A plaque honoring Confederate soldiers was placed on the Jefferson County Courthouse in West Virginia, where slaves were once sold. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

he last significant Civil War battle in Jefferson County took place in August 1864 at Smithfield Crossing, a five-day slog between Union and Confederate forces that left some 300 casualties and neither side able to claim victory.

But now a new skirmish with ties to the Civil War is brewing in the county seat, a picturesque town of 5,200 founded in 1786 by George Washington's youngest brother, Charles, that sits just 63 miles from the nation's capital. It is being waged not with bullets and bayonets, but with letters, public hearings and angry Facebook posts that serve as another reminder that the country has never fully erased the deepest lines of division and distrust of a war that ended 152 years ago.

The focus of this new dispute is the fate of a plaque no larger than a cookie sheet that hangs next to the entrance of the Jefferson County Courthouse.

It reads: 1861-1865 In honor and memory of the Confederate soldiers of Jefferson County, who served in the War Between the States. Erected by the Leetown Chapter #231 United Daughters of the Confederacy.

Also on the plaque is the day of its placement: Erected May 25, 1986.

Many visitors to the courthouse — there to conduct business, handle legal matters, fill out marriage licenses, vote — walk past the sign without ever noticing it. Many, but not all.


Linda Ballard is one of the concerned women in Charles Town who is offended by the plaque, left, that honors Confederate soldiers. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

A year ago, Linda Ballard and her friends, all black women in their 60s and 70s who grew up in the county or live there now, took their granddaughters on the John Brown tour of Charles Town. The tour traces the last days of the abolitionist whose failed effort to lead a slave rebellion in 1859 resulted in his capture, trial in the Jefferson County Courthouse and hanging a few blocks away.

As they entered the courthouse, the women noticed the plaque. It stopped them cold. They didn't understand why a tribute to soldiers from the side fighting to preserve slavery had such a prominent spot.

"We thought, 'Well, why is this here? Why do we have to walk past this sign on a public building?' " Ballard remembered. "Our ancestors were enslaved in Jefferson County. I don't care where they put it, but take it from the entrance to the courthouse."

The women were struck that there was no plaque honoring Union soldiers. Nor any acknowledgment that enslaved people — their ancestors — were sold and traded on those very courthouse steps. And why was a plaque honoring Confederates on the building that replaced the original courthouse, which was shelled and destroyed by Confederate troops?

The date of the plaque also raised questions. Why, the women wondered, had the Daughters of the Confederacy waited 121 years after the war to place a tribute to Confederate soldiers? Who approved it? And did it have anything to do with 1986 being the same year Martin Luther King Jr. Day became a federal holiday?

The questions perturbed the women, and so they vowed to act. They considered asking the county for equal billing for Union troops, or for a mention of the courthouse as the site of slave auctions. As they pondered what to do, they witnessed bitter debates crop up across the nation over the legacy of Confederate statues and memorials.

And then Charlottesville happened. Racial violence ripped through the Virginia town when white supremacists and neo-Nazis marched Aug. 12 to protest the planned removal of a Confederate statue. In its aftermath, President Trump's declaration that blame was due on both sides — the white supremacists and those protesting them — sparked furor and further rent a deeply divided country. At stake was nothing short of who decides what history of the nation is told and how that is done.

Three days after Charlottesville, the women wrote a letter to the commissioners of Jefferson County, where blacks make up about 7 percent of the 56,000 residents, requesting that "the bronze plaque sanctifying the Confederacy" be removed.

"It is impossible to enter the courthouse to conduct business or to even vote without being taunted by its presence," they wrote. "The plaque perpetuates division at all levels on a wider scale."

The six women — Ballard, Janet Baylor, Sylvia Gregory, Gloria Lindsey, Verdeana Lindsey and Brenda McCray — asked for the plaque to be taken down "without fanfare." They didn't want to make a big fuss. They just wanted the commissioners to "do what was just."

They would be disappointed.

'Small radical minority'

Peter Onoszko, president of the five-member Jefferson County Commission, didn't hesitate to put the women's request before his colleagues. Their letter was presented for public discussion at the commission's Sept.­ 7 meeting.

That day it didn't take long before Ballard and the other women began to feel things would not go their way. Onoszko talked about America's lengthy path toward reconciliation after the war and the "tortuous history" of reconciliation between black and white Americans. He cited progress in civil rights and achievements, including the election of a black president and the prominent positions African Americans had reached in the military and on the Supreme Court.

