Confederate soldier

A Confederate soldier is portrayed in a display at the Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History.

The Confederacy holds a special place in the hearts of many Southerners, especially members of heritage organizations.

“It’s special to me because virtually all of my male ancestors were in the war,” said Vernell Gwynn, president of the Anne Eliza Johns chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. “They did not have battles here in Danville and Pittsylvania County, but all of our ancestors had to go to battle.”

For Wayne Byrd, the South “is a great place to live, [with] good people, good music, good food.

“I can’t think of anywhere else I’d want to live,” said Byrd, who serves on the board of directors for the Heritage Preservation Association, which he helped form in Danville in the early 1990s.

No one in the South retires and moves up North, Byrd said.

Ed Chaney, camp historian with the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ Pittsylvania Vindicators Camp 828, said the South’s slower pace and bucolic scenery contribute to the region’s uniqueness.

“[It’s] more laid-back, not in a rush all the time,” said Chaney, who is also secretary of the Heritage Preservation Association. “It’s beautiful… the landscape.”

However, Chaney expressed frustration at attempts to besmirch or attack the symbols and heritage of the South. “Political correctness” is destroying the South, he said, pointing to examples including moves to get rid of the Lee-Jackson holiday in Charlottesville and to pull down Confederate battle flags at the Lee Chapel at Washington & Lee University and groups calling the flags of the Confederacy “racist.”

“It’s happening everywhere,” Chaney said.

Also, Texas is having to fight to get SCV license plates, he pointed out.

“It shouldn’t be that way,” he said.

The SCV takes care of Confederate graves on the region, does genealogies and holds fundraisers for area charities, Chaney said.

He agrees that the flag has been misused by hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan, but detractors should go after racist organizations themselves instead of the flag, he said.

Also, soldiers who fought and died for the Confederacy deserve the same respect and remembrance as those from other wars, he said.

“Respect the soldier, they’re just like any other soldier in any other war,” Chaney said.

For Gwynn, she was ecstatic when she found records for her great-great-grandfather and his three brothers who fought for the Confederacy. She has 12 certificates documented and is working on four more, she said.

“The joy of all this is realizing what your ancestors went through,” Gwynn said. They had to leave home and they lost a lot during the war, she said. “You just realize what life was like then,” she said of conducting her genealogy and learning the history.

To join the UDC, women must be at least 16 years old and “lineal or collateral blood descendants of men and women who served honorably in the Army, Navy or Civil Service of the Confederate States of America, or gave material aid to the cause,” according to the UDC’s website. Lineal or collateral blood descendants of members or former members of the UDC are also eligible.

Growing up, Gwynn did not show much interest in history, she recalled. Today, the most exciting places for Gwynn are courthouses in Danville and Pittsylvania and Franklin counties, where she can find records on her ancestors.

A great-great grandfather wrote of his experiences at the Battle of Gettysburg, where he lost two brothers, Gwynn said. Those on the Northern side also suffered in the war, she said. “They went through just as much as we did, a lot of lives lost,” she said, referring to the Union side.

The UDC holds six meetings per year and has educational programs and speakers. The local UDC chapter has about 50 members. The organization overall has 18,802 members in the South — including 2,277 in Virginia, Gwynn said. The group offers scholarships, does charity work and donates to local organizations.

The organization has records of every local member in the Sutherlin Mansion on Main Street, Gwynn said.

Preserving history is important and many, including Gwynn’s ancestors, lost a lot in the war — husbands, fathers, brothers, Gwynn said.

“If you don’t know where you’ve been, you’re not going to know why things are happening now like they are and what the results could be,” Gwynn said.

Dianne McMahon, who lives in Mount Hermon, joined the UDC in September after researching her genealogy and finding out her great-grandfather, James Henry Hardy, was in the was in the 38th Virginia Division infantry in the Civil War. Another ancestor, Robert Thomas Hardy, was wounded in Gettysburg and had his foot amputated, McMahon said.

A great-great-grandfather, Ruben Ricketts, also fought in the 38th, she said.

McMahon recalled her mother talking about their ancestors in the war when McMahon was growing up in Mount Hermon.

“Heritage is just everything to me,” McMahon said.

She has a Civil War pistol, a trunk and an old lamp dating from the era.

Byrd, with the HPA, sees the South as subjugated by the United States since the war, “like Bulgaria, Lithuania and Ukraine” was by the Soviet Union during the Cold War in the 20th century.

“There never was a formal peace treaty between the two governments,” Byrd said. “I view it as an occupied country.”

The South is the best hope for the U.S., he said. Save the South and you save the United States, Byrd said.

“It’s [the South] a Christian nation, its philosophy is based on the Christian tradition,” he said. “That’s why the Bible Belt is in the South.”

“Maybe one day, we’ll get our independence back,” he added.

However, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee told his soldiers to go home and be good citizens following the South’s defeat, he said. The Confederates lost and, like gentlemen, “we try to be the best citizens we can,” Byrd said.

The HPA is a “civil rights organization” for Southerners that protects the South’s heritage when it comes under attack from “bigoted people that have a problem with Southerners,” Byrd said.

“People just don’t understand Southern people,” he said, adding that Southerners include blacks as well as whites.

There were blacks supportive of the Southern cause, which was states’ rights, Byrd said. A federal government is needed, but not one that overrules the rights of citizens of the states, he said.

Greg Eanes, a member of the SCV’s Fincastle Rifles Camp 1326 in the Roanoke area, said there are about 50,000 members in the SCV, UDC and Military Order of the Stars and Bars nationwide.

There is lot of tourist potential in Danville’s Southern history, he said. Of about $21.5 billion spent on tourism in Virginia in 2013, about $2 billion was Civil War tourism, Eanes said.

“Blue plus gray equals green,” he said, alluding to the respective colors of the uniforms of the Union and the Confederacy.

“Danville has a gold mine being the Last Capital of the Confederacy,” Eanes said.

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Crane reports for the Danville Register & Bee.

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