This is the second essay in an occasional series. Part 1 is here.
Requiem for a Culture
Part 2: The Battle Flag
The past is never dead. It’s not even past.
— William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun, Act I, Scene III (page 80 in the Vintage paperback edition)
In Part 1 I wrote about the statue of the Confederate rifleman that was removed from a public park in Farmville, Virginia during the George Floyd hysteria of 2020. It was eventually relocated to the Confederate Cemetery, which is in an out-of-the-way location across the river in Cumberland County. The sentinel now guards his fallen comrades in their unmarked graves under the oak trees on a shady hillside.
The statue was just the beginning of controversy over Confederate issues in Farmville and the surrounding counties.
Back in 2011, in response to the mania for pulling down statues and erasing Confederate symbols, a group known as the Virginia Flaggers was formed. Their mission was to put up flagpoles and fly the Confederate battle flag in as many places as possible, on private property but visible from public thoroughfares. Their most famous success was to erect an enormous flag in Northern Virginia that was visible from I-95.
[Rather than a regular website, the Flaggers have a Facebook page, which I haven’t looked at, because I don’t do Facebook. I’m surprised it hasn’t been taken down. However, they also have a blog — it’s on Blogspot, and for some reason Google hasn’t yet taken it down.]
After the long hot summer of 2020, the Flaggers intensified their efforts to put up more flags. Travelers on major highways all across the Commonwealth can now see them. Last year a patriotic Virginia property owner donated space for a flag just outside Farmville, on a hillside next to US 460 adjacent to the Third Street exit into Farmville. The Flaggers went through the necessary legal steps before they raised the flag, acquiring the permits from Prince Edward County and jumping through all the zoning hoops. Early this year the flag went up on a sixty-foot pole (see the photo at the top of this post), and a predictable uproar ensued.
In the public discussion about the issue, there seems to be widespread confusion about what the flag actually is. It is not a national flag. It is a battle flag. It was carried into battle by Confederate troops between 1861 and 1865. Each unit had its own version of the flag. It was an important symbol for the soldiers who fought under it, and if the bearer fell, it was the urgent duty of any man nearby to pick up the flag and raise it again.
My great-great-grandfather Daniel Weisiger fought in the 4th Virginia Cavalry. I haven’t been able to find a photo of his battle flag, but this is the flag for the 4th Virginia Infantry:
As you can see, it was very specific to the group that carried it. By the time this particular flag was sewn, the 4th Virginia Infantry had seen combat at all the battlefields listed on the flag.
All the brouhaha about the flag raised outside of Farmville was, of course, based on the fact that it was deeply offensive to all right-minded citizens. However, the flag’s detractors were well aware that lip service had to be paid to the First Amendment, and that opposing the battle flag based on its symbolic meaning could never succeed. The preferred strategy was, as it often is, to use zoning ordinances to force the removal of the offending flag.
In this case, however, the anti-racist bien-pensants had a problem: Prince Edward County didn’t regulate flagpoles with its zoning ordinances. The county hurriedly passed a new one, and then appealed to the zoning board to force the removal of the flag.
The Farmville Herald, which is getting more woke with every issue, was fairly salivating over the prospect of sticking it to the nasty Confederate racists by bringing down the flag. Numerous articles appeared in advance of the June meeting of the Board of Zoning Appeals.
Unfortunately for its opponents, forcing the removal of the flag was not the slam-dunk they had hoped for. Not only had the permit for the flag been issued before the zoning change went into effect, but the flag had already been flying for longer than the statutory 60-day period during which a building permit could be revoked.
The issue was obviously a hot potato that the board was anxious to get out of its hands. The Herald and Longwood University may be modern and progressive, but the surrounding rural areas most certainly aren’t. Country people have a fierce respect for custom and tradition, even the black folks among them. If a referendum had ever been held about the issue, the Confederate Battle Flag would have won by a large margin.
In the end, three members of the board voted to reject the appeal, and two members abstained. The flag stayed up.
The Farmville Herald was so dejected by the decision that it waited more than two weeks to report on it. The full article is below:
Flagpole will remain standing
July 7, 2022
A public hearing was held in Prince Edward County on Tuesday, June 21, by the Board of Zoning Appeals to discuss the removal of a flagpole that flies a confederate [sic] flag 35 feet over the height limit. Two board members abstained from making a decision and three voted to affirm the appeal, leaving the flagpole up.
Russell Dove and John Prengaman were the two that abstained. The remaining board members, Paul Hoffman, John F. Townsend III and James Davis, voted in favor of the appeal applicants.
“This was a huge win for our Confederate veterans, our First Amendment freedom of expression and landowner property rights in the Commonwealth,” stated Grayson Jennings from Virginia Flaggers in an email.
