Veterans group accuses church of stealing flags
by Rachel Lane
Confederate battle flags, placed on the graves of Civil War veterans in the Abilene Baptist Church Cemetery, keep disappearing. Church officials and members, who deem the flags offensive, have been removing them.
Rev. Gregory Drake, pastor of Abilene Baptist Chuch, said members of the church have taken the flags down each year for the past 20 years, in part because groups like the Ku Klux Klan have given a negative connotation to the flag.
He said the cemetery, located at 2046 North Highway 113, is across the street from a school and students can be forced to remove articles of clothing depicting the flag or be sent home.
“They’re [the flags] not offensive to us personally at all … but we do know it is offensive to certain people,” he said.
The Sons of the Confederate Veterans placed 570 flags on graves throughout the county to celebrate Confederate Heritage Month, said Sam Pyle, chaplain of the group’s local chapter, McDaniel-Curtis Camp 165.
“We’ve been doing this for 20 years and we’ve only had a problem one other time,” Pyle said.
In 2005, the flags were removed from a different cemetery. Pyle later learned that the pastor of the church was removing the flags. He said that in previous years, all the flags remained up until removed from the cemetery by members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
Group member Donald Levans, said on April 12, he was putting up flags in Whitesburg when he decided to drive by his great-grandfather’s grave at the Abilene Baptist Church Cemetery. Pleasant S. Levans, a veteran of the Civil War, Company K, 34th regiment, Georgia Volunteer Infantry, should have had a batte flag on his grave. When Levans did not see it, he contacted various people to discover what happened to the flag.
“Within seven minutes, the pastor called me back to say the board of deacons had decided the flags were offensive and had removed them,” he said.
Levans said of the 12 Civil War veterans buried in the cemetery, two purchased their plots. The families of six other veterans granted the Sons of Confederate Veterans permission to put the flags on the graves.
After several attempts to contact Drake and ask to put a different flag on the graves, Pyle said his group put the First National Flag of the Confederacy, the flag that flew over the capital building, on the graves.
Because the group did not have many of the First National flags, Levans placed a second battle flag on his ancestor’s grave. It was then removed, placed on the ground behind the marker. He again replaced it.
“They took it down for Confederate Memorial Day,” he said.
Pyle said several attempts were made to contact Drake about the issue. Drake said he spoke with one man twice and a second man tried to reach him at the church. The church received a letter from the group on Friday and a response letter was mailed today.
Pyle said when he requested the flags be returned, he was told the church no longer had them. Drake “probably threw them away,” he said. “In my words, he stole the flags off the graves.”
Drake said he did not personally take the flags down and were instead taken down by members of the church. He said he did not know what the members did with them.
“If I can find the flags, they’re welcome to have them back,” he said. “We understand that people in the south are proud of their heritage.”
Deacons at the church researched the First National flag and reached a decision on Sunday to allow the Sons of Confederate Veterans to use that flag over the battle flag, known by a blue “X” and 13 white stars denoting the 13 Confederate states.
“We are going to allow them to put up the original confederate flag” two weeks before Confederate Memorial Day on April 26 beginning next year, Drake said. “That flag is not offensive.”
Pyle said his group was willing to compromise.
When the Sons of Confederate Veterans executive council meets this week, they will decide if legal action should be taken. Section 50-3-9 under Georgia law prohibits the desecration of the American flag, the Georgia flag or the Confederate flag. Anyone in violation can be charged with a misdemeanor.
Pyle said all 12 veterans buried at Abilene Baptist Church Cemetery lived through the war and died as old men.
“These veterans were part of this church,” he said. “Their descendents are still here.”
He said the battle flag was selected to mark the graves because it was the flag used during battles. The First National flag too closely resembled the American flag.
“It was the soldiers’ flag,” he said. “It was born on the battlefield and it died on the battlefield.”
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