Friday, March 22, 2013

One American city, two cemeteries, two flags

The legend on the 14th's monument
reads: New Hampshire erects this monument
to the members of her brave sons of the 14th
Regiment who fell in battle Sept. 19, 1864,
upon this field and are here buried in one
common grave. Fifty-four men of the 14th
were killed or mortally wounded that day.
On a recent afternoon my wife and I wanted to visit the Confederate cemetery in Winchester, Va. We had found the city's national cemetery, where we walked amid hundreds of Union army graves and paused at the obelisk honoring the 14th New Hampshire Infantry. From the south end of the cemetery we could see the Confederate monuments a hundred yards away, but we couldn't figure out how to get to them. Two fences stood between us and the graves, and the entrance to the other cemetery was nowhere apparent.

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."
The woman gave us a map to Mount Hebron Cemetery, the site of the Confederate graves, but we still had trouble finding the entrance. As we walked along the fence enclosing it, we saw a young African-American man and asked for help. He told us the way in, and since we were headed in the same direction, we walked together for a block or two.

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.
In 1864, Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan's Army of the Shenandoah opened a campaign that gave the Union control of the valley. The decisive battle is known as third Winchester, or Opequon, after a nearby creek. The Fourteenth New Hampshire fought well in this battle, at great cost. The battlefield is well-preserved and well-marked, with an excellent trail through it.

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.
What I found odd about our visit to these two cemeteries was the difference in upkeep. The national cemetery was dedicated in 1866, and men working for the WPA during the New Deal era seven decades later renovated and upgraded it. Today, it is well-groomed, and the headstones of white marble remain clean and readable. At the Stonewall Cemetery, which was dedicated the same year, many stones are rough and dark -- possibly just concrete slabs. Any words on them are illegible, and the stones tilt every which way.

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

Many gravestones in the Stonewall Cemetery stand askew, any words on them smoothed by time and the elements.  

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