CHESTERFIELD, Va. — Two dozen versions of the Confederate battle flag hung from the walls of the hotel ballroom. Grinning retirees wore leather vests emblazoned with it. History buffs in suits had it pinned to their lapels.
Gary Feis, a contractor from North Carolina on a week-long tour of Virginia battlefields, wore a camouflage cap embroidered with the flag and the words “100% Genuine Rebel.” The flag, he said, was nothing more than “a symbol of a rallying point during the battles, so they could know where their people were.”
“People are very ignorant of history in this country,” he said as he perused books, bumper stickers and prints venerating the Civil War.
One month after police say Dylann Roof, a white supremacist who had posed in photos with the Confederate flag, shot and killed nine worshipers at a historic African American church in Charleston, S.C., the drumbeat to remove the controversial symbol from the public square has grown.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) called for its removal from the capitol grounds in her state. Virginia’s Terry McAuliffe (D) ordered it removed from specialty license plates. The cable channel TV Land pulled reruns of “The Dukes of Hazzard,” the program known for the General Lee, the 1969 Dodge Charger with the flag painted on its roof.
For the Sons of Confederate Veterans, this means war.
Gathering in suburban Richmond for their national conference this week, members huddled behind closed doors to plan their counterattack. Girded by a fervent belief that their ancestors died not in defense of slavery but for loftier values, they are holding faster than ever to the flag and the heritage they say it represents.
“There’s obviously a visceral reaction to this wave of cultural cleansing. There’s nothing else to call it,” said Ben Jones, a former Georgia congressman who is best known as the actor who played Cooter on “The Dukes,” the ’80s series about good ol’ boys in the rural South.
“A lot of people have said to me, ‘This reminds me of Nazi Germany in 1933, when they started burning books.’ When you take ‘The Dukes of Hazzard’ off the air, this internationally beloved show, and hint that it is because it is racist . . . it’s a bridge too far.”
So was Jones comparing what has been happening with the flag to the Holocaust?
“The Holocaust? No.” he said. “But what it is — it’s the same kind of totalitarian and demagogic thinking that leads to things like that. Don’t doubt it.”
Such battle cries have changed the tenor of a gathering typically known for its battlefield visits, cemetery tours, plays and history lectures. This year, 1,000 visitors are expected to attend the four-day convention, which culminates Saturday with a grand ball, complete with debutantes.
A legion of enemies also are present, at least according to conversations among the heritage buffs who roamed the exhibits at the DoubleTree Hotel in Midlothian. Jones rattled off a long list of them: the entire Northeastern media, academia, the political left, the black caucuses, conventional wisdom, revisionist historians, the politically correct movement, the MoveOn people, the Occupy people, the NAACP, the Southern Poverty Law Center, mayors, politicians and Democrats.
Jones was tasked with addressing reporters — both of them — after one of the convention’s marquee events, an opening ceremony known as a “reunion” of the kin of Civil War soldiers.
It was a celebration brimming with contradictions. Wayne Jones of North Augusta, S.C., seemed to embody the odd juxtaposition, at once a bearded rabble rouser and genial Army veteran. Early in the day, he put on a military uniform and addressed his “brothers and sisters in the cause” in what he imagined to be the unwavering voice of Confederate Maj. Gen. J.E.B Stuart.
“The days of reconstruction are upon us again — and this time we must prevail,” he said.
Later, having changed into a tailored gray suit and paisley tie, Jones recalled falling in love with history as a third-grader, reading the same library book over and over.
“It’s unfortunate the country is being torn the way it is, and we have no desire to see that happen,” he said. “All we want to be able to do is honor our ancestors.”
In the opening ceremony, representatives from various Civil War groups delivered greetings to the Confederate sons amid much pomp and circumstance.
Two floor-to-ceiling Confederate flags marked the stage. A color guard dressed in a mishmash of butternut, gray and white uniforms and carrying yet more flags marched in step with bagpipes and a drum.
During the invocation, attendees prayed for the power “to do what’s right even when the wrong is popular,” followed by the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance and the salute to the Confederate flag with “reverence and undying devotion.”
A ringing cellphone pierced the solemnity of the occasion. “Shoot that thing,” someone yelled.
Rushing to the lectern a little late for the 8 a.m. event, Eugene G. Mortorff said, “Wow,” in envy of the size of the crowd. His group — the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War — never manages quite such a robust attendance. “Yay!” the audience cheered as if they had won the contest that started 150 years earlier.
“You always gotta keep your eye on those Yankees,” joked J. Edwin Ray, commander of Sons of Confederate Veterans’ J.E.B. Stuart Camp 1343, which hosted the reunion. “Have y’all completed your decision on whether or not to change your name to Sons of Union Veterans of the War of Northern Aggression?” he said to hoots and hollers.
A smiling Mortorff shot back, “We’re lovers, not fighters.”
A few days earlier, a straight-faced Ray ruminated on the mission of the Confederate group.
War is a complicated business, he said, lamenting how few people are willing to take the time to learn what he calls the true history of why Southerners took up arms. And once word spread that the alleged Charleston shooter glorified Confederate paraphernalia, he said, the issue took on a life of its own.
“It’s mass hysteria is what it is,” he said. “Why are we being the whipping boy for this monster, this insane person who carried out this awful tragedy? It just doesn’t make sense.”