Flying the flag

By Jonathon Dawe Statesman, Staff Writer
01/20/03

Area descendants of Confederate veterens concerned about history being misinterpreted

Preserving a piece of Missouri’s -and the nation’s history – is what concerns a number of local historians about the removal of an historic flag from two Missouri sites. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR) his last week ordered the lowering of Confederate flags at two state historic sites – the Missouri Confederate Memorial Site near Higginsville and at the Fort Davidson Historic Site near Pilot Knob in Southeast Missouri. DNR Director Steve Mahfood order the lowering of the flags following a telephone conversation with an aide from Gov. Bob Holden’s office. That telephone call was prompted by remarks by Missouri presidential hopeful Congressman Dick Gephardt. But local historians and decendants of Confederate veterans are upset with DNR’s action. They see the move as an insult against those men and women who 140 years ago fought for a cause they believed in. According to Jim Mayo of Bloomfield, the current controversy surrounding the Confederate battle flag stems from what he sees is a lack of education on the Confederacy and the American Civil War.

“When I think of the Confederate flag I think of my family’s heritage,” Mayo, also a member of the SCV, remarked. “And my family never owned any slaves. They were poor farmers that fought for something they believed in.” What they fought for wasn’t necesaarily the issue of slavery, but that of state’s rights and the fundamental establishment of government in the nation. Historians point out that the vast majority of soldiers fighting for the Confederate States of America – from General Robert E. Lee on down to lowly privates – did not own slaves. Mayo, along with other members of the SCV, insists the differences between the Confederacy and the Union sides are not being taught in schools today. “Everyone talks about the Civil War being fought over slavery,” Bruce Hillis, a member of the SCV and a resident of Dexter, said. “Our kids aren’t being taught about the secession from the Union and (the issue of) states rights. They’re being taught that the entire Civil War was fought over the issue of slavery.” Hillis said a focus on what today is called “politically correct” points of view has caused much strife for those who observe the heritage of the Confederate soldiers. History lessons

“The governor (Missouri governor Bob Holden) might also consider requiring a ‘true and accurate’ history lesson for both Mahfood and himself to learn a little something about Missouri’s Confederate heritage and the true history of the Battleflag,” Hillis stated in a recent essay. It is with the focus on history and pride in family heritage that the Col. Solomon G. Kitchen, Camp No. 1731 of the SCV meets regularly and not under the guise of racism or anything political. “This is not a political organization,” Hillis remarked and later said the SCV is focused on preservation of Confederate soldier and sailor graves and many other areas of interest. Hillis also said the members of the SCV meet regularly to discuss the military and political history of the period. By many accounts Stoddard County, and the areas surrounding it, has a rich history from the Civil War. In a time when many feared invasion from the northern states and felt threatened by an imposing union, there were more than a few instances when Stoddard County residents actually saw fighting between brothers and other relatives.

According to members of the local SCV group, Col Solomon G. Kitchen, a longtime Stoddard County resident, did other things besides fighting in the Civil War. Kitchen was the first licensed attorney in Stoddard County and he was instrumental in bringing railroads to the county. He was the president of the Cairo and Fulton Roadroad, which had more than 20 miles of rail laid prior to the start of the war. The outbreak of conflict in Missouri halted most railroad development in the state until after the war. Kitchen also served as a judge of the Stoddard County Court and represented his district for two years in the Missouri Senate. County heritage The First Division of the Missouri State Guard – a group of local volunteers – met and organized near Frenchman’s Spring south of present-day Dexter. This was the beginning of the “Swamp Fox Brigade – an effective unit of Confederate troops who destruction was eventually called for by Union Gen. Ulyses Grant. At that original gathering at Frenchman’s Spring the words “Get ready to march to Bloomfield in the morning. We are too far from the enemy” were spoken. It is this heritage – and history from throughout the state – that has caused local Confederate historians to be alarmed at the state’s action to lower the Confederate flags at two state historic sites.

“If the order to remove the flags is not reversed it will be just a step in the process to remove all things Confederate from the public eye,” Hillis said. “Flags from textbooks, monuments of Confederate heroes, perhaps even the Confederate soldiers’ grave markers themselves (could be removed).” Preserving history Dexter resident Larry Arnold, also a member of the SCV, went through great personal expense to ensure the memory of his ancestors and the memory of several others would be left alone. A self-proclaimed history buff, Arnold said he spent nearly $10,000 from his own pocket to preserve an area in the Bloomfield Cemetery to commemorate the valor of 201 Confederate soldiers. The area is now known as the Stoddard County Civil War Cemetery. Aside from the stone, pointed monuments of Confederate veterans, Arnold erected two 30-foot flagpoles which fly the U.S. Flag, the contemporary Missouri Flag, the former Missouri flag and the Confederate flag. Amid the markers there is a rounded-top marker commemorating the valor and sacrifice of a Union soldier almost directly in the middle.

Arnold went so far as to research as many of the soldiers as he could and had the history of 152 soldiers engraved on the back of the markers. Arnold, likewise, thinks a lack of education has caused recent problems surrounding the Confederate Battleflag. “I think it’s a lack of education and history,” Arnold remarked. “I think both political parties use it as a drawing card. That’s the part that really ticks me off — right or wrong, the Confederate soldiers should be respected for their sacrifice because they fought gallantly.” Arnold also objects to the way the SCV is viewed by some. “We’re thought of as a radical group; but we’re not,” Arnold commented. Likewise, Gene Dressel, Missouri Division Commander of the SCV, said the group faces much opposition but offers little in the way of conflict. “We are all law-abiding citizens,” Dressel said. “If anything that’s our main weakness.” “We have no more control over the regulation and use of the Battleflag than we do the use of white sheets (as used by members of the Ku-Klux-Klan),” Gary Kitchen, SCV member and Dexter resident commented. “So why don’t we outlaw white sheets?”

Dressel blames the negative light being cast on the Confederate flag on politicians as well as what he called “race-hustlers” looking to stir support for special causes. One politician in particular being focused on by Dressel is Missouri Governor Bob Holden. “I don’t see how Holden can deny any involvement with the decision to take the flags down,” Dressel remarked. “Even if he didn’t know anything about it, he is still culpable because of the actions of his communications director. He is at fault either way.” Holden’s Director of Communications Mary Still has claimed responsibility for contacting Mahfood about remarks made about the Confederate flag by Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt. Gephardt made his remarks that the Confederate flag should not flay “anytime, anywhere” while campaigning for president recently in South Carolina. Still called Mahfood without Holden’s knowledge. “The whole sequence of events just doesn’t sound right,” Dressel said. “As far as the political significance of the Battleflag is concerned, there are no political ties with anyone. Our heritage is just being attacked. The whole problem is a problem of a lack of education.

“This ill-conceived action was orchestrated by presidential hopeful Dick Gephardt, who claims that he was unaware that these flags were displayed in Missouri, despite the fact that they have been up for decades. Evidently, Gephardt influenced Holden to ban the flags.” As far as members of the SCV are concerned, the flag represents a part of America’s heritage and has nothing to do with slavery. “I can’t tell you that the problem would go away if everyone had a fine education in history,” Hillis said. “I am disappointed, however, to see the lack of research into the subject by the national media who seem content on focusing on the emotional or ‘feelings’ point in the story of the Battleflag’s symbolism.” Hillis said he is bothered by the lack of complete Civil War history in modern textbooks. “The current attention being paid to the removal of the flag does present an opportunity for our organization to fulfill its charge,” Hillis remarked. “That charge is, ‘…to see that the true history of the South is presented to future generations.”

Jonathon Dawe may be reached via e-mail at jdawe@dailystatesman.com

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