Florida Gov. Rick Scott and his cabinet last month rejected the nominations of three Confederate veterans for a place in the state's Veterans' Hall of Fame memorial in the state capitol.
The three -- a former governor, the "father" of the state's National Guard and a U.S. Senator -- were rejected because they did not serve in the U.S. military, according to David McCallister, an attorney and member of the Florida Sons of Confederate Veterans, which put the names forward.
"To be eligible, you have to be a military veteran of Florida ... have been honorably discharged" and played a significant part in the history of the state, McCallister told Military.com in a telephone interview. The nomination guidelines make no mention of Florida's status as a state -- U.S. or C.S. -- or as a territory or British or Spanish colony, he said. That means any veteran of those militias or armies should qualify, he said.
The three Confederate veterans were Edward Perry, a former governor; David Lang, who after the Civil War oversaw the reorganization of the state militia into the National Guard; and Samuel Pasco, a former U.S. senator and the namesake of Pasco County.
The guidelines specifically state that that a nominee must have received an honorable discharge "from the United States Armed Forces." They also state that a veteran is determined by such Defense Department records as a DD-214, the standard document given to a separating service member since 1950.
Meanwhile, Florida statute 101 (14) states that a veteran is "a person who served in the active military, naval, or air service and who was discharged or released under honorable conditions only or who later received an upgraded discharge under honorable conditions."
While the statute does not specify "in the United States" armed forces, the list of conflicts making a veteran eligible for wartime benefits goes back only as far as the Spanish-American War, which began 20 years after the end of the Civil War.If the governor's cabinet does approve the three Confederate veterans for the hall of fame when it next meets, it may be owed to a nearly 60-year-old act of Congress that continued President Abraham Lincoln's call to "bind up the nation's wounds" following the Civil War -- a call that even today sees the Veterans Affairs Department paying benefits to the child of a Civil War veteran.
Old wounds rekindled
Not surprisingly, even the idea of nominating one-time Confederate soldiers to a veterans' hall of fame has spurred criticism.
Adora Obi Nweze, president of NAACP Florida State Conference and Miami-Dade Branch, said she's "frankly appalled" by the effort.
"The Confederacy fought to tear apart our country, in support of savage slavery, in a misguided, hateful attempt to uphold that abomination," she said in a statement, "[and] to have these men honored in a memorial at the state Capitol for their service on the wrong side of history would be an injustice to the descendants of enslaved Americans and an insult to all Americans who have bravely served our country with honor."
Army veteran Dale Landry, president of the NAACP chapter in Tallahassee, told Capitol News Service in Florida that extending the honor up to Confederate veterans opens up the door to other militaries that fought against the United States.
"The Japanese military, the Japanese army, the Japanese navy, you see? The Germans, the Nazis. I'm sorry, but that's the same to me," Landry said.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans, a national group founded in Richmond, Virginia, and based in Columbia, Tennessee, say the recognition isn't about defending slavery, but honoring those who answered their country's call.
"Our ancestors did not go to war for slavery, but people use this [argument] for political gain," said Michael Landree, executive director of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and a retired lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps.
Southern blacks also fought for the Confederacy, he said, and half the personal escort of Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest -- who founded the Ku Klux Klan after the war -- were black.
Landree rejects the idea that the men, as slaves, had little choice in their actions. They were armed, and if they opposed what they were doing, they could have shot Forrest during battle, perhaps changing the course of the fight, he said.
"These people, they all fought together," he said. "They were not fighting for slavery. They fought because they were invaded."
Landree blames the North for the century of abuse carried out by Southern whites against black citizens, claiming it was a response to "carpetbaggers and the federal government." He even drew a parallel to U.S. actions in Iraq after taking out Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003.
"They came down and disenfranchised every Confederate officer and soldier, or anyone who had held any kind of office," he said. "We created that insurgency. All the federal government did was come down and manipulate the South, and make them pay" for rebelling.
Historians have rejected the argument that blacks fought for the South in any significant numbers. The online journal Military History Now and the website The Civil War Gazette say reports that blacks took up arms for the Confederacy are anecdotal.
Military History Now quotes the late Truman Clark, who as a professor at Tomball College in Texas noted there's no record that any of the 215,000 Confederate soldiers taken prisoner during the war were black. Also, Clark pointed out, if the South had thousands armed black troops -- free or slave -- fighting for the Confederacy, why did its legislature wait until the last days of the war to approve raising black units?
Civil War historian Steven Woodworth of Texas Christian University in Fort Worth told the Gazette that it "would be hard to prove that absolutely zero blacks fought in the Confederate army, but I think it must have approached that level."
He added, "Whatever may have been the number of blacks serving and actually fighting as soldiers in the Confederate army, it must have been a minuscule percentage -- completely insignificant for anyone trying to make the argument that blacks saw the conflict as a war of Yankee aggression, felt it was their war too, and joined up to fight for the Confederacy. That's just a fairy tale."
'It's about honoring veterans'
Landree and McCallister say that, in the end, admitting Confederate veterans to the Florida Veterans Hall of Fame is about honoring American veterans, recognizing the fraternity that the combatants themselves began to build following the war, and which the U.S. Congress made official in 1958.
That was the year Congress extended to Confederate States' veterans the same benefits and services given to those who served the Union -- which should make the Confederate veterans eligible for admission to the state's hall of fame, they say.
Department of Veterans Affairs spokesman Randy Noller confirmed that Confederate soldiers were recognized as U.S. veterans in 1958, as part of a bill raising the amounts of veterans' pensions. Congress specifically noted that "the term 'veteran' includes a person who served in the military or naval forces of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War."
In a separate section of legislation, Congress stipulated that Confederate veterans would be paid "a monthly pension in the same amounts and subject to the same conditions" as their Union counterparts.
Because that legislation was only adopted in 1958 there were no known Civil War vets on either side still alive. The last Confederate vet, Pvt. Pleasant Riggs Crump of Alabama, died in 1951, and last Union veteran, Albert Henry Woolson of Minnesota, in 1956.
But there were survivors, and VA Secretary Bob McDonald -- in congressional testimony just this past week -- noted that the department is still paying benefits to a surviving child of a Civil War veteran. Like his predecessor Eric Shinseki before him, he raised the point to show the VA's "sacred" comment to caring for veteran and their families.
While the department won' identify the beneficiary, Noller told Military.com that the individual is a child of a Confederate veteran.
McCallister said that if the U.S. government was able to recognize Confederate veterans, there's no reason for Florida to reject them. Many Union and Confederate veterans of the war were able to put the conflict behind them, he said.
"How we treat veterans of 150 years ago is how the veterans of today will be treated 150 years from now," he said. Should veterans of Vietnam or of the Persian Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan wars be judged and rejected based on views of those conflicts a century from now, he asks.
"Confederate veterans did what their government asked them to do," he said. "The [Civil War] veterans didn't hold grudges. We shouldn't either."
--Bryant Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.