Civil War enthusiasts defend right to celebrate Confederate history

Chicago Tribune

CHARLESTON, S.C. – (KRT) – Confederate flags were flapping in the breeze here Thursday as antique cannons were fired at odd intervals down at the Battery.

Confederate uniforms were visible everywhere in the streets of this beautiful old Southern city, all in honor of eight Confederate seamen who perished 140 years ago but will finally be buried this weekend.

An estimated 30,000 or more Civil War re-enactors, members of Confederate legacy groups and ordinary Southerners have crowded into Charleston to pay respects to the crew of the Confederate submarine Hunley, a historic vessel lost in 1864 but recovered four years ago.

But amid the solemnity, there is controversy as some on hand have used the events to reclaim and reassert their Confederate history and heritage, which they contend is being stamped out by civil rights groups and "political correctness" advocates bent on erasing symbols of slavery.

One group even tried to have the American flag banned here during the weeklong commemoration, but their petition drive was defeated by Confederate legacy organization leaders who deemed the move inappropriate.

The issue has proved so sensitive that none of the 14 Southern governors invited for the burial ceremonies will attend Saturday, with most citing scheduling conflicts. South Carolina’s Republican Gov. Mark Sanford, who has been absent from commemorations this week, said he has Air Force Reserve duties this weekend that prevent his appearance.

Most blacks are simply shunning the occasion, said Rev. Joe Darby, vice president of the South Carolina chapter of the NAACP and a leader in the successful fight to remove the Confederate battle flag from the state Capitol in Columbia.

"There’s history and there’s heritage," Darby said. "Heritage is when you fondly embrace that history."

Still, Confederate heritage groups hope to make a strong point.

"It’s an injustice," said Billy Moore, a white-bearded visitor from Eastman, Ga. "This is history. You can’t pretend it didn’t happen. There should be a Confederate flag flying from every street corner."

"In Georgia now we’ve got this new sissy (state) flag," said his son, Tim Moore. "I have the original Confederate flag on my truck.

Randy Burbage, a member of the Hunley Commission that organized the week’s events, put the matter in deeply religious terms.

"One of the gifts the Lord has given us as Southerners is our Confederate history," he said Wednesday night at the John Wesley United Methodist Church, the site of one of several memorial services held for the Hunley crew this week. "With this gift comes the solemn responsibility to see that these men are honored, that names are not forgotten and that the true history will be told."

Local historian John Jowen, a member of the Hunley Funeral Committee and a Confederate re-enactor, said the Civil War was fought for a number of reasons.

"I had an ancestor who fought as an 18-year-old private," Jowen said. "He wasn’t fighting for the right of rich people to own slaves any more than a teenager today would fight for the right of rich people to own Cadillacs."

Controversy aside, the saga of the Hunley remains one of the most fascinating episodes of the Civil War. Only 25 feet long and built mostly of boiler parts, the submarine was developed and financed by wealthy Southern businessman Horace Hunley, who had it shipped to Charleston from Mobile, Ala., in an effort to break the Union blockade of Southern ports late in the war.

Hunley and 12 crewmen perished during training exercises, giving the primitive submarine the nickname the Peripatetic Coffin. Nevertheless, a new crew of eight men led by Lt. George Dixon launched the vessel into Charleston harbor on the cold, moonlit night of Feb. 17, 1864.

Turning the sub’s lone propeller by means of a long crank, the crew moved silently toward a preselected target, the state-of-the-art, steam-driven Union warship USS Housatonic, part of a large blockade that had sealed off Charleston Harbor.

The Hunley rammed the Housatonic with a 90-pound explosive charge encased in a primitive "torpedo," killing five of its crew members and causing it to swiftly sink.

The submarine moved off, giving a blue "success" light signal to shore.

Then it vanished. It was the first sinking of a vessel by an American submarine, a feat not to be repeated until World War I.

In 1995, the wreckage of the Hunley was found at the bottom of the sea 4 miles off Charleston. The sub was brought to the surface in 2000. The skeletal remains of the crew members underwent conservation and identification efforts and then were placed in coffins Monday.

Lying in state in various Charleston churches all week, the remains have been watched over by a number of uniformed Confederate honor guards and a contingent of South Carolina State Police.

They will be buried Saturday morning at Charleston’s Magnolia Cemetery, where the 13 other Hunley crewman who perished have rested for the past 140 years, after a 4 1/2-mile procession by an expected 10,000 mourners from Charleston’s Battery to the burial ground.

Three Chicago-area Confederate mourners will be among them, all members of the 2nd Kentucky Cavalry re-enactors group representing John Hunt Morgan’s Rebel Raiders.

"I’m here because this is history, and an appropriate way to honor it," said Mary Simich of Evergreen Park, Ill. "You can’t `correct’ history. You can’t change it."

"We came because we get to be a part of history," said Lee Esgrove of Orland Park, Ill., who with his wife, Judith – also in Confederate uniform – participates in about 20 re-enactor events in Illinois every year. "We’re not just playing out what used to be this week."

What used to be has not seemed very distant this week. A Hunley "fashion show" at the Charleston Museum, laced with anti-Yankee rhetoric, proved to be a Daughters of the Confederacy display of clothes worn by Civil War Charleston women as refugees from Union Gen. William Sherman’s advancing troops and as mourners.

There have been 53 different events held or scheduled here in connection with the Hunley burial, including concerts, lectures, a grand ball and a requiem mass for the crew.

At Wednesday’s memorial service at the Wesley Methodist Church, pastor Sara White told those attending they had a solemn duty there as surrogates for the mothers, sweethearts, fathers, comrades and friends of the Hunley men – all of whom died without being able to say goodbye to the crew members.

Among those in the pews was a lone black man in a sea of white faces, Charleston native Ken Grant, who had arrived wearing both Confederate and American flags on his collar and who posted a large Confederate flag in the hymnal box in front of him.

"I had two ancestors who fought (on the Confederate side) in the Civil War and I’m looking up more," said Grant, who served five years in the Air Force and now owns a flooring company in Charleston. "I don’t think there should be any controversy here. This is history."

After the ceremony, white members of the audience came up and congratulated him on his presence. "We’re pleased to have you," said a woman who had sat in the pew in front of him.

"A black face gives legitimacy to what they’re doing," said Darby, the NAACP leader. "But I’m not bothered by dead Confederates. It’s the live ones in the Legislature that worry me."

"This is a funeral," said veteran Confederate re-enactor Mike Keller of Greenville, S.C. "This is not flag-waving. This is not who can be the biggest redneck."

© 2004, Chicago Tribune.

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