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Culpeper reckons with Civil War past
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Culpeper reckons with Civil War past

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The divisive issue of Confederate imagery saw action in Culpeper County on various fronts this past week, coinciding with a Washington TV station’s exposé that accused local officials of malfeasance in the handling of the Lenn Park flag issue.

The county’s longest-serving supervisor said on Friday he would recommend having voters decide the question of what to do with the Confederate monument in Culpeper’s courthouse square.

Town of Culpeper leaders, meanwhile, expressed willingness to have a dialogue with constituents on the hot-button national issue, including examining Confederate street names.

Town officials also said they are willing to reexamine the town reservoir being called Lake Pelham, named some 50 years ago for John Pelham, a Confederate artillery officer from Alabama. Pelham was just 24 when he was mortally wounded at Kelly’s Ford in Culpeper County on St. Patrick’s Day 1863 by Union cannon fire.

Prominent Culpeper businessman Joe Daniel continues to say that all references to the Confederacy’s “Lost Cause” must leave Culpeper’s public spaces, starting with the statue of a Confederate soldier that has stood for 109 years on West Davis Street between the courthouse and the county jail.

He has offered to donate $50,000 to cover the cost of removing that monument.

“That statue was part of the Jim Crow-ism and the Ku Klux Klan mantra which existed for 100 years, whose purpose were to humiliate, subjugate, terrorize, minimize and keep our African American brothers and sisters as near to slaves as possible,” Daniel, president of Jefferson Home Builders, told the Star-Exponent.

Culpeper probably saw more troop movements than any other county in the nation during the four-year American Civil War.

Banner leaves Lenn Park

In recent days, a Confederate battle flag that flew over the county’s Lenn Park for 14 years came down.

Last week, NBC4 in Washington, D.C., aired a news segment critical of Culpeper board members, headlined “Mistake allowed Confederate flag to fly on county property for year.”

NBC’s team interviewed Stevensburg District Supervisor Bill Chase at the end of his farm drive. The news broadcast reported improper procedure and mismanagement by county supervisors and the county in handling the battle-flag issue, as previously reported by the Star-Exponent.

On Friday, Chase said he didn’t think the county could have done anything better in its handling of the situation. “We did what was right. I was always for land rights,” he said.

Chase asserted that the Confederate battle flag and a U.S. flag flew over private land owned by Stevensburg’s Lenn brothers at the park entrance. The county had no control over them, he said.

But the Lenn brothers said they gave the flags’ site to the county in 2006 as part of their 85-acre donation of farmland for the park.

The brothers, in their 90s, told NBC4 that county officials knew they were unable to maintain the Confederate display and wanted nothing to do with it.

Calls for apologies from and resignation of board members involved in the land deed ruse have heightened. So have calls to remove the courthouse’s Confederate monument.

Chase said he will recommend to the Board of Supervisors that the question be put on the ballot in November. It is unclear if the deadline for a new ballot question has passed.

“Whatever the people want, I think that is fair,” he said.

Chase, in his 80s, said he is not stepping down from the board due to his ill health; he underwent two heart surgeries in the past 50 days. He said he has been unable to attend meetings in person because he is at high risk for the novel coronavirus, but he has been participating via teleconference.

Chase lamented not being able to vote on the county’s most recent pro-gun resolution due to technical issues, saying, “I have been fanatical about that since day one.”

Chase admitted that he “may have dropped the ball” years ago in getting an attorney to finalize the Lenn Park flag issue. He said there “was total confusion on the board” back in 2015 when the county supposedly gave the parcel back to the Lenns, which the brothers say didn’t happen.

Staff turnover contributed to the mix-up, Chase said. The Lenns were good friends, he said. Of the family’s recent action to remove the controversial battle flag, Chase said: “That’s fine – that’s their property.”

Many locals have addressed the matter in recent days in person, electronically and online.

Stevensburg District resident Kurt Christensen called to the county’s public phone line about the Civil War, saying, “We have symbols from that period which include flags and statues, which is very important to our history; they need to be preserved. I realize a local oligarch offered a lot of money to remove the statue and I hope the supervisors want to listen to the silent majority here and not from the elites.”

Lake Pelham’s name

Daniel spoke before the Board of Supervisors last week. He later compared the Confederate battle flag to the Nazi flag, saying it is a hateful symbol to African Americans.

He also has approached the Culpeper Town Council about renaming Lake Pelham.

“I would like for it to happen soon,” he recently emailed town leaders. “It is an insult to our African American brothers and sisters.”

On Monday, Culpeper Mayor Mike Olinger said he is always willing to sit down and listen to anyone’s ideas or reasons for changing such names.

“In the current political climate, now may be as good of a time as any to start a dialogue with the folks that are trying to change these names,” he said.

