Throughout the South, from now until June, there will be celebrations and commemorations of Confederate soldiers, Civil War veterans. These memorial days are set for various dates, depending upon the state.
North Carolina’s official observance isn’t until May 10. But members of the Jackson County chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans find themselves in cemeteries throughout the year.
“We try to do’em in the winter time, cause, whew, you start putting on wool pants,” explained David Gunter, motioning to his era-specific dress.
The Alarka graveyard is warm on the last Saturday afternoon of April. The heat wraps around tombstones, many dating from the 1800s or early 20th century.
Up the hill, resting underneath a Confederate flag flapping in the breeze, is a much newer grave marker. It’s for Perry B. Franklin, a local Confederate veteran who was born in 1835 and died in 1913. The marker, recently ordered from the U.S. government, nods to the Southerner’s service with the notation of ‘C.S.A.,’ or Confederate States of America.
“Do you know why ours are pointed,” Mike Parris, commander of the Jackson SCV asked, referring to the shape of the Confederate tombstone. “Do you know why ours are pointed instead of round? To keep Yankees from sitting on’em.”
Parris enjoys some light moments in the cemetery, a saber hanging at his side. A few minutes more and the mood will turn somber. He will lead the graveside ceremony, say a few words and offer the long-dead Confederate a “last drink.”
“We’re honoring our Confederate soldiers,” Parris said. “And grandfathers.”
The Jackson group offers a ceremonial Confederate burial to any family that requests it. They offer the service as a show of respect, and because many of the South’s veterans did not receive Confederate-specific recognitions at the time of their death.
“It’s their military funeral, but for the Confederacy,” explained Gunter.
The ceremony offered by Jackson SCV entails a procession of men dressed as Confederate soldiers. In addition to offering the veteran a “last drink” — water is poured from a canteen — a volley of three shots is fired. The guns, like the garb, strive for authenticity.
“Most of’em are Enfield or Springfield, .58-caliber,” said Gunter.
For Franklin’s recent ceremony, a number of attendees showed up at the cemetery. Women with the Order of the Confederate Rose were there in black dresses. Swain sheriff candidate Rocky Sampson was there. Swain County Commissioner David Monteith was there, too.
“Yep, they done this for my grandpa,” Monteith said.
Also there for the occasion are several of Perry’s descendants. They pass around a photo of a quite old Perry — taken long after his Civil War days — and recount the branches of their family tree.
“I’ve got the old home place,” said 81-year-old Cleo Carpenter, Perry’s great granddaughter. “Over a 100 years the property’s been in the family.”
Carpenter provided a brief biography of Perry. He moved to Swain County from Dillsboro. The man was married twice and had nine children. He served three separate stints of duty for the South during the war and afterward farmed the land of Alarka.
“I’ve done a lot of research,” Carpenter explains. “Most people go to the computer, but I like to go to the Register of Deeds or the cemetery.”
The talk in the cemetery centers on history and heritage. About honoring family. But the participants are keenly aware that their recognition of such a heritage can also spark a sideways glance and questions about celebrating a past full of shadows.
Gunter shakes off such connotations, suggesting modern hate groups have co-opted traditional Confederate imagery and stressing the era’s “interesting history.”
“It was our ancestors, and they done their duties,” Gunter said, “just like any of these other veterans buried out here, you know.”
Parris touched on this during the ceremony as well, imploring the study of “true history,” talking about the Confederate flag being misused — “a bunch of boys running around, acting wild, flying the flag” — and defended the common Southern soldier.
“As good of men that come out of the South, you know these were not bad men,” Parris said.
It is these men, and their service to the South, that the Sons of the Confederate Veterans strives to honor with graveside ceremonies. They reach back through the generations to show respect, and offer families the chance to do the same.
“We want to remember them as good men,” Parris explained during the graveside observance.
Perry was remembered as one such good man. He was remembered for his service to his homeland, as well as for his life outside the boundaries of the Civil War.
“He was a farmer. He dug a living out of these hills and raised a good family,” Perry descendent Virginia Martin Bridges said in the cemetery. “He was good cause he was our forefather.”