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In defense of his Confederate pride

Nelson Winbush is intent on defending the flag of his grandfather. It's just surprising which flag that is.

By STEPHANIE GARRY, Times Staff Writer
Published October 7, 2007


KISSIMMEE -- Nelson Winbush rotates a miniature flag holder he keeps on his mantel, imagining how the banners would appear in a Civil War battle.

The Stars and Bars, he explains, looked too much like the Union flag to prevent friendly fire. The Confederacy responded by fashioning the distinctive Southern Cross -- better known as the rebel flag.

Winbush, 78, is a retired assistant principal with a master's degree, a thoughtful man whose world view developed from listening to his grandfather's stories about serving the South in the "War Between the States."

His grandfather's casket was draped with a Confederate flag. His mother pounded out her Confederate heritage on a typewriter. He wears a rebel flag pinned to the collar of his polo shirt.

Winbush is also black.

"You've never seen nothing like me, have you?"

* * *

Winbush's nondescript white brick house near Kissimmee's quaint downtown is cluttered with the mess of a life spent hoarding history.

Under the glass of his coffee table lie family photos, all of smiling black people. On top sits Ebony magazine.

Winbush is retired and a widower who keeps a strict schedule of household chores, family visits and Confederate events. He often eats at Fat Boy's Barbecue, where his Sons of Confederate Veterans camp meets.

Winbush's words could come from the mouth of any white son of a Confederate veteran. They subscribe to a sort of religion about the war, a different version than mainstream America.

The tenets, repeated endlessly by loyalists:

The war was not about slavery. The South had the constitutional right to secede. Confederate soldiers were battling for their homes and their families. President Lincoln was a despot. Most importantly, the victors write the history.

But Winbush has a conceptual canyon to bridge: How can a black man defend a movement that sought to keep his people enslaved?

* * *

Winbush is one of at most a handful of black members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans in the country. He knows skeptics question his story and his sanity.

To win them over, he pulls out his grandfather's pension papers, reunion photos and obituary. He also gives speeches, mostly before white audiences.

Winbush believes the South seceded because the federal government taxed it disproportionately. It was a matter of states' rights, not slavery, which was going extinct as the United States became more industrialized, he says. He denies that President Lincoln freed the slaves, explaining that the Emancipation Proclamation affected only the Confederate states, which were no longer under his authority.

"It was an exercise in rhetoric, that's all," Winbush says.

His views run counter to many historical accounts. Rev. Nelson B. Rivers III, the field operations chief for the NAACP, called Winbush's arguments illogical. Rivers spoke with Winbush by telephone a few years ago, intrigued by his position. Rivers remembers him being loud and sincere, holding fast to his convictions.

"I was courteous and respectful and respectfully disagreed with him," Rivers said. "This is America. He has a right to believe what he wants to."

At one speech, Winbush stood in front of the square battle flag that draped his grandfather's coffin, retelling the stories he has told so many times that the words emerge in identical iterations.

At the end of his talk, he held the microphone to a stereo and played a song by the Rebelaires, with a sorrowful, bluesy rhythm: "You may not believe me, but things was just that way. Black is nothing other than a darker shade of rebel gray."

Once other Confederates recognize that his story is real, they love him. Opponents often attack white Confederates as ignorant or racist. Winbush is harder to dismiss. If nothing else, the naysayers are more willing to listen.

"It kinda wipes out the whole segregation and hate and racism issue," said Christopher Hall, 29, commander of Winbush's SCV camp. "Coming from him, that really can't be an argument."

* * *

Winbush's views were once more widespread, even in the land of theme parks and turnpikes.

Florida was the third state to secede. Its Civil War governor, John Milton, shot himself rather than rejoin the North, telling the Legislature, "Death would be preferable to reunion." Former Gov. Lawton Chiles defended the Confederate flag in 1996 when black lawmakers asked for its removal from the Capitol.

"You can't erase history," Chiles said at the time.

But now neo-Confederates are losing this second war of culture and memory.

Confederate flags are coming down, especially from the tops of Southern statehouses, including Florida's in 2001.

The agrarian Bible Belt has become the Sun Belt, full of northerners with few deep roots in the area. Identification with the South as a region has declined since the World War II era, which united the country with patriotism and the interstate system. Areas of South Florida, for instance, are known better as the sixth borough of New York than part of the Deep South.

High school teachers don't preach the righteousness of the South. And historians, for the most part, agree that the Civil War was about slavery, undermining the standard neo-Confederate argument.

