Confederate flags cause controversy

Tuesday, September 29, 2020
Confederate flags placed on the graves of Confederate soldiers in the Eureka Springs Cemetery have stirred a spirited debate among local residents.
Samantha Jones / Carroll County News

By Haley Schichtl

Confederate flags being placed on graves in the Eureka Springs Cemetery have been a topic of controversy recently.

Residents have spoken at the last two meetings of the Eureka Springs Cemetery Commission to express their thoughts about the flags, and the commission has received numerous phone calls and emails on the subject.

The cemetery’s current policy allows anyone to decorate graves, relatives or not, and the flags or memorabilia can be there all year. For the past several years, the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) group has been putting out Confederate flags on the 41 Confederate graves in the Eureka Springs Cemetery, which stay there all year.

Cemetery commission chair Susan Tharp said at a previous meeting that she would consider only allowing the flags to be placed on holidays such as Memorial Day and Veterans Day, but she doesn’t think they should be removed altogether.

The commission has tabled the issue for its next meeting — to be held at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, Oct. 14 — and Tharp said she is unsure what the commission will decide to do.

Three citizens — Megan Kirk, Karen Gros and Douglas Stowe — sent emails to Tharp urging the commission not to allow the SCV to put out the flags.

“Confederate flags being placed by anyone but the family of the deceased is inappropriate,” Kirk wrote. “I plan to be buried there someday and the thought of a Confederate flag being stuck on my grave is offputting to say the least.”

Gros wrote that to have a symbol that is still considered political at the cemetery is inappropriate.

“Confederate flags should only be allowed to be placed on a grave by the family and only on Confederate Memorial Day,” Gros said. “This reversal would be in line with policies of other cemeteries across Arkansas, in other states, as well as federal cemeteries.”

Stowe wrote that the flags should not be put out by the SCV, because they do not honor the dead, but simply represent those who fought primarily to preserve slavery. He said that if any flags are put out, they should be American flags.

“Is it not time now for us to heal as a nation rather than celebrate those who fought to preserve slavery in America?” Stowe asked in his email. “Many of the soldiers serving the Confederacy were conscripted to serve against their will. … Are their dead bodies and graves still being conscripted in service of that lost cause?”

Stowe said many of those who fought on the Confederate side could be considered victims rather than defenders of the South since many did not have a choice.

Stowe said he thinks decorations should only be put out by the buried’s loved ones, because strangers don’t know how the veterans felt about the cause.

“When the state of Arkansas decided to succeed from the Union, it was only a portion of our populace that voted in favor, with a nearly equal faction against. Union sentiments were particularly strong in Northwest Arkansas,” Stowe said. “Not counted in that was the slaves in Arkansas who were not given the right to vote.”

John Cross of Eureka Springs called to tell the commission he is in favor of keeping the flags up, because to him, they are there for nothing more than to remember history.

“People that are trying to erase history, we call them statue climbers,” Cross said. “I feel sorry for them, that they don’t have anything better to do. … It’s just people trying to stir things up.”

Cross said his great-grandfather is one of the Confederate soldiers buried in the Eureka Springs Cemetery.

“My great-grandfather… died an American citizen,” he said. “He just did what he thought was right at the time. He needs to be remembered, and history needs to be remembered.”

Cross, an Army veteran, said his family has fought in every war since the Revolution, and he wants to be able to show his pride in that.

“The Civil War happened. No, it wasn’t a good thing, but the people that fought on both sides were not evil people,” Cross said. “They just did what they thought was right.”

Koltin Massie, a member of the SCV and the one who purchases and places the Confederate flags, said his purpose is simply to honor all veterans.

“There’s no underlying political stance; we’re just there to honor our veterans,” Massie said. “We’re made up of Confederate descendants, and our purpose is to guard the history.”

Massie said he puts flags out at several other cemeteries as well, and he has never had a cemetery or a relative of a veteran have an issue with what he does. He said he does not believe that many veterans would be ashamed of what they fought for and would appreciate the flag on their graves.

“Nearly every one of the ones buried in the cemetery filed for a Confederate pension after the war. That means they had to be a good steward during the war,” Massie said. “These guys were proud of their service; they went to reunions. Eureka Springs had a reunion in 1898 of Confederate veterans, and invited Union veterans to come.”

Massie said the number of people who owned slaves in Carroll County was less than a tenth of a percent of the population.

“The only reason Arkansas ended up leaving the Union was because they were being invaded by President Lincoln,” Massie said. “When he called for 75,000 troops to suppress Arkansas, they were pretty mad about that.”

He said he thinks people who are working to remove the flags are wasting time and should be focused on other issues in the world.

“The institution of slavery was allowed by the U.S. government for over 89 years,” Massie said. “It’s a sad atrocity on our country, and in no way is anything we do celebrating that. Nobody today in the 21st century is celebrating slavery.”

Holly Hope, special projects historian at the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, said that it’s up to each cemetery board in Arkansas to decide when flags can be put out and who can place them on graves.

“Some cemeteries don’t want you to put anything on graves, some don’t care or might pick it up after a little while,” Hope said. “If they don’t have a board, then it’s usually just a free-for-all, unless they’ve got a volunteer sexton that goes out and cleans it.”

Mount Holly Cemetery in Little Rock has some Confederate veterans buried, but Confederate flags are not allowed to be put out, according to sexton Steve Adams.

“We don’t really have a rule on who can put stuff out and who can’t,” Adams said. “The day before Memorial Day, we have different groups come out and put [American] flags on all the veterans in our cemetery, and we leave them until after July 4.”

He said sometimes people do put out Confederate flags, but they’re taken up immediately because they offend some people.

“We have people from all walks of life buried at Mount Holly,” Adams said. “We allow American flags, because they all took their oath to be American citizens after the Civil War, so they are Americans.”

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