It all started when the Robert E. Lee statue was removed from New Orleans and the white supremacists were demonstrating in Charlottesville, Virginia. The president said there were some “fine people” among them as well among the counter-protesters.
Now some of these “fine people” have become a microcosm of our national polarization in a small town in West Virginia that changed hands a record 52 times during the Civil War. For more than l50 years, the l86 Confederates buried in the cemetery have rested in peace under their Southern crosses. But now their latest caretakers are ready to do battle again. A Daughter of the Confederacy is leading a fight of a not-so-civil war, and it is not with descendants of the black cemetery on the hillside below, but with racism at-large.
The strife began the day the Confederate statue was vandalized with spray paint. For as long as one could remember, the dead Confederates had been honored every Memorial Day with a parade. Tribute was paid to Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and local hero John Blue, who was dubbed the “Hanging Rock Rebel.” He was famous for his scouting and apparently enabled the Confederates to win twice as many battles in Virginia as the Union did, including two at Bull Run. It was said John Blue wore out every horse in Hampshire County. Even when the Yankees followed him home, he was able to escape them by hiding in the deep stone well where his horse was drinking.
Thus it was John Blue’s descendants who took the place of honor every Memorial Day to hang a wreath around the monument. For years it had been a peaceful event, even when some rowdy rednecks arrived on motorcycles one year with the Southern flag. The Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy, the so-called “blue bloods,” who sponsored the event, were not about to let such a group highjack their memorial service. They directed the rednecks to the Civil War Museum in town, where the library held no interest for them.
But now that there is national attention on removing Confederate statues and a president willing to take advantage of the controversy, it appears our town is not immune to getting caught up in controversy. One faction in the town, led by the Mayor, feels the Memorial Day Confederate parade and cemetery wreath ceremony should be ended. Another faction feels this would be a travesty. Its leader, the town lawyer, even purchased a plot near the statue so he can be buried among the many graves with Southern crosses. The Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy believe the sacred ground is only for those who died in the war. Moreover, the lawyer is not a Son of the Confederacy.
The search is on for the culprit or culprits. Rumors are going around now that the Mayor and her followers vandalized the Confederate statue. It has been pointed out that the Mayor spent two years in New York state and has a son who plays in the New York Philharmonic. Even though the town leaders raised funds to have the paint removed, the Mayor is still under attack for being an elitist. Her efforts to put planters with flowers along the town streets and to clean up eyesore spots have been belittled as woman’s work.
One over-zealous town lawyer only made matters worse by trying to upstage the Mayor with political correctness. He went to the black cemetery on the hillside below the Confederate cemetery and placed a Southern cross on the burial site of a slave he claimed had fought for the Confederacy. The black descendants quickly pointed out the slave had belonged to a well-to-do Confederate who took him to war to cook, certainly not a choice to fight for the South. So the cross was removed.
The state police got involved when one of the Daughters of the Confederacy, who lives l2 miles from the town and its cemetery, declared someone had driven a truck around her circular driveway in the middle of the night and damaged her telephone line. The police have looked into it, but not too hard. They’re aware that the telephone repairman, who labelled the act as vandalism, was given a huge rum cake. The state officer turned down his gift of a rum cake but is keeping an eye out for the older lady, feeling she has become paranoid. He’s alarmed that she bought a handgun.
County commissioners have also entered the battle claiming the county and not the town owns the cemetery. No one can find records verifying the owner. Those few who are not taking rigid sides in the controversy point out that Indian Mound Cemetery is named for its first occupants. They have suggested the payment by the lawyer and all monies collected for gravesites should go to the Native American Museum. Now it is a three-way battle (except for the author of this essay, who is a news junkie and suggests it was really the Russians who vandalized the statue to cause dissension).
Down at the black cemetery, one of the last remaining descendants continues to mow the grass and take care of marked and unmarked stones. Not so incredible, his name is Lee, a name given to his ancestors as slaves. He takes especially good care of his great-great-grandfather’s tombstone, which reads “Robert E. Lee.” He is amused by the whole controversy in the white cemetery; he may be the only one in our town who knows what the Civil War was really about.
Mary Kuykendall is the author of River Roots, a collection of 37 short stories about growing up in West Virginia, which won the 2008 George Garret Award and was published by Texas Review Press. She has written some 200 short stories, and self-published Rebuilding the GE House Jack Blew Down, a book about her GE career. Mary was born on a farm along the South Branch of the Potomac between Moorefield and Romey in West Virginia. She holds a bachelor’s degree from West Virginia University and a Master’s from the State University of New York.