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The case of the uprooted battle flags

Flags in trashcan RS

Small Confederate banners dumped in cemetery trash can

By Roger McCredie- One of the oldest cemeteries in Buncombe County is tucked away just off one of Asheville’s busiest streets.  In fact, unless traffic is light enough for them to read the historical marker on the east side of Biltmore Avenue, not many people are aware that Newton Academy Cemetery even exists.  Dianne Bartlett certainly didn’t, and she’s lived here all her life.

Bartlett, an avid amateur genealogist, learned of the cemetery while researching some family history.  She learned that the two-acre plot contains the markers honoring a number of both Confederate and Union soldiers; and, being of Confederate descent herself, she was eager to pay a visit and see whether any of the soldiers interred at Newton had a family connection.  So a few days ago she rounded up a cousin and the two set off on their quest.

They found the cemetery –it took some doing – on its peaceful little green knoll behind an enclave of doctors’ offices across from  Mission Hospital’s Memorial Campus.  There were the graves of members of some of the founding families of Asheville and, off to one side, several rows of small, uniform headstones commemorating Civil War dead, mostly unknown, the Confederates’ bearing the simple inscription, “CSA, 1861-1865.”  There was even a modest monument to the Confederate dead, a small stone obelisk, like a scaled-down Vance Monument.

At that point, she says, Bartlett passed by a trashcan, glanced down and saw that it was full of miniature Confederate battle flags – the size used to decorate gravesites.

Bartlett made her discovery on Thursday, July 9, the day that South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley announced that her state’s legislature had authorized the removal of the Confederate battle flag from its place on the grounds of the state capitol.  The formal removal was set for the following day.

Caught up in the battle

            “These flags were new, or nearly new,” Bartlett says.  They weren’t faded or shabby.  The dirt on the ends of their staffs was still fresh.  In fact, I would have taken them out and put them back up except that they were in there with the garbage and some of them had gotten pretty icky.”

So instead she used her cell phone to take a picture of the discarded flags in situ and posted it, along with some pointed remarks about monument desecration, on Facebook.  So far her post has been reposted numerous times and has accumulated more than five thousand views, as well as offers to replace the flags, from as far away as Virginia and Texas.

Bartlett had become caught up in the most furious controversy to surround the Confederacy’s best-known flag in the quarter century since the flag became an “official” controversial issue: the backlash following the murder of nine persons during a worship service at a historical black church in Charleston.  The killer, 20-year-old Dylan Roof, had posted photographs on social media showing him waving a battle flag identical to the ones found in the trash at Newton Academy Cemetery.

Though Roof himself indicated his intention was ”to start a race war,” investigators found no evidence to connect him with any organization, including the Ku Klux Klan, nor any indication that he identified himself in any way with the Confederate flag. Nevertheless the picture of a mass murderer holding a symbol so fraught with dispute touched off a frenzied round of demonstrations, vandalism and inflammatory rhetoric directed not merely towards the flag, but towards anything and anybody having remotely to do with memorializing the Confederacy.

Across the South, Confederate monuments and markers were defaced.  The city council of Memphis, Tennessee, voted unanimously to disinter the remains of Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest and his wife, transfer them from the park that once bore Forrest’s name (the name was changed some years ago) to a private cemetery, and sell the equestrian statue of him that marked the graves.

In Asheville the recently restored monument to Civil War Governor Zebulon Baird Vance was spray painted with the words, “black lives matter.”  (City crews removed the paint overnight.)  Local social media pages erupted with savage denunciations of Confederate symbols and personal attacks on individuals who protested that the flag is properly a symbol, not of racism or hatred, but merely of regional and family pride.

So what actually happened?

“At first I thought, well, maybe it was just a case of the city or somebody cleaning up the cemetery – you know, cutting the grass and tidying up,” says Bartlett, “But then I thought, if that’s the case, why wouldn’t whoever was cleaning up have also emptied the trash can?  It looked like it hadn’t been emptied in a good while.

“Besides,” she says, “the grass when we were out there was ankle deep and there were new little vines growing up around some of the stones.  It looked like it had been a good while since anybody had done any maintenance there. And those flags were lying on top of the other trash; they hadn’t been there long.”

So Bartlett’s conclusion is that the flags were removed as a protest.  “I’m really glad I didn’t come along when whoever did that was still there,” she says.  “I probably would have said something that would have gotten me in trouble.”

Care of the cemetery is overseen by the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina, but office manager Beth Semadeni was not able to confirm whether CFWNC contracts for the site’s maintenance itself or if the city of Asheville is involved in the upkeep.

The cemetery itself dates from 1818 and is on the site of a school founded sometime before 1793, originally named Union Hill Academy and subsequently renamed for Rev. George Newton, a Methodist minister and educator.  It contains the graves of   James McConnell Smith (reportedly the first white child born west of the Blue Ridge Mountains) ; George Swain, the father of North Carolina Governor David L. Swain and members of many early and prominent Asheville families such as the Alexanders, Pattons and Stevenses.  CFWNC’s website points out that the Civil War stones are memorials, not tombstones, as most of the soldiers are not actually interred there.  These stones and the area they occupy, however, still fall within the purview of various monument protection acts.

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