April 18, 2004
CHARLESTON — There were so many people, yet it was still a ghost town.
Here they came to the favorite hiding place of ghosts, a Southern cemetery. They came in weary formation, all these thousands who had marched more than four miles on this 80-degree day. The men wore gray wool and the women wore black veils.
So many marched that it took more than an hour for the last of them to make the right turn into Magnolia Cemetery, where spectators walked dogs wrapped in Confederate flags, and a brass band practiced “Dixie.”
The program handed out at the gate gave the official reason everyone was here: the funeral for the eight men who died 140 years ago on the submarine called the Hunley.
But that’s not why.
They came not for a burial, but for a revival, keeping alive the most elusive kind of ghost: one that never existed.
This is the ghost of the Polite Confederacy, the place where men battled oppression and stood up for principle, instead of the place that fought a war over the right to own other human beings.
The believers in the Polite Confederacy can almost pull it off. If all you knew of them was what you saw Saturday, you’d invite the whole lot for supper.
Dave Hackel of Titusville, Fla., wore a gray Confederate uniform with two special accessories. One was a black armband for the Hunley crew. The other was a blue strip of cloth strung through a buttonhole for his oldest son, who died last year of bacterial meningitis.
Dave was there with several family members, including cousin Carlton Hackle. (Different branches of the family spell the name different ways.)
They were as nice as they could be, and they spoke with firm belief in every word.
“The Civil War wasn’t about slavery, of course,” Carlton said. “It was about taxes. People need to know that.”
“I’m proud to be here because of what our heritage stands for,” Dave said. “We stand for looking at everybody without regard to the color of their skin. We’re proud of all the changes that have come to America because of our legacy.”
Because of the legacy.
Not in spite of.
It was a long day. From the first speaker to the last note of taps, with the marching in between, the ceremony took six hours.
There were two services, first at White Point Gardens in the Battery and then at the cemetery, and with all the people who rose to speak there was barely a mention of the Civil War, much less why it was fought.
The Rev. James Parker, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, made a passing reference to growing up in Charleston: “I also learned well the historically accurate cause of the war.” But that was all he said about it.
Everybody else focused on the who and the what. They described the Hunley men as brave sailors who defended Charleston and opened the world to new technology.
Every word of that is true. The Hunley sank the Union ship Housatonic, becoming the first submarine to sink an enemy ship. And the more you know about the Hunley — how 13 members of the first two crews had drowned, how cramped it was inside that little tube — the more you understand the courage of the crewmen.
They became a perfect mystery — after sinking the Housatonic, the submarine never came home. No one knows why. It lay in the silt of the Atlantic for more than a century, undiscovered until 1995, raised to the surface in 2000, so well-preserved that scientists could make models of the crewmen’s faces.
Time and again the speakers read off the names: George E. Dixon, Arnold Becker, C. Lumpkin, Frank G. Collins, J.F. Carlsen, J. Miller, James A. Wicks, Joseph Ridgaway. (Some accounts have Lumpkin’s name spelled differently.)
Their names are now part of history.
But there are other names.
On Friday a man named Walter Rhett sat in Tommy Condon’s pub downtown and pulled out the clippings. Rhett bills himself as black and Southern and proud of both. He is a Charleston tour guide whose family here goes back six generations.
Rhett has found the record of what he believes is the last slave auction of children ever held in Charleston. It happened Jan. 19, 1865, not quite a year after the Hunley vanished. That day, 33 slaves were sold in two lots at the corner of King and Ann streets. Nine were children.
Six of them were Myrah, Dolly, Rose, John, Benjamin and Thomas. The others were listed as a girl of 10, a girl of 3 and an infant baby of 1. History has misplaced any record of what they looked like, who bought them, where they went and when they died.
Rhett has started an annual memorial for the children. He calls them the Charleston 9. This year’s service, in February, was the second one. It drew 69 people.
Saturday’s memorial drew more than 30,000.
“I don’t have a fight with the Confederates,” Rhett says. “All these people coming down here is good for Charleston. But I hear a lot about courage and valor. Courage and valor is not enough. It has to come with vision. The vision is not whole. And it can’t be made whole until everybody stands up and tells the truth. This is not about guilt. It’s about grace.”
Charleston is the place where the ghosts swirl around the most. The old part of the city creaks with history: the sight of the ancient open-air market, the sound of carriages pulled through the streets, the smell of beer and horse urine blending in the storm drain.
Some people wore T-shirts Saturday that called the Hunley burial the “Last Act of the Civil War.”
But even they must have known it’s not true. The war will never die, not until everyone who believes so deeply in the Polite Confederacy can square the Hunley 8 with the Charleston 9.
Until then, the ghosts will do what ghosts do best:
Reprinted with permission of the Charlotte Observer