Woodbine_cemetery

Conducting damage to a cemetery is a class one misdemeanor in Virginia. 

An anonymous donor has tripled the reward for locating the thief of more than 200 Confederate flags placed in memoriam of fallen southern soldiers. A local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Colonel D. H. Lee Martz Camp 10, planted the flags early Veteran’s Day morning in Woodbine Cemetery near Downtown Harrisonburg.

Phillip Way, the group’s commander, said he saw that the majority of the flags were missing when he drove past the burial ground of nearly 300 Confederate soldiers that evening.

“We are not a militant group,” Way said. “We do not demonstrate. We are a historical group, but we do not appreciate and will not be accepting of people stealing our flags. That’s cemetery desecration.”

Camp 10 posted an initial $500 reward for information leading to the arrest of the flag poacher. Way said an anonymous $1,000 donation will be tacked onto the prize. Camp 10’s commander said he doesn’t “expect the cowards to step forward,” but he’s encouraged by the anonymous donor’s faith in his organization.

Damaging cemeteries is a class one misdemeanor in Virginia. The thief could face up to a year in jail or a fine of up to $2,500. Sergeant Chris Monahan of the Harrisonburg Police Department said they currently have no leads.

“Normally, with crimes like this, if we can get leads and tips early on in the investigation, the likelihood of solving it is much greater,” Monahan said.

Way said he felt “disrespected” when he noticed the flags’ absence.

“I calmed down, because when you represent a unit, a group of people, that have been under fire for the last number of years … you want to be calm, because you don’t wanna affect the whole unit, the whole company, the whole movement,” Way said. 

Since the Charlottesville riots in 2017, remnants of the Confederacy have made local news. In May, a Turner Ashby monument in Harrisonburg was vandalized. A few months later, Robert E. Lee High School changed its name to Staunton High School to be more reflective of national trends.

Way said Camp 10’s mission is to “promote the proper history of the Confederate nation” and its veterans, but David Dillard, a history professor at JMU who specializes in southern history after the Civil War, said the organization’s intentions are obscured by reappropriation of the Confederate flag.

“The problem is most of these groups don’t want to acknowledge that the Confederate battle flag … has been appropriated by not just Klu Klux Klan, who uses it consistently, but also by a number of Neo-Nazi groups,” Dillard said.

Way said Camp 10, like the former Confederate States of America, rallies around the concept of states’ rights and not the issue of slavery. Dillard, a veteran himself who served for 11 years in active duty and 10 years in the reserves, said he disagrees.

“To completely separate the Confederacy from slavery is impossible,” Dillard said. “To separate it completely from continuing racism is impossible as well.”

Dillard said he thinks the U.S. faces a lasting feeling that modernity happened too quickly, preventing traditionalists from “dealing with our racist past.”

Camp 10 has planted the flags three times each year for the past 15 years on Confederate Memorial Day in April, Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day. Way said his organization has never had a problem before this incident, but he anticipated the issue.

“We’re a little concerned with what’s going on in the nation,” Way said. “So we put a guard every hour on Memorial Day without any problem … and Confederate [Memorial] Day in April, but we thought Veterans Day, we would be OK without a guard.” 

Way’s great-grandfather served in the Confederate Army. He said he thinks it’s important to remember his Southern roots, because many families in the area have Confederate lineage.

“As you get older, you have to get away from being young and crazy and stupid like I often was in my youth, and you begin to get concerned about your mortality and your history,” Way said.

Dillard said debate on the issue is so widespread and divisive because of its complex nature.

“I’m afraid racism really is the original sin in the United States,” Dillard said. “We need to recognize and accept that our history is complicated. Race has always been a key issue. That’s not going to go away.”

Contact Brice Estes at estes2ba@dukes.jmu.edu. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.