NORFOLK, Va (Reuters) – Not a single blade of uncut grass mars a clutch of Confederate graves in Elmwood Cemetery, a refuge of calm in this bustling southeastern Virginian city.
The obvious care with which the 33 small headstones are maintained reminds visitors of how beloved those interred beneath are — and how cherished their cause, as interpreted by their descendants, still is.
With an annual stipend from Virginia, the Pickett-Buchanan chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), an 1894-founded national society of women descended from Confederate soldiers, is responsible for the handiwork.
The organization’s objectives, listed on its website, include to “collect and preserve the material necessary for a truthful history of the War Between the States and to protect, preserve, and mark the places made historic by Confederate valor.”
But with the meaning of the Civil War in hot debate this sesquicentennial year of when the fighting began at Fort Sumter, truth is apparently in contention.
Some people find little to praise in the Confederacy, which they view as having fought primarily to maintain the institution of slavery.
But UDC members see things differently.
“It was not over slavery,” said chapter member Mary Williams, 86, a past UDC national president.
“Lincoln made the remark that if he could win the war he wouldn’t free a single slave … (and) really, the North needed the South.”
It’s a view mirrored by fellow Pickett-Buchanan chapter members Karen Cole, 59, and Alma Lewis, 81.
“They fought for their rights and their property; their farms, because they were farmers. It was not for slavery,” Lewis said.
According to Cole, “(It) was for what they believed in, to take care of themselves, their property and their families. They’re our ancestors and they shouldn’t be forgotten.”
Ann Anders, historic grants manager for Virginia’s Historic Resources Department, said in an email that the state would fund $82,585 this fiscal year, $5 per Confederate grave.
As well as the UDC, the money goes to other similar groups including the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and in many cases to cemeteries themselves.
“In the past, the funds have been used to cut the grass … re-set or straighten stones, (and) other such work,” Anders said.
She said the funding program started in 1902. In the 1990s, the Virginia legislature rejected a plan to develop a procedure for the certification of slave grave sites and to expand the Confederate cemetery program to include other historically significant cemeteries and graves.
But Virginia does also fund the care of Revolutionary War graves.
Debbie Thomas, of the Winchester-based Turner Ashby chapter and the UDC liaison officer to the Historic Resources Department, said she would like to see maintenance programs in place for all historic graves.
“Whether it’s a Confederate or Union soldier, World War I, World War II, Revolutionary, I don’t think any of them ought to be neglected,” she said.
Thomas worries that funding will dry up in tough economic times. “If they cut just the ones for the Confederate graves I’d be upset because if they’re going to cut they need to cut across the board and cut everything,” she said.
Williams believes Confederate soldiers would be none too impressed with the extent of the power federal governments wield today.
“Everything that you do, the federal government has a rule, or a regulation or something to do with it; light bulbs now, you have to use a certain kind of light bulb,” she said.
But she embraces a lesson Confederate states learned in the wake or the Civil War: do the best with what you have and pursue reconciliation in the name of peace.
She said her father spoke of one of his great grandfathers returning from the war with “no clothes to wear except what he brought home with him. He plowed in a nightshirt because that’s all he had except for the pair of pants that he wore when he had to go out in public.
“(Confederate leader) Robert E Lee told some lady who was very bitter and had said a lot of ugly things … `the war is over, and now it’s time to bring our country back together and put that aside’ – that’s paraphrasing, of course.”