CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (CN) – Beyond the padlocked entrance, on a rise in a Confederate cemetery in Chattanooga, Tennessee, sits an obelisk that reads “Our Confederate Dead.” Brown, dead leaves cover the ground. Nearby, the epitaph on the faded tombstone of Confederate veteran Burrus Miller, who died in 1904, reads in slanted letters, “To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die.”
This is the site of one of the latest developments in the national debate about Confederate monuments and their place in modern society.
In August, the city of Chattanooga first announced it would file court papers to remove itself as a trustee of the Chattanooga Confederate Cemetery on East Third Street.
A week before, a man stopped protesting with a white nationalist group at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., got into his Dodge Challenger and accelerated into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing one and injuring 19. The suspect, James Fields Jr., of Maumee, Ohio, has been charged with second-degree murder for the death of 32-year-old Heather Heyer.
In the wake of Charlottesville, Southern cities and towns were left grappling with whether to remove the monuments to the Confederacy in their public spaces.
Birmingham challenged a state law that prohibited it from covering up an obelisk to Confederate sailors and soldiers. Baltimore hoisted its twin statues of Confederate Generals Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and Robert E. Lee into a flatbed early one morning.
But Chattanooga took a different course. On Feb. 2, the city filed a joint petition with the Sons of Confederate Veterans in Hamilton County Chancery Court seeking a judgment removing it as a trustee of the local Confederate cemetery. The petition asks that a trust created by the Sons of Confederate Veterans maintain the land instead.
Announcing the move in August, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke said in a statement, “Our action today makes it clear that the city of Chattanooga condemns white supremacy in every way, shape and form. While we honor our dead, we do not honor the principle for which they fought.”
“Our city should be invested in our future, not a discredited past,” Berke continued. “Confederates fought against America to preserve slavery. That is the truth, and we should no longer subsidize any myths to the contrary.”
The ridges and fields around Chattanooga were the grounds for some of the bloodiest fighting of the Civil War. In the fall of 1863, the Union Army retreated into the city after its loss at Chickamauga 10 miles away. When it broke the Confederate Army’s siege, it set the stage for Union General William T. Sherman’s scorched-earth march across Georgia.
Many of the Confederate soldiers buried in the Chattanooga cemetery died at a nearby hospital during a period of January to September 1863, according to a plaque there. Other remains were relocated years later after workers uncovered bodies while creating roads and buildings in the surrounding area.
Neither the city nor the NAACP of Chattanooga responded to multiple requests for comment on the issue of the local cemetery.
But Scott Hall, judge advocate-in-chief for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said in an email that graves are sacred and protected by law. Honoring Confederate soldiers who fought for their homes is just like honoring veterans of Afghanistan and other wars, he said.