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2013-08-21 / Front Page

Giant Confederate flag in Chesterfield?

By Michael Buettner
NEWS EDITOR

A Richmond-based Confederate heritage group has so far declined to say exactly where it plans to erect a 50-foot flagpole sporting a 10-footby 15-foot Confederate battle flag.

But it appears to be coming to Chesterfield County.

Based on what the leader of the Virginia Flaggers has said, the flag will be raised along Interstate 95 on private property, at a historic site that’s in the county. And there’s nothing the county can do to stop it, even if it wanted to.

“There are no ordinances that would prevent this group from erecting this flag on private property,” said Don Kappel, director of the county’s Department of Public Affairs.

Kappel said the only thing that would cause county ordinances to become a factor would be a height greater than 50 feet.

As for the flag’s intended message, the county won’t be taking a position. “The nature of the flag is not the issue,” Kappel said. “Hazarding an opinion about the flag is something we wouldn’t do.”

According to an announcement sent by Virginia Flaggers founder Susan Hathaway to the group’s supporters, the flag will be placed on leased property and “will fly 24/7, 365 days of the year.”

Hathaway, a Sandston resident, said the location “is also historically significant, as Confederate troops are believed to have camped in and around the area during the Bermuda Hundred Campaign.”

That Civil War campaign, which took place during May 1864, was fought entirely within Chesterfield County, with Confederate forces holding positions along what is now the I-95 corridor from Swift Creek on the south to Kingsland Creek and Drewry’s Bluff in the Bellwood area – in other words, most of the county’s portion of I-95.

Hathaway also said site work on the flagpole was to begin last week and a flag-raising and dedication ceremony would be held Sept. 28. The cost is expected to be just under $3,000, she said.

Hathaway did not respond to emails from the Observer requesting additional information.

The announcement of the flag plan has stirred controversy locally and nationally, as matters involving the Confederate battle flag have tended to do for many years.

Late last week, the Chesterfield County Democratic Committee sent a letter to the Board of Supervisors asking members to pass a resolution condemning the installation of the flag.

The committee said it understood that the board is unable to prevent the flag from being installed. However, the committee wrote, “We don’t believe that employers will want to bring their jobs to a county whose vistas and horizon are invaded by a large, looming Confederate flag. These employers will rightly fear that the message it sends to prospective employees is not a positive one. Jobs and businesses will go elsewhere.”

Opponents of the display of the flag in general consider it a symbol of slavery and racism, while supporters, including Hathaway, say it’s simply a way of honoring ancestors who fought for a cause they believed in.

Hathaway founded the Virginia Flaggers in response to the removal of Confederate battle flags from a memorial in Richmond after control of the property passed to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. The group has been staging “flaggings” at the museum regularly for the past couple of years.

In a 2011 interview with the Southern Nationalist Network, a neo-secessionist website, Hathaway said community reaction to the group’s Richmond flaggings “is quite mixed. We get everything from the middle finger and obscenities to congratulations and ‘Keep up the good work.’”

More recently, in a note posted to the Southern War Room online forum, Hathaway wrote, “The incendiary attempts by extremists to falsely paint us as racists and instigators have backfired, and we are more committed than ever to defending the honor and good name of our Confederate ancestors and the flags they fought and died beneath.”

The purpose of the I-95 flag, according to Hathaway’s announcement, is “to welcome visitors and commuters to Richmond, and remind them of our honorable Confederate history and heritage.”

If the project is completed, the flag will be located in the Bermuda Magisterial District. Dale Patton, who represents the district on the county Planning Commission, said he’s sympathetic with both points of view on the issue.

“I am a Civil War buff. I’m fascinated with the Civil War,” he said. “I used to collect Civil War artifacts” in Petersburg, where he grew up.

Patton noted that both sides in the Civil War underwent “suffering and destruction” that should be remembered today. “I’m sympathetic with what it represents to some and that it represents something else to others,” he said.

The large flag’s presence in the county does raise concerns, Patton said. “I’m concerned about the image it might project to some people,” he said. “But I’m even more concerned about the Constitution. They have a First Amendment right to their point of view, and we have to uphold that.”

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