Culpeper Town Councilman Pranas Rimeikis, responding to Daniel’s email, said he agreed with him that renaming Lake Pelham is something the council should consider. He asked for patience with the issue in light of people’s current focus on the COVID-19 pandemic and economic crisis.

Asked for further comment, Rimeikis declined, saying it was too important of an issue to have his views reduced to a sound bite in the local newspaper.

Last month, Town Council members asked that the topic be placed on its Public Works, Public Safety and Planning & Community Development Committee’s Aug. 25 agenda, according to Town Manager Chris Hively. The committee will meet at 9:30 a.m. in the Economic Development Center on South Main Street.

Daniel called Pelham “a traitor to the USA” who fought to preserve slavery. He suggested new names for the town reservoir: Lake John Lewis or Lake Culpeper. As with his offer to the county, Daniel said he would pay all costs related to changing the lake’s signs.

According to Hively, the lake was first called Pelham in 1969, as referred to in an ordinance about regulations on construction of the dam in 1972. He said there is no town record related to naming it Lake Pelham, adding “someone other than Town Council” could have picked it, with “the town just assuming the name” when it took possession of the lake created by the newly constructed dam of the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The town manager said today’s Town Council has legal authority to change the lake’s name if it so chooses.

Culpeper resident Clark “Bud” Hall, a noted Civil War historian, said Pelham spent a good amount of time in the Culpeper area during the Civil War, appointed by Brig Gen. J.E.B. Stuart to command his artillery in 1862 after Culpeper’s Battle of Cedar Mountain.

On the day he died, Pelham had ridden out from the Virginia Hotel on Main Street in downtown Culpeper (today’s Culpeper Music Center), where he had been staying. He was in town on court-martial duty and to see his girlfriend, Bessie Shackleford, Hall said.

For Daniel, the key message about his fight to remove Pelham’s name from the Culpeper lake is: “Remember the history, but do not honor traitors who killed thousands of Americans to preserve slavery!”

More opinions

Town Councilman Jon Russell, asked about the issue, said Culpeper is well known for its history and that visitors come from far and wide to visit its sites.

“We should be adding to our history and not taking away from it,” Russell said.

“We need to do more to add more Black history sites,” he added. “We have plenty of space at some of our parks to pay tribute to the contributions of Culpeper’s Black history.”

Town Councilwoman Jamie Clancey, asked earlier about achieving some “common ground” on the debate, said that would be “the acknowledgement of the intent of the Confederate monument in town. It went up well after the Civil War, during the onset of Jim Crow laws, seemingly in opposition of civil rights.”

“The intent was not just to honor soldiers, it was partly to remind blacks of our place,” Clancey added. “If we can all admit/acknowledge the reasoning behind the monument and the timing of when it went up, that would be common ground. If community members admit to that, and still want it to remain, then that’s a whole other issue and at least we know where people stand regarding the message they want sent to portions of our community.”

Stevensburg District residents Dan and Sarah Coleman wrote to the county’s public-comment email, saying that if the Board of Supervisors takes any action on Confederate statues and plaques, “There is no persuasion, only alienation of one side over another.”

The local couple implored the county to provide high-speed internet to residents’ homes for equal access to education. “I would urge the Board to not engage in the endless bickering about Civil War monuments,” they added. “Culpeper County was the most fought-over place in the war. It is important to remember the war, its causes, and its result, so that we are not disposed to repeat it.”

Town Councilman Keith Price said the only features under the town’s authority which bear the names of Confederate military leaders are a few short residential streets and Lake Pelham. He said he did not support changing any of them, adding that the effort would go unnoticed by most residents and inconvenience the people living there.

“In addition, given Major John Pelham’s relative obscurity compared with more famous Confederate figures—most residents probably don’t know who Lake Pelham is named after—I believe there is little benefit to renaming the lake since a significant administrative effort would be needed to make updates with state and federal agencies,” Price said.

He said calls for renaming are an effort to erase history that would diminish Culpeper.

“I believe in adding and not removing, and as we discuss this issue, I will advocate looking for opportunities to name town properties after other historical figures to more fully represent our rich history,” Price said.

Daniel, a Madison County native who is a longtime Culpeper resident, said the history he learned attending school in the area glorified the Civil War and vilified the Union as having destroyed Southern culture.

“There was absolutely no mention of slavery and the horrible ways that black people were treated in my history book,” he said. “That teaching is the reason that we still have statues to traitors and folks flying Confederate flags … We still are paying mightily for this fantastical history. We have to get our friends and neighbors to understand! Slavery was real and it impacted real people with real families! The suffering for generations is not calculable!”

“There is no attempt to deny the history, which is abominable, but to end the glorification of people who were traitors,” Daniel added. “They deserve no statues, no street names, no lake names, no college names and no other recognition.”

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