flown on other property, he said. "But it's my understanding others are moving to do the same."

The downtown post office also will switch flags, said Owen Eubanks, a City Council member and Postal Service official.

The city logo, vehicles and police badges bear the City of Five Flags design. But Bonfield doesn't plan to change this right off.

"Over time, we'll just phase them out," he said. "As we need new artwork, we'll get the different flag."

The Fiesta of Five Flags, a private organization that holds parades, parties and other events to celebrate the city's heritage, will look at the issue if asked, president West Caldwell said.

"We don't have a position on the Confederate flag," he said. "We're not a political organization. We don't take any position on political issues."

As for apparently finding a solution to what could have been a divisive issue in the city, Bonfield says history was on his side.

"It could have been a little bit of luck of when Pensacola was occupied," he said. "We'll see where it goes; the Sons of Confederate Veterans have indicated that they will come to future council meetings to demand the battle flag's return."

_ The Pensacola News-Journal contributed to this report.