Captives in Time: A Visit With the Sons of the Confederacy
By Hadas Ragolsky
TRENTON, Ga. -- To reach the house of Freddie Parris Jr. you need to drive up Lookout Mountain, a towering peak as daunting as its name.
We took Georgia State Highway I-36 to the northwest corner of the state, a road that was built in 1945 to connect rural Dade County for the first time to Atlanta. Before the road was paved, Dade's residents had to cross the mountains to Alabama or Tennessee in order to get to their own state capital. The spiraling road leads through dry forest that is waiting for the spring to start blooming. Along the way a number of small houses and ranches are randomly sprinkled. Dade County is only two hours away from Atlanta and only 30 minutes from Chattanooga, a bustling city in Tennessee; but it seems a much longer journey back in time.
We were three journalists from UC Berkeley exploring the heart of the South, to produce a television story about the resurrection of the stars and bars Confederate flag as the official city flag in Trenton, the county seat of Dade.
A private branch road goes to Parris' house. One of the first things we saw as we drove by was a flag that appeared to be the rebel flag, a white rectangle of cloth with a red square of the stars and bars. Amid a strand of trees in front were parked at least 6 pickup trucks, all with license plates shaped in the colors and style of the red and blue Confederate flag. A sticker on one of the trucks proclaimed, "I'm a 100% Confederate citizen."
The silence was eerie.
On the porch, leaning against a railing and smoking a cigarette, was an elderly man with white hair and beard and a wrinkled face who soon introduced himself to us as Raymond Evans. Evans was a longtime historian in Dade and an active participant as a rebel soldier in re-enactments of Civil War battles.
Civil War rebel re-enactors, in full regalia in Trenton
"I saw ya'll passing by the entrance," he said in a deep southern drawl referring to our initial failure to find the place. He probably knew every car in the area, and had seen our’s speeding past the driveway moments earlier. This was one of the things so unique to small towns like Trenton -- everyone there seems to know everyone else, and everyone knows what the rest are doing.
Once we announced our intention by telephone weeks earlier to produce a story about Trenton, the whole town knew it and was expecting us. What they didn't know was that the majority of our crew was black. There we were, two black women and me, an Israeli journalist, minutes before our scheduled meeting with the members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and their Lieutenant commander, Freddie Parris Jr.
Parris, an auto repair shop owner in his forties, is a tall, thick-set man. His thick blond hair matches his short moustache and his pale blue eyes. He and his friends came out to welcome us and stood perfectly quiet before us. For awhile, they didn't say a word. My colleagues, reasonably nervous themselves, didn't say a word either. It was left to me to talk constantly like a talk show host for at least ten minutes in order to break the ice.
"I thought you were all Israelis," said Parris, once he found his words again. A few weeks earlier I talked to him over the phone and introduced myself as an Israeli student at the journalism school. My accent was too obvious to be considered American, but it was clear to all present that I was about to come with American students.
Parris house is a personal museum dedicated to the Civil War. On the bar were small Confederate flags, a metal replica of a cannon and a statue of a man and woman dressed up in period, Civil War clothing. Even Parris' computer screensaver was a visage of the past, depicting black and white Southern soldiers protecting the wagon of a Southern family. On the walls were pictures of the Confederate soldiers during battles. The main character in two of them was Nathan Bedford Forrest, the rebel warrior and vigilante who widely is recognized as the founder of the Ku Klux Klan.
"One of the best American military leaders ever," said Parris "He was highly respected on both sides. General Sherman called him the devil," he said.
History and Heritage
Parris explained the military structure of the Sons of Confederacy. He was a Lieutenant Commander for the Georgia division of Civil War re-enactors, an organization which has three brigades and some 1,500 members. Each of those who were present in the room had his own duty as part of the Sons of the Confederate Veterans, including his 17-year-old son, Patrick, who was "one of the youngest division officers of the state of Georgia, a Battalion leader and re-enactor."
Most of the men in the room said they had served in the U.S. Army, but this didn't prevent them from re-enacting the Civil War battles passionately during their monthly camps. In each camp the men conduct military drills, preparing themselves for future reenactments. It is a cultural event which involves young and old, men and women, they said. They sit beside the fire, exchanging information about their equipment and tactics. They hold balls and fund raising. They make friends.
And still I tried to understand why they were doing it. They kept talking about history and heritage. They spoke about family members who died in the war and the importance of remembering and honoring them.
As an Israeli and a Jew I could relate to that. The national history and the private one are woven into my every day life as well.
But I felt they practice those memories differently. It wasn't just remembering the past, it was reliving it. Later on, as he stood before us dressed in his khaki- colored Confederate soldier uniform, Parris used the same term ? "we relive the history," he said. He spoke about historic preservation and buying battlefields which are in private hands. "Every ten minutes an acre of battlefield is lost," said Larry D. Wheeler, one of the Veterans and I kept thinking to myself, what did he mean by the word "lost"? Does he speak about young people who are building their lives on that land? A new school that was about to be built? In my home country, that was the reason for the battle—to allow people to live a peaceful life. But here the Veterans expressed sorrow for the loss of the battlefields land.
Parris explained to me the difference between the flags; the original stars and bars flag that was adopted when the North insisted on keeping the national flag as its own. He said it still looked the same when the troops carried it so they changed the flag to a white flag with Saint Andrews cross on the corner. The white symbolized the purity of the south and the Saint Andrews cross is actually "a religious symbol from Scotland." Parris was enthusiastic to speak about his favorite subject. Finally, he explained how they added the red to the flag, to symbolize the blood of the soldiers which was already spilled, a flag which was the last flag of the Confederacy.
"So if the South would have made it, that would have been our national flag," Parris said, clarifying why this was the flag he chose to fly in front of his house.
We kept talking as the time passed by. The rigid answers became friendlier. We even laughed. Parris and his friends demonstrated for us a shooting scene with their old 19th century rifles, and the army drills that they practice in their camps. After three hours they seemed to forget my friends were black. Each one of them was trying to get the attention of the two. Like many subjects in interviews, they were happy to meet someone who was willing to listen to their story regardless of their skin-color. The southern hospitality we received in Parris' house repeated itself with all our interview subjects in coming days. But the decision to adopt the old flag as a city flag remained puzzling for us.
Only later, when I went through my notes, did I realize what was the most important part of my interview with Parris and his friends. Almost in the end of it, Parris said he felt like a minority. He spoke in evident pain about people losing their jobs just because they want to keep the Confederate legacy. "We keep losing more and more of our freedom," he said.
For me it was a truly revealing moment. Parris himself was acknowledging that he was part of a minority group and as such deserved to be protected. That comment spoke volumes about how much times have really changed in the South. The old South still exists but mainly in the hearts of the people.