The next morning we drove to the visitors' center in Winchester and watched a video about the battles in and around the city, part of the 1864 Shenandoah Valley campaign. In one scene in the video we noted that the Confederate graves we had seen beyond the two fences were decorated with the Stars & Bars. Scores of flags rippled in a light breeze under a bright sun, flashing their red, white and blue.
The Confederate flag is perhaps not as ubiquitous as it once was in the South, but you see it often. Sometimes it is worn or waved or plastered on pickup truck bumpers as a symbol of pride and defiance. As an outsider in a region where progress in racial harmony is often evident, I see the flag as divisive. Its proponents may be innocent of any racist intent in defending and displaying it, but it is not just a symbol of regional solidarity in the fight for independence from the Union. It also signifies nostalgia for a slave-holding society.
I asked the woman at the visitors' center in Winchester what day the flags were placed on the Confederate graves. She didn't know. Memorial Day and Veterans Day? Surely. The Fourth of July? I wonder.
|The last words on this marker at the Stonewall Cemetery are|
"These Honored Remains: Destiny's Debris When Diplomacy Fails."
I asked him if he knew about the Confederate flags on the soldiers' graves and whether reverence for the Stars & Bars bothered him. He smiled and said he hadn't thought about this and didn't involve himself in such questions. He was a bright, friendly young man. I wish I had known him well enough to probe beyond his safe answer, but I didn't. I did read two things into his bemused expression: he had an opinion, and it was naive of a white stranger to ask him about it.
The vast Mount Hebron Cemetery is divided into four parts over 56 acres. The Confederate soldiers -- 2,576 of them -- are buried in the Stonewall Cemetery. The most prominent monument there is a tall white column with a soldier on top, a memorial to unknown soldiers buried in the mound beneath it.
The Shenandoah Valley supplied the South with food and the Confederate army with a safe route for its invasions of Maryland and Pennsylvania. It was Stonewall Jackson who defended the valley until May 1863, when he was killed at Chancellorsville.
|Markers like this one ring the statue in Stonewall Cemetery.|
Hundreds of the soldiers who lie in both the Union and Confederate cemeteries in Winchester are unidentified -- known but to God, as the saying goes. Some were buried in makeshift graves elsewhere and moved to Winchester later. Many of the Fourteenth New Hampshire dead are buried in a mass grave, their sacrifice marked by an obelisk on which they are named.
|According to the 14th's roster, Private|
Eben H. Dale of Sandwich was wounded
at third Winchester and died of his
wounds on Nov. 23, 1864.
As my wife Monique and I visited these Confederate graves, we gave them the same respect we had paid the Union dead across the street. Young men who die in battle are flesh and blood, their deaths tragic no matter their causes.
It did cross my mind that it would be no sacrilege at this late date to place the Stars & Stripes rather than the Stars & Bars beside their headstones on the appropriate days. That way, everyone could honor their sacrifices as Americans, not as the rebels and traitors the Union soldiers considered them.
(For a fascinating, if sharp-edged, discussion of modern southern attitudes toward the Civil War, see this article at salon.com.)
|Many gravestones in the Stonewall Cemetery stand askew, any words on them smoothed by time and the elements.|