Brunswick social studies teacher Maurice Burgess remembers feeling a little uneasy the first time he saluted the Confederate battle flag as a Civil War re-enactor with the 15th Alabama Infantry, the only Confederate re-enactment group in Maine.
“We all take ahold of the flag and bear allegiance to it. It’s kind of spooky in a lot of ways because of the history there,” Burgess, a private in the re-enactment group, said in June. “I remember standing there looking at it, being a little nervous, but at the same time I reminded myself: This is history.”
The history of the Confederate flag is exactly why Dr. Therí A. Pickens finds both the flag and the white men who wave it disturbing: It is the symbol of the 11 Southern states that waged a war with the rest of the country in the 1860s to preserve the institution of slavery. The flag also upsets her because it has been openly embraced by the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis.
Pickens, who chairs the African American Studies department at Bates College in Lewiston, said that if she encountered a group of white men in Confederate regalia, “I would go as quickly as I could in the other direction. It would not feel physically safe.”
The long-simmering controversy over Confederate banners and monuments has reached a fever pitch. Much of the nation was horrified last month to see white supremacists and neo-Nazis, many of them bearing torches and carrying Confederate flags, march on Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the removal of a statue honoring Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. The rally turned deadly when a car allegedly driven by one of the avowed white supremacists slammed into a street full of counter-protesters.
But neither seeing how the Confederate flag was used in Charlottesville nor knowing that Confederate re-enactors were pepper sprayed at recent parade in North Carolina has diminished Burgess’ desire to keep portraying a Confederate soldier.
To Burgess, who said he “abhors racism and the demeaning of other cultures,” flying the Confederate flag as a Civil War re-enactor is very different from flying it as a neo-Nazi or a member of the KKK.
Technically, he said, the Confederate banner flown by most hate groups isn’t the battle flag used by the 15th Alabama and Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia — a red square with a navy blue X. Most hate groups instead fly the Confederate Navy Jack, which is rectangular and has an X that is a lighter shade of blue. Still, the flags are relatively the same, he acknowledged.
Burgess said he doesn’t fly any sort of Confederate flag at home: “I don’t want someone getting the wrong idea.” (In August, a blueberry raker in Sedgwick was forced to take down a Confederate flag in the field where he was working because his employer was getting complaints.)
The 15th Alabama’s bylaws, which are explicitly gay-friendly, declare the group is apolitical. Members, when in uniform, are forbidden to distribute “controversial” social, political or religious literature or to ask anyone to join “controversial” groups.
Burgess said, “We don’t tolerate racism. We don’t tolerate bigotry.”
For re-enactor Tom Bassford, a corporal and flag bearer in the group, and who said he is Gen. Lee’s second cousin, four times removed, being a flag-waving Confederate re-enactor is a benign, family-friendly hobby not necessarily meant to celebrate the Confederacy but to preserve it.
“Our intent is merely to recreate American history,” he said. Even so, because of Charlottesville, even Civil War re-enactments have become more controversial. At the end of August, a re-enactment planned for Manassas, Virginia, was canceled for fear that it would spark violence.
On a humid weekend earlier this summer, 16 members of the 15th Alabama gathered for an annual living history event at the Washburn-Norlands Living History Center in Livermore. Clad in gray wool uniforms, they cooked sausages and corn cakes over a campfire, traded tobacco for coffee beans, sipped whiskey and battled Union soldiers—all while spectators watched from lawn chairs.
On that Saturday in June, Bassford’s daughter, Meadow, donned a floor-length dress and sun hat straight out of a Scarlett O’Hara fantasy. Meanwhile, Bassford’s partner, Sandra Swatzky, also dressed like a 19th-century Southern belle, helped female visitors try on floor-length dresses as some pretended to have Southern drawls.
“We’re trying to present an accurate picture of basically what life was like for the Confederate soldier and civilians of the time,” Bassford said. “We need to know the facts, because if you forget your history, you’re basically going into your future blind.”
Yet the event in Livermore focused narrowly on the romanticized aspects of the Civil War era, making no mention of black people or slavery.
Less than a month earlier, the 15th Alabama troop, clad in their Confederate uniforms, had marched in Gray’s annual Memorial Day parade. Immediately afterward, the group encountered its first heckler, a man who shouted that the Rebel flag Bassford was holding aloft stood for slavery and racism. Members of the regiment afterward brushed off the incident, saying they assumed it had been triggered by New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s impassioned defense of tearing down his city’s Confederate monuments.
“I tried to tell [the heckler] that it’s a part of American history,” Bassford said. “[The flag] has been misused by a number of groups, including the Ku Klux Klan, but they’ve also misused the cross.”
The heckler, 43-year-old Gray resident Aaron Newbury, who was attending the parade with his wife and two daughters, one of whom was marching as a Girl Scout, later said he was shocked and disgusted when he saw the 15th Alabama pass by with the Confederate flag.
“Are you kidding me?” Newbury said he remembers thinking. “The kids walked by, and there’s a Reb flag walking behind them. Where the hell am I? What town is this?”
Newbury said that he approached the Confederate re-enactors in a nearby parking lot.
“How can you think you can walk down the street with that piece of hatred you’re flying?” he said he asked the group. “It’s like flying the Nazi flag.”
Speaking after that encounter but before the death in Charlottesville, Swatzky predicted that displaying a Confederate flag “is going to be harder to do this year, because it’s gotten so much negative attention.”
“It’s true about symbols, that they can be used to take on other meanings. And I’m concerned about that,” she said.
“If I were black, I probably wouldn’t like [the Confederate flag] either. I wish I could tell them I’m not a bigot.”
Following the parade, the re-enactors walked to the nearby village cemetery and honored two fallen soldiers—one who had fought for the Union and another who was an unknown Confederate whose body was mistakenly sent to Gray after his death in 1862. His tombstone reads simply, “Stranger.”
The Confederate’s headstone was decorated with flowers, an American flag and a metal Southern Cross of Honor. At the base of the grave, a sticker read, “Remember [and] Honor the South’s Black Confederate Soldiers.”
There, beside the two soldiers’ graves, Alabama 15th Capt. Bill Stoops read a speech aloud as the rest of the Confederate reenactors stood in formation. The Confederate flag, held steady in Bassford’s belt holster, rippled in the wind.
“All were Americans, each fighting to protect the country they loved,” Stoops said.
The re-enactors then fired three rounds of blanks into the air above each graveside, took off their caps and shouted “Alabama!”
Stoops said in late August that with more and more Confederate monuments being taken down, “It does make you think about the future of re-enacting. Is it going to be something that kind of goes by the wayside?”
He said that now he sometimes gets uncomfortable wearing a Confederate uniform because the Confederate flag is being so publicly embraced by white nationalists.
“It does come across your mind: What are…people going to think? Do they think I’m a racist? Do they think I hate minorities? Which is not the case,” Stoops said.
To Pickens, the professor of African American studies, it is not entirely surprising that the state has Confederate re-enactors, even if they mean no harm.
“Privilege finds increasingly clever places to hide,” she said, especially “in this sort of innocence around restoration or preservation of history.”