By Matthew E. Milliken
July 16, 2015
I’ve lived the past decade and change in North Carolina, and for the most part, I’ve enjoyed it. This is not a knock on Henderson or Vance County, but I’m much better suited to Durham, and Durham is much better suited to me, than the small community where I lived for four years when I first came to the state.
My point here, however, is that despite those 11 and a half years, I am not a Southerner. I grew up outside New York City, went to college in Northern California, and returned to New York before moving to North Carolina.
As a result, my opinions on the Civil War are very different than they might have been had I been raised here. I view the Confederated States of America as a rebellion, not any kind of noble or lost cause. To me, symbols of the Confederacy stand for a group of secessionists who fought to maintain the cruel institution of slavery, not liberty-minded individuals who were standing up for states’ rights. Not until I had long been an adult, frankly, did it ever occur to me that any rational individual would think in the latter fashion.
Which brings me to that day years ago when I found myself in Kittrell, N.C., with a bit of free time to kill. For some reason — either I’d seen the graveyard on a map or I’d spotted signs directing visitors to it — I knew that there was a cemetery for Confederate war dead on the north side of town. I decided to take a look.
I drove up Cemetery Street (labeled Cemetery Street on Google Maps), parked my car and walked into a rectangular plot of land mostly surrounded by trees. It was an overcast day, but still many of the graves were shaded by overhanging branches.
I don’t remember much about the cemetery. In general, it seemed a modest affair. Most if not all of the graves had small white stone markers, no larger than a book.
The thing that really struck me about the place was the flags. A pocket-sized Confederate flag seemed to be planted at the foot of each of the graves. The flags seemed clean, as if they had been placed there recently. I got the impression that the cemetery was regularly maintained — by whom, I’ve no idea.
The flags shocked me. Here lay rebels whose defiance of the United States was being honored and upheld nearly a century and a half after the conclusion of the Civil War.
Not long afterward, I was chatting with other folks at the office. I remember two people being there, editors who were both older than me and Southerners. One was the deputy editor, a slightly crusty but generally mild-mannered man who was probably in his mid-40s at the time. Mike was mostly soft-spoken, although that changed when he got exercised about sports, the death penalty, local-government silliness, office politics, the glories of his native Virginia and the folly of various aspects of North Carolina, particularly one type of cuisine that I think was called Burlington stew.
At any rate, during this conversation, I mentioned my visit, and how astonished I’d been to see a Confederate flag marking each grave.
This was one of a very few occasions that I can recall Mike getting upset with me.
“As well there should be,” Mike said*, the volume of his voice rising. “That being the flag those men fought and died for.”
I was taken aback, partly because Mike rarely if ever raised his voice to me and partly because at times I can be overly sensitive to criticism of any kind.
But I was also struck by the truth of what Mike had said: Confederate soldiers had indeed fought under that ensign, and Confederate war dead had indeed died under the colors of the stars and bars. I was disappointed in myself for not having considered that fact, particularly since I like to pride myself on being able to see both (or multiple) sides of a story.
More on this to come in a future post…
* Standard disclaimer: Since I wasn’t taking notes or making recordings at the time of these events, all dialogue and thought bubbles are guaranteed to be only kind of, sort of accurate. Fortunately for you, the valued reader, this free blog comes with a money-back guarantee!