As is my custom when visiting Lexington, Virginia, I swung by Stonewall Jackson Cemetery on Saturday to pay my respects to the general. I was in town at the invitation of the Sons of Confederate Veterans to speak at their annual Lee-Jackson Symposium, yet I knew I was coming into a political hornets’ nest, as well.
This year, the Sons lost their traditional parade time to a competing group called C.A.R.E., which had applied for a permit to hold a parade celebrating the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The S.C.V., squeezed out of their spot, had settled for a Sunday parade instead, with their annual Lee-Jackson symposium on Saturday. I knew nothing about C.A.R.E. except that the Sons, on their website (which I had to consult to remember where I was speaking), “strongly encouraged” people to avoid downtown Lexington because “affiliated C.A.R.E. groups have engaged in nudity and lewd acts during parades in other areas.” I wasn’t sure about nudity in mid-January, Virginia or not, but I certainly didn’t want the hassle of the traffic.
Trying to avoid any hullabaloo, I skirted the downtown and came in from the south. Orange cones along South Main Street blocked off parking directly beside the cemetery, but I nonetheless found a convenient spot. Farther down Main Street, closer to downtown, I could see banners for competing parades hanging across the road: one for the C.A.R.E. parade, which I had just missed, and one for an S.C.V. parade that would be held the following day.
Ash-gray clouds and recent rain cast a damp gloom over the cemetery, but an earlier wreath-laying had bedecked Stonewall Jackson’s grave with bright red and white and even some dashes of blue. Of course, the obligatory lemons offered splashes of yellow, although someone had taken the time to line them up obediently against the base of the Jackson monument.
Nearby, a pair of reenactors lounged on the yellowed grass near a small, catawampus gravestone marked “unknown soldier C.S.A.” “There’s a lot of recognition given to Lee and Jackson around here,” one of them told me. Nodding toward the small gravestone, he added, “We’re here to make sure these guys don’t get forgotten, too.”
“Backbone of the army,” I said. They both nodded.
“You guys from around here?” I asked.
“Right here,” the other said. “From Lexington.”
We’d been alone in the cemetery, but I noticed more reenactors starting to file in at the far end of the cemetery. More and more. They all had flags. Oooooh, I realized. The parade must be over. They were out holding some kind of protest.
I would later find out that they were the Virginia Flaggers, a heritage organization separate from the S.C.V. “Most people don’t make the distinction,” one of the Sons explained to me. “We’ll still get the blame.” He sounded resigned, tired.
C.A.R.E. had intentionally snatched the Lee-Jackson parade time as a way to stick it to the heritage groups; the Flaggers responded with full colors along the Martin Luther King parade route as a way to stick it back. The parade over, the Flaggers had come back here to the cemetery as their post-parade rallying point, their place of sanctuary.
There was a small army of Flaggers, to be sure, and their flags came in all shapes and sizes. I saw a battle flag with the colors reversed; the usual field of red was instead blue, and the usual blue “X” was instead red. I’d seen that reversed-out color scheme on the cover of Harry Turtledove’s alternative history novels.
I saw a Confederate flag designed in camo greens. I saw a battle flag with Hank Williams, Junior’s, face in the center of the cross. I saw a dude wearing a battle flag as a cape. None of these things said “heritage” to me, but hey, maybe I just don’t “get” it.
My own visit to the cemetery finished, I drove down the U.S. flag-lined Main Street, decked out in what would otherwise be Fourth of July finest. Opposite the Presbyterian Church, I passed a knot of twenty-something flaggers in natty black overcoats that I might otherwise have mistaken for Young Republicans. On the corner across from them, a knot of Virginia state troopers huddled against the cold, talking, crisis avoided.
I had dallied too long in downtown. It was time to get to the symposium.