At Point Lookout in Southern Maryland, Confederate flag still flies

As S.C. furls its Confederate flag, another one still flies outside a Civil War cemetery in Southern Maryland.

POINT LOOKOUT — While the Confederate battle flag is coming down from the State House grounds in South Carolina and around the nation, it continues to fly here in St. Mary's County, at the center of a privately owned monument next to the largest burial site of rebel soldiers in Maryland.

Clinton Cole took pictures of the private monument last week and shook his head.

"That flag stands for nothing but hate," said the 49-year-old Longview Beach man, who is black. "This is 2015, and we're still dealing with this?"

But Jim Dunbar, who heads the group that built the monument, says the flag stands for his heritage.

"It's a symbol of the whole defiance against the federal government," Dunbar said. "They were rebelling for the same reason their grandfathers fought in the Revolutionary War — freedom from a strong centralized government."

Century-old memorials mark the mass grave of thousands of Confederate troops at Point Lookout Confederate Cemetery, which is maintained by the federal Department of Veterans Affairs on the site of a former prison for Southerners captured by the Union after the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. Some 4,000 Confederate soldiers and sailors died there.

Dunbar's group, which calls itself the Point Lookout Prisoners-of-War Descendants Organization, sought to fly the flag on the cemetery grounds year-round. But the VA's National Cemetery Administration wouldn't allow it.

So the group raised $32,000 to buy the 3-acre plot of land next to the cemetery and another $250,000 to build a private monument next to the federal one. The group's monument was completed in 2008.

The flag, and others representing Maryland, prisoners of war and the Southern states, are clearly visible to visitors headed to the beaches of Point Lookout State Park. Below the nearly two dozen fluttering flags, a bronze statue of a bearded southern soldier stands on a raised platform, and small plaques and a garden pay tribute to the buried prisoners of war.

"It's probably the biggest memorial to veterans, period, in Maryland, outside of Washington," Dunbar said.

He noted that Confederate troops could be freed from Union captivity if they swore allegiance to the U.S. "They would rather starve to death in a prison camp than go against what they believed in," he said. "That's why we feel so strongly about it."

The long-controversial battle flag, flown by the Army of Northern Virginia during the Civil War and adopted by white supremacists in the 20th century, came under new criticism after nine black people were shot to death in a Charleston, S.C., church last month. The man accused in the killings had posed for pictures with the flag and had a history of activity on white supremacy websites.

Public and private organizations denounced the flag as an emblem of racism and hatred. Supporters such as Dunbar disagree, arguing it represents Southern heritage.

The South Carolina Legislature voted last week to remove the flag from a Confederate memorial on the State House grounds. The National Parks Service pulled "stand-alone depictions" of the flag from gift shop shelves at Antietam National Battlefield and other Civil War sites. Amazon, Wal-Mart, eBay and other retailers stopped selling merchandise bearing Confederate flags.

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz asked Baltimore City for permission to change the name of Robert E. Lee Park to Lake Roland Park. The park is owned by the city and operated by the county.

No Confederate flag is flown on any state-owned property, and Gov. Larry Hogan moved last month to stop the Motor Vehicle Administration from issuing license plates bearing the image.

But the Republican declined to review other Civil War-related symbols, and rejected a call to remove a statue of U.S. Chief Justice Roger Taney from the State House grounds in Annapolis. Taney presided over the Dred Scott decision, in which the court declared that "only white persons" could be U.S. citizens.

"It's political correctness run amok," Hogan said. "They're both part of our history."

At Point Lookout last week, Cole said he understands that some interpret the flag as a symbol of their heritage. But he couldn't reconcile that with the pain felt by those who had been oppressed under it.

"If I knew something I did, or something I stood for, hurt another race, I would not stand by," he said. "I would take it down."

He said he planned to boycott the state park to protest the private memorial. His brother, Jerome Reed, paced in the parking lot and said it was all he could do not to climb the pole and take the flag down himself.

"It just does something to me," said Reed, of Lexington Park. "Why do they hate us so much?"

Steve Impallomeni, visiting from Florida, took a different view. He said the flag is "part of history, and it should be preserved, even if you look at it as a bad part of history."

"Let's take some lessons from it," said Impallomeni, 42. "Let's not bury it. It's unfortunate, but it's America. Hopefully the majority of those people who are flying it aren't flying it out of hatred."

The Point Lookout Prisoners-of-War Descendants gathered at the federal cemetery each June until the early 2000s, when Dunbar said the VA began limiting the group's speech and enforcing a policy against flying the Confederate flag year-round.

The federal government allows the Confederate flag to be flown in VA cemeteries twice a year: On Memorial Day, and on Confederate Memorial Day in the 10 Southern states that recognize that observance. Maryland is not one of those states.

Under federal policy, the flags may be displayed only in cemeteries where Confederate soldiers, sailors or Marines are buried, and the flags must be provided, and removed the same day, by a historical or service organization.

Any Confederate flag flown must be "subordinated to the U.S. flag," or flown separately on a lower flagpole.

At Point Lookout, only the Star-Spangled Banner flies on the 1-acre federal cemetery. The Dixie standard flaps from a pole just outside the fence of the graveyard, obscured by trees.

Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Dresser and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

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