Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Buried In Foreign Soil Under a Foreign Flag

A Confederate veteran buried in Union soil with an American flag flying above his grave? I recently arrived early at an Ohio sister Presbyterian Church for a meeting. Since I was the first one there and the building was still locked, I walked across the country road in front of the sanctuary to a cemetery on the other side from where I had parked. While I had been to this church before, I had never taken the time to stroll through the nearby graveyard. I was surprised and perplexed by what I saw.

Under a bright sun set in a nearly cloudless sky on a warm August Sunday afternoon, I meandered among the tombstones and freshly mowed grass. As I slowly walked around, I was drawn by small American flags waving in the slight breeze – the ensigns inviting me to more closely examine the markers they were attached to. One Stars and Strips marked the grave of a Revolutionary War Veteran. Another identified the final resting place of a Veteran of the World War. I assumed the marker had been placed there before there had been a Second World War. Another signified a Veteran of Viet Nam.  Several were attached to markers denoting Union Soldiers.

As I examined a Union Soldier’s grave, one John Cole, whose tombstone had held up very well in spite of its years of being exposed to the elements, I noticed that he died in Martinsburg, Virginia on February 18, 1863 at the age of 20 years, 10 months, and 11 days. I quickly did the math and determined that if John had lived just four months and two more days before he died he would have died in Martinsburg, West Virginia rather than Martinsburg, Virginia, on Union soil rather than Confederate soil.

Another of those American flags waving in the breeze indicated a Confederate Veteran, but the tombstone was so deteriorated that I could not read a single word of its inscription, if it ever had one. Then, in light of the recent controversy over statues of confederate generals and politicians being removed from public spaces, I thought how ironic it was that the remains of this Confederate Veteran (presumably from Ohio, which seemed odd) was lying in a grave marked with the flag of a country and a government he had fought against. I shared my quandary with a friend who speculated that some well-meaning veteran’s organization quickly moved through the burial ground and placed United States flags on the graves bearing a veteran’s marker without noticing that this particular veteran was a veteran of the Confederate States of America, not the United States of America.

At the southern end of North Carolina’s Outer Banks on the island of Ocracoke is a small “British Cemetery”  where the bodies of several British Sailors, veterans of World War II, are interred, their bodies having washed up on Ocracoke after their ship had been sunk while defending the American coast. The United States eventually deeded that land to the British and a Union Jack now continually flies over the tombs of those British Soldiers, tombs in British, not American soil. Admittedly, the British were at that time, and have been ever since, our allies. Those sailors of a foreign nation died defending American (and therefore British) interests in a struggle against Nazism. If the bodies that had washed up on the beech been of German Sailors and had been buried there, I doubt the land would have been deeded to Germany or that a Nazi flag, or even a German flag would now be flying overhead.

What of this Confederate Veteran whose body lies buried in an Ohio Cemetery, Ohio having always been a “free state” of these United States of America? How might a Confederate Soldier feel, if a corpse were able to feel, not only being buried on foreign soil but lying underneath the flag of a nation and a government he fought against?

As more and more confederate monuments in public spaces come down, and they will come down, if they cannot be relocated to a museum where their history can be properly interpreted and set in context, and where they can no longer serve as threatening reminders of Jim Crow, a truly lost cause, and white racism and white supremacy, then perhaps they should all be buried in a mass grave on public land – land with a huge flag of the United States of America flying overhead.  The United States government can then deed that land not to a racist, treasonous, secessionist, no longer existing Confederacy but to the promise of and hope for a truly land of the free and home of the brave where all men and women “will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

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