Greenfield history buff says billboard, flag are not meant to insult anyone

GREENFIELD – It’s just there. Like it’s always been in the history, and psyche, of this part of the world.

Drive up U.S. 45 East, cross the Weakley County line, look to the west and you’ll see it fluttering in the breeze. A Confederate battle flag, with another banner known as the "Bonnie Blue" that was first raised in Mississippi after secession and later spawned the second-most popular song in the short, bloody history of the Confederate States of America.

It’s lit up at night, and in the last few months, a large billboard has been placed alongside, an ad to join the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

"We’ve gotten about five or six (new members) since we put the sign up. Had about 20 before," said Joe Stout, who owns the land and first put up the flag before the local and national Sons organizations split the cost of the billboard. It’s there. Just there.

"To tell you the truth, you’d miss the flag until the billboard came up," said Randy Potts, city recorder in Greenfield, which has about 2,200 souls. "To tell you the truth, I know it says ‘My South’ on it, and there are some (phone) numbers, but I couldn’t tell you what’s there."

It would be easy to call this "in-your-face" politics and brand Stout as someone to the right of Rush Limbaugh. If you asked the 75-year-old Stout about all his opinions, you wouldn’t rush to pair him and, say, Jesse Jackson as dinner companions.

Still, his route from former nightclub owner and musician to loyal member of the SCV and avid Civil War history buff is not straight-line ramrod oak. Like so much of this area’s history, it rises, twists, turns, blends … a little like kudzu on a tree trunk.

"Really, I didn’t get into this stuff until a few years ago. I knew of it, but it didn’t hold me like it does now," Stout said.

He remembers being 5 years old in 1935, sitting on the lap of his great-grandfather, William Henry Harrison Carlton, who died that year at 95.

Young Joe had red hair, just like Carlton. These days, his red hair is now snow white, but he sees the line continue every time he looks into the gentle smile of his 40-year-old developmentally delayed son, Tim, who has come back to live with his parents after many years in a group home.

"My wife (Maggie Lee) and I are both retired, and a sister came to live with us, so it just made sense for him to come home," is all Joe Stout says while Tim brings wood for the stove that heats the house, then sits down to some simple games on a computer.

Carlton was a private in Russell’s Brigade during the two bloody days of battle at Shiloh in April 1862.

"On the second day, he took a musket ball in the forehead, and doctors used a silver dollar to patch the hole in his skull," Stout said. "He went back to fight until he started suffering seizures after the battle of Murfreesboro in 1863, when they discharged him."

Carlton let the youngster touch where the hole had been and told the youngster the joke he’d told all his adult life.

"Told me he’d never die broke," Stout said with a smile.

Joe remembered that story into his adulthood, but never did much about it while playing music and running night clubs, including the old Mullins Club, which disappeared when U.S. 45 went to four lanes – and where his flag now stands.

After Stout retired, "I started looking into my family’s genealogy."

He discovered another great-grandfather, Nat Mitchell, who was 17 years old when he joined the 55th Tennessee Regiment and was assigned to defend an island near New Madrid, Mo. As Shiloh unfolded to the South, Union forces, with the aid of two ironclads, overran the position. Mitchell would spend nearly six months in a prison camp before being exchanged for Yankee troops. He was wounded in Georgia, fought in Nashville and was discharged in North Carolina, a few days after Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.

"For awhile, I’d do a little research here and there and would have pages stuffed in this book and that book all over the house. Nothing organized," Stout said. "Then I got on the Internet about 10 years ago …"

These days he’s a walking, talking history of the war and Weakley County, tracing the names of all those who fought in the war from the area. He eventually joined the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

"I felt a connection to what they did and what they felt for their homes," he said. "It got stronger the more I read."

It’s a sentiment that resonates with James Elliott, a Vietnam veteran who lives in Greenfield.

"To me, it’s patriotic," he said, explaining via his own experience.

"I hope those fighting now won’t have to go through what my generation did when we came home, and people wanted to erase that entire era from their memory," he said. "It’s a little like that flag at the end of town. There are those who want to erase that part of our history, but if you love this country, you have to embrace, or at least accept, all that happened."

Stout will admit to you that "a lot of my views are pretty conservative."

But he also will tell you emphatically that his embrace of the symbols of the Confederacy has far more to do with family and home than the issues that turned the flag into a statehouse battle in Georgia, South Carolina and Mississippi.

"The hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan used the flag for their purposes, which were not mine. I know slavery was a big part of this, but I know it was a terrible way to live," he said. "But the Klan also uses the American and Christian flags, too."

It came to a head a few years ago, "when it seemed like people were trying to erase all the symbols … it struck something in me," he said.

He had an acre of land left where the Mullins Club once stood, "so I decided to put the flag up. It was just me."

He also said it was not meant to show disrespect to anyone. "I meant no insult by it, so no one should take insult," Stout says.

Last summer, the Col. Jeffery Forrest Camp (Dresden) decided to add the recruiting aspect for their organization. Stout said his group "has talked about putting a picnic table up for those who might stop."

Ben Sewell, executive director of the 2,000-member SCV based in Columbia, said there are similar displays in Alabama and Florida.

"It’s something handled on the state level by various camps in our organization," he said. "We put our local numbers on the boards and are looking for potential prospective members.

"We’re a historical organization. We get one or two harassing e-mails or phone calls from time to time, but we don’t view it as trying to be controversial. It’s not meant to be in your face, but it’s showing respect for the ancestors … and those who died and were wounded in that fighting. It is a piece of our history."

Truth be told, the battles fought in other places haven’t happened here.

Potts said, "I’ve gotten one inquiry since it’s been up, a lady asking if it was on city-owned property. I told her it was on private property, who put it up and never heard from her again."

Carolyn Mullins, who lives across U.S. 45 from the flag, said, "Only thing that concerns me is that people think it’s mine, but it doesn’t bother me."

Mae Tansil, who is African-American, said that when the flag first went up, "I was offended some. I don’t mind saying it."

But she added, "as time goes on, I notice it less. Really, I don’t think about it much any more."

Mae’s husband, Thomas, and Stout are friends.

"I even did his family’s genealogy and discovered that one of his great-great-uncles fought for the Confederacy," Stout said.

"I’ve talked to him about joining our (SCV) group."

Mae said her husband, "doesn’t talk about it to me about that stuff much, because he knows how I feel. … but, yes, they’re friends."

Like kudzu around a tree trunk, the story keeps extending, and intertwining in ways that don’t always make sense. Just happens.

Copyright ©2006 The Jackson Sun

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