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At Civil War commemoration in Westminster, Confederate group snubs Union speaker

Descendants of Civil War soldiers, battle re-enactors and local officials gathered in Westminster last weekend as they do every year to commemorate an 1863 skirmish that briefly rattled the Carroll County city.

This year, for the first time, a member of the Sons of Union Veterans had been invited to speak about a black Civil War soldier, whose grave was recently discovered in a local church cemetery — near that of a Confederate lieutenant who is always honored.

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But as speaker Tim McCoy noted the unique plight a black soldier faced in a war fought over slavery, members of a Confederate color guard turned their backs on him.

"He said they were fighting for slavery," Ray Rooks, the Confederate descendant who ordered the about-face, said after the event. "They were fighting for freedom. They were defending their individual states' rights."

It was another flashpoint in the long-running war over the War.

The Civil War ended more than 150 years ago. But the question of how to interpret it and how to commemorate it remains a source of tension. That the dispute led to an overt snub during the Westminster event last weekend surprised and dismayed some of the participants.

"I'm puzzled and troubled," said Westminster City Council President Robert Wack.

He said the action disrespected the black soldier, Corporal Samuel Butler, other Union veterans, McCoy and the City of Westminster.

"People can disagree on how history is interpreted," Wack said. "But there were no judgments" in McCoy's remarks.

Most Civil War historians say the primary cause of the conflict was indeed slavery, and the South's rejection of the federal government's right to prohibit it.

Even the argument that the war was really over states' rights tends to circle back to slavery. In becoming the first state to secede from the Union, South Carolina complained of "an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery." Mississippi declared that "our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery."

But as it has during other turbulent periods — such as the Civil Rights era of the 1950s and '60s — debate over the war and its causes has re-emerged from history to rejoin the ongoing discourse over race in America.

Questions of how to commemorate the Civil War, and particularly the Confederacy, intensified after Dylann Roof killed nine black church members in Charleston, S.C., in June 2015. Roof was found to be a stars-and-bars-waving white supremacist who had targeted members of the Emanuel A.M.E. Church for their race.

In his wake, activists have fought, with some success, for the removal of Confederate flags and monuments from public spaces, saying they glorify those who upheld slavery and white rule.

Baltimore has wrestled with what to do with four Confederate-era monuments.

A commission of academics and officials appointed in 2015 by then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake recommended the city remove the Roger B. Taney Monument on Mount Vernon Place and the Robert E. Lee and Thomas. J. "Stonewall" Jackson Monument in the Wyman Park Dell, and that it add signs providing historical context to the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument on Mount Royal Avenue and the Confederate Women's Monument on West University Parkway.

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Rawlings-Blake left office in December without acting on the recommendation. Her successor, Mayor Catherine Pugh, has said she is considering how to proceed.

"The city does want to remove these," she told The Baltimore Sun in May. "We will take a closer look at how we go about" it.

Others decry what they consider the erasure of history.

The Westminster event, a two-day series of activities marking the Corbit's Charge skirmish of June 29, 1863, has long featured a ceremony at the grave of Confederate Lt. John William Murray, who was killed in the battle and buried in the cemetery of the Church of the Ascension.

But this year, organizers invited the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War to add a marker to the gravestone of Butler, a member of the United States Colored Troops who fought for the North.

McCoy, head of the Baltimore chapter of the Union group, spoke about what Butler and other blacks faced as soldiers in the war.

"He was well aware that the war was prompted by the issue of slavery," McCoy said, according to a prepared text of his remarks. "And, as an African-American, he surely knew that the war's outcome would determine whether an immoral institution that enslaved people like him would continue to exist in the United States."

McCoy declined to comment on the incident. He said he did not want to distract from "the larger purpose of honoring Corporal Butler."

In his speech, he went on to say that black soldiers initially were paid less than their white counterparts, and that they risked maltreatment when captured by Confederate troops — including being returned to slavery.

Rooks, color guard sergeant of the Maryland Sons of Confederate Veterans, said McCoy was being "derogatory" to Southern soldiers, and that "a political type of speech" was inappropriate to a graveside ceremony.

"He was speaking facts that were not correct, and degrading to the soldiers of the South," Rooks said.

"It was his tone," he said. "He was very negative toward the soldiers of the South."

Rooks said he decided on the spot to order the about-face by his group — 11 men holding flags, three women and a bagpiper and a drummer.

Other participants in the ceremony said they found the back-turning disturbing.

McCoy "was just restating historical fact," Wack said. "If they find that disrespectful, that's their issue."

Wack said he is concerned because the city is a sponsor of the event, providing police and public works support. He said he has no plans to seek a withdrawal of that support, but wants clarification on whether the Confederate group is going to make a regular habit of "overt acts of disrespect" at the event.

"These issues [from the Civil War] are being hijacked, redirected to other agendas that have to do with the political and cultural wars that are currently wracking our country," he said.

Maryland Del. Haven Shoemaker was also at the event, and spoke briefly. Calls to his office for comment were not returned.

The annual commemoration is hosted by the Pipe Creek Civil War Roundtable, a group of history buffs based in Carroll County. The event organizer, Steven Carney, said he was surprised by the Confederate descendants' display, but noted that the group turned back around when it came time to honor the black soldier.

"They did not disrespect Butler," he said.

"As far as the color guard, and anything they may feel, they are separate from our event," Carney said. "It doesn't necessarily reflect how the Pipe Creek Civil War Roundtable feels."

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Corbit's Charge was a brief and lopsided clash, in which about 100 Union soldiers were overwhelmed by about 6,000 Confederate troops.

To the extent that it's remembered, it's because it delayed the advance of Gen. J.E.B. Stuart to the pivotal battle of Gettysburg. Some believe Stuart's late arrival, after the fighting already started, contributed to the Confederacy's defeat there and thus in the war.

Carney said he has not begun to plan next year's event, but said the roundtable will always honor soldiers of both sides.

"We will absolutely have people speak about Corporal Butler and John William Murray as well," he said.

Ben Hawley, a past president of the Sons of Union Veterans for the Chesapeake region, also attended the Westminster ceremony. He said he found the back-turning disrespectful — but also out of step with how Civil War aficionados tend to interact.

The Silver Spring man participates in re-enactments as a soldier of the 54th Massachusetts regiment, the black soldiers depicted in the 1989 movie "Glory." He said groups representing either side of the conflict are generally united by how they love to "yak, yak, yak" about the war.

"The Civil War is over," Hawley said. "We celebrate our ancestors.

"We're not here to fight the war all over again."

twitter.com/jean_marbella

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