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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.

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.

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

“I hate all of them because they took my ancestors’ flag of honor and destroyed it,” Culpepper said of the KKK, neo-Nazis and the League of the South. “They’ve done more damage to Southern heritage than anybody has.”

But, he’s just as upset at those tearing down monuments across the country and vandalizing them.

“You’re stomping on a statue that represents a citizen of North Carolina who was called up to defend his state against an invading army.”

John Culpepper pushed for years to dedicate a Confederate statue in his hometown.

Heritage or hate?

You’re not likely to see most SCV members on the news protesting to preserve Confederate monuments. The group focuses on working behind the scenes – filing lawsuits, raising money and persuading private landowners to host their monuments. Virginia division leaders warned members not to show up in Charlottesville.

“We are reasonable people that believe in the Constitution and the rule of law,” said B. Frank Earnest, spokesman for the Virginia division. “When the SCV has issues with a locality or the state we go to city council meetings. We go to seminars and, if necessary, we take the city to court. That’s how we deal.”

The group formed in the early 20th century as an outgrowth of its parent association, the United Confederate Veterans, as men who fought in the war began to die out. Then, as now, membership requires proof of lineage to an actual Confederate veteran, much like its sister organization, the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

The women’s group was behind most of the monuments that went up between Reconstruction and World War II as tributes to relatives who served and generals. During this period, which included the Supreme Court ruling that legalized “separate but equal” public accommodations, the “Lost Cause” narrative took hold throughout the South. It emphasized the valor of the common soldier and espoused states’ rights as an equal, if not greater, factor contributing to the war.

Consequently, as former enslaved black people and their descendants were enduring Jim Crow-era policies of legalized segregation and lynchings, heirs of the Confederacy were gathering by the thousands for public dedications of monuments; some celebrated their ancestors, some vowed to maintain white supremacy.

As protests around contested Confederate monuments become more heated, the SCV has taken great pains to distance itself from the white nationalist movement. It points to the SCV constitution, revised in 2016, which says the group “neither embraces, nor espouses acts or ideologies of racial and religious bigotry, and further, condemns the misuse of its sacred symbols and flags in the conduct of same.”

The SCV puts forward a romanticized, genteel version of the Old South, one that plays up the nobility of the common man and glosses over the suffering of enslaved black people. But after Charlottesville, when most people picture champions of Confederate icons, they see torch-bearing men in riot gear who don’t want to separate those symbols from racist ideology.

“(Charlottesville) clarified the monument’s connection to an attempt to create a slaveholding republic based on white supremacy,” historian Kevin Levin said. “That’s what Lee was willing – with Stonewall Jackson – to give his life to achieve, and I think the white nationalists see that.”

Civil War reenactors make an appearance at the unveiling of Chickamauga's new monument.

The next battleground

The Sons of Confederate Veterans have been trying for some time to distance themselves from hate groups. They passed a “hate resolution” in 1989, denouncing the Ku Klux Klan. But white nationalists have found homes in leadership positions with them over the years. Kirk Lyons, a longtime SCV member, ran an unsuccessful campaign to lead the national organization. The Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled him a white supremacist, an allegation he denies.

The SPLC has called out the group several times over the years for refusing to take a stand against racism and maintaining a pro-Confederate view of history. Their membership is open to people of all races and they do not openly denigrate other groups of people. But their support for monuments and the “Lost Cause” narrative raises red flags for the civil rights watchdog.

“They’ve historically been reluctant to be explicit about race issues,” said Heidi Beirich, who leads the SPLC’s Intelligence Project. “They have this twisted view of history where they don’t take slavery as seriously as they should because of this idea of the nobility of the Confederacy, but they’re defending monuments that are all about white supremacy.”

Charlottesville suggests their days are numbered, said Levin, whose blog, Civil War Memory, is full of attempts to debunk SCV claims about the war. As the SCV’s members age, the latest generation is finding new ways to frame their identity online and in protest ranks.

“I think (what happened in Charlottesville) was a game-changer for a lot of people trying to find a middle-of-the-road solution,” Levin said. “Is there one? No.”

But the group isn’t done fighting yet. Each time a “national crisis” occurs, the group experiences a boost in membership, executive director Michael Landree said. It happened in 2015, when their ranks grew by 5,000 people to 33,000 by the year’s end. And he expects it to grow even more this year.

Their next battleground is Richmond, Virginia, said Earnest, the spokesman for the Virginia division.

The short-lived capitol of the Confederate States of America is home to Monument Avenue, a tree-lined boulevard featuring the pantheon of Confederate generals. Its grandeur earned it recognition as a National Historic Landmark in 1997 and the American Planning Association included it in its first list of Great Places in America in 2007. But with each accolade, the architectural marvels have faced challenges.

Amid growing protests of Confederate symbols earlier this year, Richmond’s mayor convened a commission to find ways to add context to the monuments. Then, after Charlottesville, he announced that he had instructed the commission to consider removal or relocation, too.

“Removal has to be on the table,” Mayor Levar Stoney told CNN affiliate WTVR. “These are divisive symbols that no longer represent what Richmond is.”

Earnest vowed that his group will be at the next city council meeting. The bigger question is, who else will be there?

“We want to get back to the rule of law and civil discourse. We want to get this back to the way civilized people should be behaving,” he said. “People have problems with ‘Make America Great Again,’ but my America is not in mob rule and destroying property.”

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly said Levar Stoney was the first black mayor of Richmond, Virginia.