HIGGINSVILLE, Mo. | Few would have noticed one less rebel battle flag here last weekend.
In the memorial ceremonies for the Jefferson Davis birthday, a sea of red and blue fluttered across the 837 graves of soldiers, guerrillas and their wives.
A half-dozen more ringed the copy of the Dying Lion of Lucerne, a marble ode to the Lost Cause.
But one was absent.
What was once the most controversial flag in Missouri could not be found in any glass display case inside the chapel.
When asked where it was, state parks workers headed for the basement. In a storage area near a water tank, a colored wad was spotted in a floor cubby — a U.S. flag.
“I’m sure this one is waiting to be burned,” said an embarrassed official, moving it off the floor.
On a shelf in another room were several boxes, including one with a handwritten note: “Confederate flag taken down ca. 2000.”
“The wrong date, a mistake,” said the official.
The rebel banner was the last to officially fly over the old bones interred here. A flap over a similar flag a half-continent away brought it down in January 2003.
Every four years, the rebel flag at the South Carolina State House had been a litmus test for presidential candidates in that state’s early primary.
In 2000, the flag shifted from over the dome to a Confederate war memorial on the Capitol grounds. But the state’s black citizens, Democrats mostly, wanted the hated symbol of bondage and racism gone.
In 2003, when Rep. Dick Gephardt ran for president, it was his turn to take the test. Take it down, answered the Missouri Democrat. Shouldn’t be flown “any time, anywhere.”
Of course, back in his home state, it was fluttering here at the cemetery, as well as at the Fort Davidson Historic Site near Pilot Knob — a fact Gephardt quickly learned from journalists.
Calls were made. The flags came down. Even the pole in the graveyard came down to eliminate temptation.
To critics, it all seemed to wave a white flag — to political correctness.
Why could not a Confederate flag honor Confederate dead at a Confederate cemetery? Think of history, they said. Remember tradition.
Except, newspaper articles from the last two centuries reported that only Old Glory flew over the grounds when this was a home for Confederate veterans. The rebel flag came out when the coffin of each was draped with it.
In 1950, after taps was played over the last old soldier, the Confederate Home of Missouri closed. Grass went unmowed. Buildings fell into disrepair.
Not until the early 1980s, when the state created a park and historical site, did the rebel flag whip in the Missouri breezes, this time beneath the national and state flags.
Rebel flag displays in other states have not been so innocent. The all-white South Carolina legislature defiantly raised theirs above the State House during the civil rights era.
Georgia decided — after the Brown v. Topeka desegregation case — that its new state flag should be the Confederate “Southern Cross” — the same Virginia battle flag often seen on bumpers, T-shirts and tattoos.
By 2003, that flag’s design was changed again to the less recognizable first Confederate flag known as the “Stars and Bars.”
Mississippi today has the only state flag incorporating the Southern Cross. Adopted in the late 19th century, nearly two-thirds voted to keep it in a 2001 referendum.
The rebel flag at Higginsville was never that kind of a political statement, said Kay Russell, who recently retired as the park’s interpretive resource specialist.
“When the flagpole was out in the cemetery, and we flew it over the veterans who were buried out there, I felt it was right.”
Time passed. Quietly, the policy softened.
“We have to ask special permission from the governor’s office whenever we want to fly the flag here, so that’s what we do,” said Dawson Heathman, with the Confederate Memorial Friends Association. “We jump through their hoops.”
The confederate flag’s removal was heartbreaking, he said. “They’re trying to change history.”