Confederate Memorial Day draws visitors to South’s Constitution
By GREG BLUESTEIN
Associated Press Writer
ATHENS, Ga. — Laid out on a table-length display at the University of Georgia library one day each year is the document that established a government to rival the one in Washington, plunging Americans into civil war.
The only known copy of the Confederate Constitution draws hundreds of visitors to Athens every April 26, which is Confederate Memorial Day in Georgia.
History buffs who marveled at its impact on American culture jockeyed for space Wednesday with students who simply wanted to steal a glance at the fragile document.
Some who made the trek were Confederate scions, looking to commemorate the cause their ancestors fought for.
‘‘We’re standing beside one of the most important documents ever written, like it or not,’’ said Orri Putnam, who drove in from Charlotte, N.C., to pay homage to the faded sheepskin. ‘‘Think of the people who died for this document.’’
John Maxey, a 59-year-old member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, has been making the pilgrimage to Athens from Covington for 17 years.
He spent hours at the exhibit Wednesday, holding an impromptu class on Southern culture for onlookers.
‘‘It’s not just a passing fancy for me,’’ Maxey said. ‘‘If we don’t know where we’ve been, we don’t know where we’re going.’’
The constitution, which was saved by a Civil War-era journalist, had been on display in the Library of Congress in the early 1900s before the University of Georgia acquired it in 1939.
A provisional copy of the document is housed at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Va., but UGA’s copy is the only final copy that still exists, said Mary Ellen Brooks, the director of the school’s Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
The Confederate Constitution covers fundamental details such as the division of powers between branches of government. Although it forbids importation of slaves from abroad, it otherwise makes explicit the Confederacy’s pro-slavery posture. It establishes the right to own slaves, says that slaves may not gain their freedom by fleeing to a non-slave state and says any new states must respect ‘‘the institution of negro slavery as it now exists in the Confederate States …’’
But the exhibit at UGA is not aimed at generating new conflict.
‘‘It’s not a rabble rouser sort of exhibit,’’ Brooks said. ‘‘We still live in the same places, on the same ground, where these battles took place. They’re just seeing the family connection.’’
As a lasting tribute to state’s rights, Southern states could never agree on a single day to memorialize the Civil War. A handful of states celebrate on June 3, the birthday of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. In 1874, Georgia chose April 26, the day the local contingent’s surrender to Gen. William T. Sherman became official.
Confederate memorials are far from mainstays throughout the South, but in some communities, they are annual traditions.
In Gainesville, about an hour northeast of Atlanta, a crowd of 50 gathered in a church Sunday afternoon to pay respect to the victims of the ‘‘war between the states.’’
Civil War re-enactors donning the Confederate gray sat across the aisle from women wearing antebellum hoop skirts while a pianist played ‘‘Dixie.’’ As the ceremony began, the crowd pledged allegiance to the U.S. flag before saluting a Confederate standard, emblazoned with the motto ‘‘Victory or Death.’’
‘‘There are among us those that would criticize our Confederate ancestors,’’ Calvin Johnson, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, told the group. ‘‘Would you allow a stranger to come into your house and criticize your little ones? I say it’s not whether we should be ashamed of our fathers and mothers of the Old Confederacy. I say it’s a question of whether they should be ashamed of us.’’
After the ceremony, the bearded re-enactors placed red roses on the graves of the Confederate soldiers buried outside the rickety chapel and fired off three brain-rattling rounds of musket fire in their honor. The women fanned themselves in the April heat, stopping briefly when a trumpeter played ‘‘Taps.’’
Joanna Ellenburg, a 31-year-old who plans to join the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, said she was celebrating her family’s heritage.
‘‘It’s very important for us to be proud of where we came from,’’ she said.
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