The proud lieutenant commander of the Smithfield Light Infantry of the Sons of Confederate Veterans is John M. Booker, a burly retired veterinarian with a trove of Civil War books and an abiding fascination with all things Confederate.
Since 2006, Booker has devoted himself to erecting a statue of Joseph E. Johnston, the last Confederate general to mount an effective fight against Union forces. Johnston ultimately surrendered to Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman after the pivotal Battle of Bentonville, fought in March 1865 on a site a few miles from Booker’s white-columned Greek Revival home.
In an era when public enthusiasm for Confederate memorials has waned, Booker and the 24 fellow members of the Smithfield Light Infantry want to honor Johnston and the soldiers who fought and died under him. The camp -- as such units are called -- erects tombstones on Confederate graves, cleans up Confederate cemeteries and attends historical lectures.
The group, however, wants Johnston’s statue displayed on its terms, and that has created friction with the state-owned battlefield site a few hundred yards away.
“Let me put it this way: We don’t have their cooperation,” Booker said, stomping across the sandy soil of a soybean field around the statue, which was to be unveiled Saturday.
Booker’s camp refused to submit to the state’s vetting process for historical memorials. Instead, it erected the statue on a sliver of farmland donated by a transplanted New Yorker with an interest in Confederate lore. Booker spearheaded a fund drive that he said raised $94,500 for the statue.
The farmland is part of the 6,000-acre battlefield, but outside the state-run historic site.
The state responded by erecting a low fence between the statue and the official state-run visitor center. Next to the fence are three new signs noting the state property boundary just a few strides from the general’s likeness.
The statue depicts Johnston with his left arm raised. It’s a call for his troops to hold the line against Yankee forces, Booker said. “And,” he added, “to hold the line against political correctness.”
Political correctness, in Booker’s view, has recast Confederate symbols and distorted history. “These days, political correctness means a lot of things aren’t mentioned or aren’t defended in the proper way,” he said. “But that will not happen in this case, I assure you.”
Booker pointed out that the plaque at the foot of the statue did not require anyone’s approval. It reads: “Defender of the Southland to the End.”
Nor was approval required for the 5-by-8-foot Confederate battle flag the camp intends to fly on a 30-foot pole next to the statue. The flag is a tribute to the troops who fought under it, Booker said.
He said his camp has persistently denounced what he calls “these racist groups that fly that flag for all the wrong reasons. That’s not what we’re all about.” He added: “We want to teach history exactly as it happened. And that’s the type of flag that flew on this battlefield.”
Donny Taylor, site manager of the Bentonville Battlefield State Historic Site, said the statue probably would have been approved for the site if Booker’s camp had submitted a proposal.
Taylor said the fence and signs were erected so that hundreds of volunteers participating in an upcoming recreation of the battle wouldn’t wander onto private property.
To critics, commemorating the Confederacy represents an unhealthy obsession with a racist past. But to men like Booker, whose family has lived in North Carolina for generations, it builds bonds and cements friendships through studying and honoring local history.
“I can’t blame black people for getting upset” at the Confederacy’s embrace of slavery, Booker said. But he added, “The majority of Confederate soldiers were not slave owners.”
He avoids matters of race and slavery by simply saying that Confederate soldiers “fought and died for their cause -- they believed the Southland had been invaded.”