Crossing conflict: SCV fights to honor veterans

Published: October 02, 2009

Princeton Times

PRINCETON — Capt. Hercules Scott died at the age of 89 and was buried in Oakwood Cemetery. That’s all the information his tombstone reveals, but Richard Lockhart and John Fleming know there’s much more to Scott’s story.

“He fought in Gettysburg and survived Pickett’s Charge,” Fleming explained, referring to the failed Confederate attack on the center of the Union forces during the third day of battle in Gettysburg, Pa.

As the two leaders of the local Sons of Confederate Veterans spoke Wednesday, they pointed to a photo of Scott’s grave and a small wooden cross standing low to the ground at the front of his tombstone.

That cross was one of 49 the Flat Top Copperheads placed in tribute to the service of Confederate veterans buried inside Oakwood Cemetery last spring.

Aside from knowing their names and bits of their histories, most of these soldiers were complete strangers to Fleming, Lockhart and other 46 Sons of Confederate Veterans who volunteered their time and effort to honor the men who fought alongside their ancestors.

They raised funds to create small-scale replicas of the Southern Cross of Honor to pay tribute to local men who picked up arms in the conflict they prefer to call “The War Between The States.” Traditionally, the Southern Crosses are cast iron and created in 11-inch squares. The local versions were only about 6 inches high and wide and were constructed of wood.

“Our purpose in doing this is simply to mark the Confederate veterans’ graves,” Lockhart said. “There’s no racism, no hatred, involved.”

In May, the SCV members placed the crosses at the graves, where they reportedly remained and even attracted several visitors to the cemetery situated on Main Street in Princeton.

“The 48 Southern Crosses were installed so visitors to the cemetery could easily recognize their graves as those of Confederate soldiers and to give the deceased soldiers the respect and honor they deserved,” Lockhart and Fleming wrote in a letter they distributed this week.

After the initial 48 crosses were in place, another descendant contacted the SCV and requested that a cross be placed on his grandfather’s grave. The Copperheads happily located the grave and complied with the request.

From their perspective, the crosses drew historical tourists and Civil War buffs to Mercer County, where the state boundaries declared the region part of the Union, but local sentiment predominantly sided with the South. In one day, Fleming said what is now Mercer County rallied 1,200 men to stand against the Yankees, and there are several historic sites that helped decide the outcome of the Civil War.

“Our organization is a historical veterans’ organization,” Fleming said. “All we do is try to preserve Southern history and heritage. This is something to be proud of.”

In fact, the SCV literature focuses on “heritage — not hate.”

By September, however, the crosses became a point of contention between officials at the cemetery and the SCV. Early in the month, Lockhart said he received a call from a maintenance crew representative stating that he had seven days to remove the crosses because they were hampering the mowing and trimming process at Oakwood.

Lockhart, who couldn’t believe the crosses were a hindrance or hazard, said he opted not to remove the crosses because the United States government had recognized Confederate veterans as legitimate American war veterans and allowed the marking of their graves.

There are an estimated 800 other war veterans buried inside Oakwood and Resthaven properties, and Lockhart said the management seemed to have no problem mowing around American flags and even the occasional spike of artificial flowers that appear in violation of the business’s floral guidelines.

To Fleming and Lockhart, focusing specifically on the Southern Crosses seemed to be an act of disrespect and discrimination.

When they didn’t remove the crosses, Oakwood crews did. In recent weeks, most of the crosses were pulled from the soil surrounding the graves, and the SCV members were outraged.

“Really, we feel like they’ve desecrated the graves of all these veterans,” Fleming said this week.

The insult ran so deep that SCV members questioned the legality of removing the Southern Cross, a symbol approved by the government to represent service to the Confederacy, from graves of men declared American war veterans.

At Oakwood, however, representatives said safety was their only concern.

Curtis Shrader spoke briefly with the Times this week, though he pointed out he worked in sales and not in the grounds crew. Keith Miller, of the maintenance department, reportedly sent word through Shrader that the crosses were removed because they were complicating mowing around the soldiers’ graves.

“Keith says, after the mowing season, they can put them back up,” Shrader said.

The mowing season ends once grass stops growing for the fall, usually in October or November, depending on the weather. Of course, the crosses would fall into contention again come spring, unless the matter is resolved before then.

SCV members worried that the crosses may have been demolished or thrown away, but Shrader reported they were being held securely at Resthaven Memorial Gardens, of which Oakwood is a part.

A call to a grounds crew supervisor had not been returned as of press time.

As they contemplated their next steps, Fleming and Lockhart said removal of the crosses was insensitive at best and discriminatory at worst.

“A cemetery is a history of people — a perpetual record of yesterday and a sanctuary of peace and quiet today. A cemetery exists because every life is worth loving, remembering and honoring — always,” Lockhart and Fleming wrote on behalf of SCV members.

Associated Press content © 2009

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