COLUMBIA — With a cigar in one hand and a rolled up Confederate flag in the other, Loren Waynes Reynolds, 72, marched across the damp, muddy ground of Columbia Cemetery with four other members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans on Friday.
The smell of cigars encircled the group of men, some of them wearing the Confederate battle flags on their clothing and one carrying an enlarged map of the cemetery.
For nine years members of the Col. James. J. Searcy Camp, a part of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, have been making rounds to every cemetery in Boone County before Memorial Day weekend to place the first official Confederate flag on the tombstones of Confederate soldiers.
Bill Berry, a member of the camp, started the idea of "flagging" for Confederate veterans in 2002. Reynolds, camp commander, now heads the annual event.
“We originally set out Confederate battle flags, but they were stolen,” camp member Will Stuart, 64, said. “We go to about 18 to 20 cemeteries, and they were stolen everywhere.”
The first official Confederate flag is similar to a traditional American flag. It shows a white stripe between two thick red stripes and a blue square in the upper left-hand corner featuring seven white stars in a circle.
“I fly one of these with 13 stars on it at my house, and my neighbors think it’s a colonial flag,” Stuart said, bending down to straighten out a flag that had been placed at a tombstone.
Currently the group visits more than 270 tombstones annually. They ensure that a flag is there to honor the veterans' service over Memorial Day weekend.
“There must be another 300 to 400 out there,” Reynolds said. “We are constantly finding new graves.”
Reynolds said the group finds a name and then searches for a death certificate and any other information that might be available on the veteran. He said the process was very extensive.
“I feel like Columbo sometimes,” Reynolds said, referring to the popular 1960s and 1970s detective TV character. “It gets to be an obsession.”
Because the men in The Searcy Camp have personal connections to the group, every one of them has a story to share that takes you back in time.
“There are 18 Confederate veterans in my family,” Stuart said. “There are letters from my family who owned slaves, but they were part of the family. They worked together, socialized together. They were born into having slaves.”
Stuart said there is nothing good about slavery and you can’t defend it. He wants to show people that there are more than two sides to what the Confederate soldiers were fighting for and that they are also veterans.
The group members said they believe Memorial Day has become a holiday focused on people currently serving when it should be about all who have served, past and present.
Eventually, Reynolds hopes to have a picture of each Confederate grave with its biographical information, including a birth certificate and death certificate, for each veteran on the group's website.
For now, the Confederate flags will wave in the wind during Memorial Day weekend. The Searcy Camp members said theydo not intend to offend anyone but only to share the stories of veterans who fought for what they believed in.