Harrisonburg police opened an investigation, but no suspects have been identified, according to a department spokesman. Virginia law prohibits “the willful or malicious destruction, mutilation, injury or removal of flowers, wreaths, vases or other ornaments in a church, on church property, on a grave or in a cemetery.” A $1,500 reward has been offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person responsible for stealing the flags.
The Daily News-Record in Harrisonburg first reported the theft.
Philip Way, commander of the local Sons of Confederate Veterans chapter, the Col. D.H. Lee Martz Camp 10, said he is not confident the reward will lead to an arrest, but he wants to bring attention to the act.
“We don’t feel we’ll ever find the cowards, but we want the information out there,” Way said in a phone interview. “We are not intimidated. We honor our Confederate veterans because we consider it part of our heritage. We’re not militant . . . but we will not be deterred.”
For the past 12 years, members of the Confederate heritage group have placed flags on graves in the cemetery without incident on Confederate Memorial Day, Memorial Day and Veterans Day. The members then remove the flags at the end of the day. The 18-acre cemetery in historic Harrisonburg includes a section dedicated to Confederate soldiers. The city was home to a Confederate hospital during the Civil War and many of the soldiers who died there are buried at Woodbine.
Way, whose great-grandfather fought for the Confederacy, said he doesn’t know why anyone would remove the flags from the graves and discard them the way they did.
“We just want to respect our ancestors, and we want to be left alone,” he said. “We are Southern gentlemen.”
But the Confederate flag has long been viewed as a divisive and racist symbol by many who see it as a banner for white supremacy and support for the legacy of the slaveholding South. In the past century, it was carried by Ku Klux Klan members in massive rallies and waved by opponents of the civil rights movement and desegregation.
Even as some Southern heritage organizations have tried to hold on to the flag as simply an honorable relic of America’s deadliest war, it continues in the 21st century to be displayed in menacing forms.
Dylann Roof posed with the flag in photos before carrying out his massacre of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., in 2015. Following that attack, cities and states across the South acted to remove the Confederate flag from public property and to take down statues of Confederate generals. The flag was also brandished by white supremacists and neo-Nazis at marches and rallies, including the Unite the Right rally in 2017 in Charlottesville.
But Karen L. Cox, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and author of “Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture,” said placing Confederate battle flags in cemeteries is much different than flying them at protests or rallies.
“To me, a cemetery is the most legitimate place for the Sons to be doing whatever they do,” Cox said in a phone interview. “It’s not like they’re putting flags on the courthouse lawn. It’s not the same as the guys who show up with their battle flags at the removal of a Confederate monument ready to get into fisticuffs.”
For black Americans, particularly in the South, the Confederate flag can connote sinister intent, Issac Bailey, an author and journalism professor at Davidson College, said in an email.
“Many black people look at that flag the way Jewish people look at the Nazi flag,” Bailey wrote. “The odd thing is that here in the South, we are called radical or uncivil by our white neighbors and friends for making such a connection that is clear as day to us, but those white neighbors and friends would never openly talk about the ‘valor’ and ‘courage’ of Nazi soldiers the way they talk about Confederate ones.”
But among some black Southerners, Bailey said, there’s resignation about the flag remaining a part of the Southern landscape.
“We usually put up with the presence of that flag, though, because we have to pick our fights, because that flag is everywhere,” he wrote. “That view is never going to change.”
Way has heard that sort of criticism before but rejects the assertion that paying tribute to Confederate veterans with the flag is an endorsement of racism. Instead, he said, the men should be honored for “defending their land from an invasion” by the North.
“The South wanted to be left alone,” he said. “I’m not for being that way now, but our point is the South had the right to secede.”