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Story highlights

The Sons of Confederate Veterans work behind the scenes to preserve monuments

Some members fear they're losing ground to white nationalists

(CNN) —  

Since 2007, John Culpepper had been anticipating this moment: the unveiling of a statue to the common Confederate soldier in his hometown of Chickamauga, Georgia. In November of last year, three days before Donald Trump won the presidency, it became a reality.

Culpepper founded the local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the self-described historic honor society that’s been keeping the Confederate legacy alive for more than a century.

Culpepper greeted visitors with smiles and handshakes as they filed into rows of white folding chairs behind the towering, shrouded statue. Most of them were his neighbors from Chickamauga, a town of some 3,000 people near the Tennessee border. Some were dressed in the uniforms of Confederate soldiers; a woman and her daughter came dressed in hoop skirts, and bikers wore leather jackets and bandanas awash in Confederate flags.

The monument, erected on the grounds of an antebellum plantation that’s now owned by the city, was dedicated to soldiers of the Confederate Army of Tennessee. It’s the unit that local men fought for during the Civil War – what the town still refers to on its website as the “War Between the States.”

“It’s about remembering our ancestors, the people who built this town,” said Culpepper, who retired as Chickamauga city manager in 2013 after 34 years. “Regardless of what you think about the cause, they were fighting for their home, their land, their neighbors.”

At a time when Confederate statues and plaques are coming down across the country, the SCV is among the few groups pushing not just to preserve those that exist, but to establish new ones.

The audience clapped as Culpepper pulled the covering off the life-size bronze figure. The soldier was bearded, wearing a period-perfect hat, jacket and gunnysack. He clutched his rifle by the barrel and faced north toward Chickamauga battlefield – the site of the bloodiest Civil War battle after Gettysburg.

“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends,” the inscription at the monument’s base reads.

The Confederate monument in Chickamauga, Georgia.
PHOTO: Emanuella Grinberg/CNN
The Confederate monument in Chickamauga, Georgia.

Losing ground

For most of the 20th century, the SCV focused on activities like conducting genealogical research, tending soldiers’ graves and establishing monuments. As the fight to remove Confederate symbols from state flags heated up in the 1990s, their focus shifted to protecting them.

Ever since a white nationalist killed nine black parishioners in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, momentum to remove Confederate symbols has grown throughout the South. Those calls accelerated nationwide in the wake of deadly violence this month at a white supremacist gathering in Charlottesville, Virginia, which began in part as a rally to protect a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

In recent years, the SCV has stepped up its efforts, throughout the south, to keep pace with the movement lobbying against Confederate icons. The Virginia division is the main plaintiff in the lawsuit to keep Charlottesville’s Lee statue. Mississippi’s SCV is preparing to fight to keep the Confederate battle emblem in the state flag. The Louisiana division sued – unsuccessfully – to stop the recent removal of New Orleans’ Confederate monuments.

Since the Chickamauga monument was unveiled, local chapters in Tennessee have placed two more markers commemorating Confederate soldiers killed in skirmishes of little renown outside the communities where they occurred. An obelisk was placed in front of a courthouse in Leakesville, Mississippi, with the names of Confederate soldiers from the county.

In May, a massive Confederate flag was hoisted above private property adjacent to Interstate 22 in Alabama, following a procession of leather-clad bikers from the SCV Mechanized Cavalry. Since 2008, the group has been raising money for a National Confederate Museum on the grounds of its headquarters in Columbia, Tennessee. It’s scheduled to break ground in 2018.

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After Charlottesville, members including Culpepper blame white nationalists for unraveling their legacy, and confusing their message of honoring their forebears.