5/11/2004 11:27:41 PM
BY ERROL CASTENS
OXFORD – Pageantry mixed with solemnity when the bigger part of 100 Sons of Confederate Veterans and their guests gathered on the University of Mississippi campus 10 days ago for a Confederate memorial service.
Some attendees swaggered in CSA military uniforms or stepped daintily in hoopskirts.
Cannons and muskets saluted the more than 700 Southern soldiers who lie in the sod of a once-secluded corner of the Ole Miss campus, where an expanding institution’s buildings have surrounded their sylvan sanctuary.
And above all, the faithful were here to invoke The Cause – the native soil, the pride and their belief in the rightness of their stand – for which the now-long-dead soldiers asleep had spilled their blood.
For all the seriousness of the occasion, ironies were not hard to find.
The group assembled to honor men and boys once called "Johnny Rebs," who were buried within plain view of where the campus Rebels now wage a less lethal brand of war at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
The Sunday afternoon quiet was shattered by an artillery salute, its sound bouncing off dozens of tall university buildings in a haunting string of echoes unlike any ever heard on the battlefield. One elderly man in attendance suggested lobbing real shells toward the heart of the campus.
The assemblage sang "God Bless America," then pledged allegiance to the Confederate flag "with affection, reverence and undying devotion to the cause for which it stands."
Some acknowledged their fervent wish that the Confederacy had won the Civil War and, in their next breath, proudly recounted their own service in the United States military.
"I’m not sure it is over yet," said Boyce DeLashmit of Waterford, commander of the SCV’s University Greys Camp 1803.
"I am very much sympathetic to our Confederate ancestors and our cause, but I can tell you this: I served this country," he said. "My dad was in World War II. My younger brother É served. My youngest brother was drafted into the Army during the Vietnam era, and he served."
Home and honor
The memorial ceremony, sponsored by the SCV’s University Greys Camp 1803, honored the Confederates buried near the southern edge of campus. Many were wounded at the Battle of Shiloh and brought to Oxford, where the empty university served as a hospital.
Speakers repeatedly attributed to the soldiers values that still resonate with many Southerners.
"Most modern folks just don’t understand: It’s not the economy, stupid!’ – it’s the God-inspired love of one’s native land; it’s the love of freedom," said Dr. Cary Worthington, a Baptist pastor born in upstate New York of Confederate ancestors.
"It was the love of É native soil that was in the hearts of many who lie behind me today."
Stark Miller quoted from the diary of a soldier who witnessed the May 1, 1861, departure of the Lamar Rifles and University Greys from the Oxford depot:
"Gallant sons knelt to receive the blessing of a parent and of a father, and those sons weeping in unison with the sobbing of their dear mother, who willingly sent her boy to the defense of his home and family,’" he read.
Worthington noted Robert E. Lee’s wrenching decision to reject President Abraham Lincoln’s offer to command the Union armies.
"Lee absolutely would not ever raise his sword against his kinfolk and his native homeland of Virginia," he said.
God and country
Confederates’ religious devotion was another frequent subject during the ceremony.
"A lot of people did not realize that the War of Northern Aggression was basically a religious war," said Dr. Gary Roper, who portrayed Gen. Robert E. Lee. "The churches between the North and South split long before the country did."
Roper will participate in the 10th Annual Conference on the Great Revival in the Southern Armies (1861-1865) in Southaven scheduled for June 15-17 (www.oldsouth.faithweb.com).
The conference explores the spiritual transformation that resulted in an estimated 150,000 conversions to Christianity among Confederate soldiers during the war.
"Very few were aware of the spiritual aspect of this war and the legacy É we enjoy today as the Bible Belt," Roper said.
Defending the cause
Honoring underdog ancestors whose scrap sometimes confounded prevailing military wisdom, Sons of Confederate Veterans also are experienced in defending their positions.
"One of the perceptions is that we are a white group, but we have blacks in the membership, too," Worthington said.
"People like to associate us with the Ku Klux Klan," DeLashmit added. "We don’t have anything to do with the Klan."
Sons of Confederate Veterans insist the Constitution – and even the earlier opinions of Abraham Lincoln – supported states’ rights to withdraw from the Union.
"We didn’t rebel at all," Worthington told the audience. "We fought for the right to be free."
Confederate sympathizers also say slavery’s role in triggering the Civil War is overrated.
"My family’s been in Mississippi since the American Revolutionary War and were pastors and seminarians and college professors at religious institutions," said Chester Quarles, an Ole Miss professor. "My ancestor that sponsored me through his valor in Sons of Confederate Veterans didn’t have any slaves, didn’t want any slaves and didn’t believe in slavery. He didn’t fight for slavery, and he sure didn’t fight a rich man’s war.
"To compartmentalize that war into one issue demeans the memory of my ancestors," Quarles said, "so I’m willing to be part and parcel of this organization and be proud of it."