The hearing was opened by a collective pledge of allegiance followed by a special request from a board member. People were asked not to discuss the content of the flag at the start of the public hearing. It was emphasized that the flagpole was the only topic of discussion.
The contents of the public hearing were reviewed and presented to the people in attendance. Carolyn and Corbette Bowman, property owners of the flagpole and appeal applicants, were offered the first opportunity to speak, but let their attorney, Herschel Keller, speak on their behalf.
Keller began by explaining the reasoning behind the appeal. Their argument was based on the premise of a Senate bill not allowing the recall of a building permit approval after 60 days unless obtained by malfeasance or fraud. He then went on to describe the process of how the permit was acquired.
The standard process for obtaining a zoning permit and building permit for new structures includes submitting an application form that contains the property location, tax map number, drawings showing parcel changes and denoting distances to all property lines, according to Robert Love, director of Planning and Community Development. The form is then reviewed by the assistant zoning administrator and payment of the application fee finalizes the zoning permit. Next the applicant must submit a building permit application that is reviewed by the Building Official. Payment also finalizes the building permit.
The hearing opened for public comments after the review.
A flagpole advocate spoke in favor of the landowners’ legal rights. The process was followed step by step, he said.
“Put yourself in the shoes of the property owner,” he said. “How would you feel if you took the proper steps by law and this illegal action is taking place now?”
Another speaker suggested adjusting the height of the pole to measure up to 25 feet which a board member said they would write their suggestion down on paper.
Public involvement ceased and the county council, Andrew McRoberts, came up to speak.
The Bowmans’ counsel made an argument that the building permit issued by a building official can satisfy the requirements needed to obtain the permit, according to McRoberts. McRoberts opposed this argument by stating that in Prince Edward County only the zoning administrator, also serving as county administrator, and the assistant zoning administrator are authorized to issue permits.
The county made two clerical errors during the issuance of the permit, according to McRoberts. The first error was the inclusion of language on the building permit form from many years ago. The language speaks of consistency of the permit with the zoning ordinance. The zoning administrator does not review or sign off on building permit forms, according to McRoberts.
The second clerical error was made by the building official who signed off on the building permit. The official signed without omitting the language regarding consistency of the permit with the zoning ordinance.
The building official testified at the hearing that he was not authorized to sign and never intended to state that the permit was consistent with the zoning ordinance because he didn’t realize the statement was on the form, according to McRoberts. The language was included on the form and over his signature in error.
One of the board members addressed McRoberts and said that he made a very compelling case presenting the errors made by the county.
“But those errors should have been caught within the 60 days,” the board member said.
Questions arose about other flagpoles, specifically one at the Trinity Memorial Gardens cemetery exceeding the limit. The flagpole is in a different zoning area, A-1 agricultural, where there is no height restriction, according to Love.
An appeal can be made by the board within 30 days, but the board has not met to discuss future plans, according to Prince Edward County Administrator Doug Stanley.
“We are thankful to the hundreds of citizens who reached out to offer support and/or to contribute to our legal defense fund, most of whom expressed anger and dissatisfaction with the ‘woke’ actions of the board of supervisors and other county officials, and thankful that the memorial will stand… to the glory of God, and in memory and honor of the men who fought and died in the nearby battles of Saylor’s Creek and High Bridge,” Jennings added.
Alas, the issue is not yet settled. The Board of Supervisors has brought the case of the battle flag before the Circuit Court, and a final resolution has yet to be reached.
The tactic seems to be to wear down the flag’s supporters with state-funded litigation. The opponents of the flag can draw on unlimited taxpayer-funded reserves to litigate against the Virginia Flaggers. The Flaggers, however, rely on donations from like-minded people who want to keep the battle flag flying on its hillside above Farmville. I myself have contributed (via the Sons of Confederate Veterans) to the defense fund for the flag.
So I am unable to give you a final resolution to the battle over the battle flag. Lawyers for both sides will make a whole lot more money before the issue is settled.
Collecting and collating the material for these posts has made me realize that the Civil War, at least in my part of Virginia, is a personal and familial issue, rather than a historical one. The rural areas of the Central Virginia Piedmont are riddled with families whose ancestors served in the Recent Unpleasantness. Families that have passed down memories of what happened in 1861-1865, stories of battles and suffering and sacrifice and privation.
The polemicists of woke modernity would make it all about race, but it isn’t. Based on my experience in the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the important issues concern liberty, tradition, and honor. Slavery was an abomination, but that’s not what the current conflicts are about.
Writing it up just makes me realize how much more there is to say, but that will have to wait for future installments in this series.