But then Onoszko talked of the "small radical minority among both white and black Americans who seek to undermine over a century and a half of progress toward reconciliation between regions of America and the races of America, creating harmful division and discord among our people and threatening to destroy our country."

"This has absolutely got to stop," he said. "We are all Americans."

The public followed Onoszko's lead during the open session.

"What we're seeing today is a deliberate attempt to divide us in every way possible," said Gary Dungan, who is white and lives in Jefferson County. "If they get their way with this little plaque, they will be back. And by they, I mean the radical minority that Commissioner Onoszko referred to. They'll be back looking for something bigger. And it will never end unless you end it here today."

The women who wrote the letter sat stunned as they waited their turn to speak. Two of the women use canes. One requires an oxygen tank. They do not feel like radical minorities. They describe themselves as "six concerned American citizens."

"Radical minorities? Where is this coming from?" thought McCray. "We are all human beings, we are not animals like they think we are."

When it was Ballard's turn to speak, she said the women were present "because our ancestors are not here to represent themselves."

"We are hopeful," she told the commissioners, "that in the memory of the people that were enslaved here in Jefferson County and of those who had the goal of preserving the Union that that plaque will be removed."

Most residents that day spoke in favor of keeping the plaque, including some veterans who said all veterans should be honored, no matter which side they fought for in the Civil War. One speaker said it would be "Stalinesque" to remove the plaque.

When the discussion ended, the commission's four Republicans and one Democrat, all of whom are white, voted 5 to 0 to keep the plaque. Then they created a citizens committee to look further into how forebears should be remembered at the courthouse. But they changed their minds, voting on Oct. 5 to scrap the citizens committee.

The results are disappointing to the women who asked for the plaque's removal. But not unexpected. They still want it gone. And they still have questions about how it ended up there in the first place.

'That's just not our way'

Polly Wharton has some answers about the plaque's origins. Wharton was president of the Leetown chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy in 1986 when the plaque was placed on the courthouse. The chapter has since disbanded, but Wharton, 74, remains a member of the national group and lives just outside Charles Town.

The plaque, she said in an interview, had nothing to do with the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. It was conceived solely as a project to honor ancestors of chapter members. West Virginia was formed during the Civil War when it seceded from Virginia and was eventually admitted into the Union in 1863. But many residents of the new state's easternmost panhandle, which includes Jefferson County, continued to support and fight for the Confederacy.

"I'm sorry they're upset about it," Wharton said. "We did not mean to offend anybody at all when we put it up there. People say it refers to supporting slavery and it does not. Our ancestors did not have slaves and we do not believe in slavery and we never did. It really hurts our feelings that they're saying that."

Wharton says the chapter got an okay from the courthouse to put up the plaque but doesn't recall if the County Commission voted on it. She said she has not been contacted by anyone from the county about the plaque. Onoszko says the commission has not been able to find any record of a vote on the plaque.

Though Wharton doesn't want the plaque taken down, she won't fight a decision to move it.

"I also read an article saying that we were for the white extremists and we are not for that," she said. "We are not for all this fighting against the removal even if they take it down. That's just not our way."

Both sides in the controversy agree that the battle over the small plaque is symbolic. And they also agree that it's important.

In the Spirit of Jefferson, the local newspaper founded in 1844, the debate has played out in robust coverage, pointed editorials and spirited posts on the paper's Facebook page.

"This issue has become a big flash point," said Robert Snyder, the weekly paper's publisher, whose wife, Christine Snyder, is the managing editor and principal reporter. "This is an area that still lingers in the residue of the Civil War."

The paper has called for the plaque's removal, sparking some backlash.

"There should be a plaque for the est. 650,000 Americans killed after Lincoln's army invaded Virginia," one resident wrote.

"This [is] all about tearing America down so a small minority of radicals can instill their version of communism on us," said another.

In an interview, Onoszko said he wants to keep the plaque because "it's reflective of what happened in the 1860s and also because it is reflective of the mood of the local populace in 1986." It shows, he says, that 121 years after the war ended, the descendants of those who fought wanted to publicly acknowledge their ancestors.

And, he argued, the soldiers honored by the plaque were fighting for each other, not for the cause of slavery.

"The majority of whites living in the South did not own slaves," Onoszko said. "A lot of slaveholders had no more than three or four."

For Ballard and her friends, the problem is not that the plaque exists, but that it is displayed on a prominent public building that serves as the governmental hub of the county.

"What kind of message are you sending?" she asks. "We don't have any qualms about these people honoring whoever they want. The courthouse is not the place to do it."