Gary Feis, a contractor from North Carolina on a week-long tour of Virginia battlefields, wore a camouflage cap embroidered with the flag and the words “100% Genuine Rebel.” The flag, he said, was nothing more than “a symbol of a rallying point during the battles, so they could know where their people were.” “People are very ignorant of history in this country,” he said as he perused books, bumper stickers and prints venerating the Civil War.
“There’s obviously a visceral reaction to this wave of cultural cleansing, there’s nothing else to call it,” said Ben Jones, the former Georgia congressman best known as the actor who played Cooter on the ’80s series about good ol’ boys in the rural South. “A lot of people have said to me, ‘This reminds me of Nazi Germany in 1933, when they started burning books.’ When you take ‘The Dukes of Hazzard’ off the air, this internationally beloved show, and hint that it is because it is racist . . . it’s a bridge too far.”
This year, a legion of enemies are also present, at least in conversations among the heritage buffs who roamed the exhibits at the DoubleTree Hotel in Midlothian. Jones rattled off a long list of them: the entire northeastern media, academia, the political left, the black caucuses, conventional wisdom, revisionist historians, the politically incorrect movement, the MoveOn people, the Occupy people, the NAACP, the Southern Poverty Law Center, mayors, politicians and Democrats.
Wayne Jones of North Augusta, S.C., seemed to embody the odd juxtaposition, at once a bearded rabble rouser and genial Army veteran. Early in the day, he put on a military uniform and addressed his “brothers and sisters in the cause” in what he imagined to be the unwavering voice of Confederate Gen. J.E.B Stuart. “The days of reconstruction are upon us again — and this time we must prevail,” he said.
During the invocation, they prayed for the power “to do what’s right even when the wrong is popular,” followed by the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance and the salute to the Confederate flag with “reverence and undying devotion.” A ringing cellphone pierced the solemnity of the occasion. “Shoot that thing,” someone yelled.
“You always gotta keep your eye on those Yankees,” joked J. Edwin Ray, commander of J.E.B. Stuart Camp 1343, which hosted the reunion. “Have y’all completed your decision on whether or not to change your name to Sons of Union Veterans of the War of Northern Aggression?” he said to hoots and hollers.
Taken together we glimpse little more than a bunch of reactionary older white men, who have little sense of direction. They perceive enemies at the gates, but fail to acknowledge the extent to which the very ground that they occupy – that of Southerners descended from Confederate soldiers – has shifted dramatically in recent years. I hear a lot of “hate” and very little “heritage.”
No doubt the participants in the SCV’s national convention in Richmond will leave feeling reaffirmed, but they will have done little to change public perceptions.