CHESTER, Va. (AP) - Hundreds gathered Saturday in freshly cleared woods along Interstate 95 to celebrate the raising of a Confederate battle flag, an event that stirred strong opposition from those who view the flag as a symbol of division.
Those who attended the raising of the 15-by-15-foot flag from the Army of Northern Virginia said the ceremony was not intended to offend, but to honor the South's war dead in the Civil War.
"The reason why we're here is to honor the soldier," said James Thompson, 50, a North Carolinian now living in Richmond. "We don't see it as a slavery issue."
Like many who attended, Thompson said his ancestors fought for the South. A Civil War re-enactor, he wore a slouch hat and a rough wool uniform and carried an Enfield rifle.
Since a heritage group, the Virginia Flaggers, announced earlier this summer that a flag would rise along the heavily traveled interstate, many residents of Richmond about 10 miles north up the highway have protested, saying the banner is a symbol of slavery and bigotry. The opponents gathered nearly 25,000 signatures for on an online protest petition, and have encouraged residents of the former capital of the Confederacy to display American flags outside their homes and to flood social media with images of the stars and stripes. An American flag approximately 60 feet wide was unfurled at a construction site in downtown Richmond about noon Saturday.
Brian Cannon, a Richmond attorney who was among the organizers of a social media protest over the I-95 flag, said the city already has many memorials to the Confederate cause. He cited statues honoring Southern military leaders such as Robert E. Lee and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, along Monument Avenue, one of the most coveted addresses in the city.
"Their flag is out of context," he said. "It's a symbol of divisiveness and for many it's hateful."
The Confederate flag-raising was held in a circular section of woods that had been cleared recently, with branches and limbs pushed to the side. The private land was donated for the purpose of permanently flying the flag near a highway where it can be viewed by tens of thousands of people daily. From the highway, the bright red and blue of the flag's stars and bars can be seen through a thin canopy of trees.
No protesters could be seen at the ceremony, although a large number of police vehicles were at the scene. The location of the ceremony was withheld until late Friday.
Folding chairs were assembled in the dirt before a podium where a prayer was said, a historian spoke and speakers offered fiery oratory about what they said were efforts to silence their history. A rendition of "Dixie" was sung and a bagpiper played "Amazing Grace." Small Confederate flags were handed out and water was distributed in bottles with the name "Dixie Pride."
Susan Hathaway, a member of the Virginia flaggers, told the crowd Confederate symbols are being snuffed out and they have a duty to responded when the South's "honor is attacked."
"As sons and daughters of the South, we have inherited a birthright. Ours is a proud heritage," she said. "We are descendants of Confederates, we are friends of Confederates. ... The flag that is being raised today will be a living, breathing memorial to our Confederate dead."
Thomas Morris, a re-enactor from Crewe, said he couldn't understand objections to the memorial.
"We wouldn't make comments like that if they were trying to memorialize their heritage," said Morris, 59. He said a 16-year-old ancestor serving under Jackson was killed in Culpeper in what he called "the war of Northern aggression."
As the flag was unfurled and hoisted up a pole said to be 50 feet, it was greeted by hoots and hollers and more than a few rebel yells. A volley of rifle fire sounded as the flag fluttered lightly in the wind.
One-hundred-fifty years after the Civil War, the Confederate flag still evokes strong emotions in the South.
Lexington, rich in Civil War history, banned the flag on city light poles after some residents complained about the display. In 1999, the NAACP launched an economic boycott of South Carolina over the Confederate flags that flew atop the Statehouse dome and in the chambers of the House and Senate. A compromise in 2000 moved the flag to a monument outside the Statehouse.
Earlier this year, a Confederate battle flag that hung inside the old North Carolina State Capitol to mark the sesquicentennial of the Civil War was taken down after civil rights leaders raised concerns.