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.
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.”
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.
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.
[Booker] 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.”