COLUMBIA, S.C. – The Confederate flag no longer flies on South Carolina's Statehouse grounds, but that didn't dampen the spirits of those gathered Tuesday to commemorate the state's first Confederate Memorial Day since its removal.
Clad in the gray wool uniform of the Confederacy, with a black ribbon on his chest, Rusty Rentz of the Sons of Confederate Veterans stood guard at a monument to Confederate war dead at the front of the Statehouse complex in Columbia — the very spot where the Confederate flag was flying a year ago.
"The fact that the governor brought the flag down doesn't change the fact that some 25,000 Confederate soldiers lost their life in defense of their state, so we will continue to be here," he said.
State government offices were closed Tuesday to mark the holiday, which is held annually on May 10. That's the day when Confederate Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson died in 1863 in Chancellorsville, Virginia. It's also the day when Union troops captured fleeing Confederate President Jefferson Davis in Georgia in 1865 after the war ended.
For more than 50 years, some version of the Confederacy's most recognizable emblem flew at South Carolina's capitol complex. In 1961, it was raised over the Statehouse dome — along with the U.S. and South Carolina flags — to commemorate the Civil War centennial, and lawmakers kept it flying.
In 2000, after a lengthy debate, a compromise was reached to remove the flag from the dome and run up a smaller version, the South Carolina Infantry Battle Flag, on a 30-foot flagpole at the Confederate Soldier Monument directly in front of the Statehouse, along a busy street.
It wasn't until last summer, after the shooting deaths of nine black churchgoers allegedly by a white man who had embraced the flag, that the symbol left the grounds entirely. Gov. Nikki Haley called for the flag's removal, which came in July, and plans for how to display it at a museum are still being debated.
A handful of southern states hold annual observances honoring Confederate war dead, most in April and May, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Last year, Georgia removed listings for Confederate Memorial Day and Gen. Robert E. Lee's birthdays on its official holiday calendar list, renaming both as "state holiday."
That move came as many states grappled with how to honor what many termed their southern heritage while placating an anti-Confederate movement sweeping the country after the Charleston shootings. Alabama also removed a Confederate battle flag from its Capitol grounds. Other flags and Confederate emblems in states like Mississippi and Texas were moved or taken down altogether.
The only Confederate flags present Tuesday were those brought by Rentz and about a half a dozen other faithful, some clad in Civil War-era dress, and placed around the base of the monument. As cars drove by, some honked support and some yelled "Go home!"
Rentz said he's not bothered by the criticism and actually has seen more interest in his organization.
"I think there are those who want it to be stigmatized. Certainly there are groups in the past that have misused this flag, but just because they've misused it does not mean that it's an evil flag or a flag of oppression."
Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP . Read more of her work at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/meg-kinnard/