But Confederate loyalists are digging in. Winbush considers the South his homeland. And his family history, because it's rarer than that of white Confederates, is in danger of extinction.

* * *

Slowly, in his deep, rough voice, Winbush tells the story of a young slave from a Tennessee plantation named Louis Napoleon Nelson, who went to war as a teenager with the sons of his master.

"They grew up together," Winbush says.

At first his grandfather cooked and looked out for the others, but later he saw action, fighting with a rifle under the command of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, a slave trader and plantation owner.

At Shiloh, a two-day battle in 1862 in which more than 23,000 American men were killed or wounded, the Confederate Army needed a chaplain. Louis Nelson couldn't read or write, but he had memorized the King James Bible.

He stayed on as chaplain for the next four campaigns, leading services for both Confederate and Union soldiers, before they headed back to the battlefield.

He also foraged for food. One time, he killed a mule, cut out a quarter and hauled it back to his comrades.

"When you don't have anything else, mule meat tastes pretty good," he would tell his grandson.

Some topics even the loquacious grandfather considered off limits. He wouldn't talk about the Union siege of Vicksburg, a bloody battle that captured an important Mississippi River port and effectively split the South.

After the war, he lived as a free man on the James Oldham plantation for 12 more years. Then he became a plasterer, traveling the South to work on houses.

Over the years, he went to 39 Confederate reunions, wearing a woolly gray uniform that Winbush still has.In photos, he stands next to two white men who accompanied him to soldiers' reunions until they were old men. Through the sepia gleams a dignity earned on the battlefield.

"When he came back, that was storytelling time," Winbush says.

His grandfather died in 1934 at the age of 88. The local paper ran an obituary that called him a "darky." Winbush is proud that his grandfather's death was marked at all.

* * *

Winbush grew up in the house his grandfather built in 1908, a two-story yellow structure with a wraparound porch in Ripley, Tenn. The Oldham plantation, where his grandfather was a slave, provided the wood in recognition of his loyalty to the family.

Winbush and his siblings lived in a family of educators. His grandmother and mother were teachers. He says he first went to school as a baby in a basket.

All three children went to college. Winbush studied biology in hopes of becoming a doctor but didn't have enough money for medical school. He switched to studying physical education.

Winbush moved to Florida in 1955, a year after the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education decision mandated school desegregation. Like many around the country, Osceola County schools remained segregated for several more years.

He didn't mind the divide because he felt both black and white students got a better education by not being able to use racial conflict as an excuse. When the superintendent, a friend of his, decided it was time to integrate in the late 1960s, Winbush agreed. The time had come, he thought, when people could accept the change.

Winbush thinks that people will get along if they know each other. He says he never suffered any blatant racism. The small Southern towns he lived in were familiar and accepting.

He remembers the "I Have A Dream" speech that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. He respects King but disagrees with his reverence for Lincoln.

Winbush wasn't moved by the speech. King was just speaking the truth, he says, but it didn't change the daily reality of blacks.

* * *

Winbush's convictions about the war lay dormant until 1991, when the NAACP began an all-out campaign against the Confederate flag, saying it was a symbol of hatred. It vowed to have it removed from public places by the end of the decade.

Winbush saw it differently, and he was retiring. He no longer worried about what some "Yankee boss" would think.

"I got fed up about all this politically correct mess," he says.

He joined the Sons and started speaking at their events. He twice appeared before the Virginia Legislature to dissuade them from taking down the flag. He collects clippings of newspaper stories written about his speeches. One shows him posing in front of a statute of Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Winbush acknowledges that misuse of the Confederate flag has made it a symbol of hate in some people's eyes. But he says the American flag is just as racist. Troops of color are sent to die disproportionately in American wars, he says, and the Stars and Stripes flew above slave ships.

Rivers, the NAACP official, said people like Winbush need to let go of their family history and admit that all people, even those now dead, are imperfect.

"Just because your grandfather was wrong does not mean you can't break the generational curse and not be wrong too," he says.

* * *

Winbush is the last direct link to his grandfather, someone who heard the stories firsthand and felt the passion.

He feels the legacy of Confederate soldiers like his grandfather won't survive unless the history is passed within families, from one generation to the next.

But it's not easy. Even Winbush's son, a Naval Academy graduate who works for IBM, once suggested Winbush donate his Confederate collection to a museum.

"This is the only way some people will find out what did happen," he said. "The history books leave it out."

Winbush knows he won't be around forever. He only hopes that someone will continue to tell the stories.

Times researchers Carolyn Edds and John Martin contributed to this report. Stephanie Garry can be reached at sgarry@sptimes.com.