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Confederate camp's split is civil

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 12:13 PM
TAMPA -

The Tampa camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans is dealing with a secession of its own.

The Gen. Jubal A. Early Camp No. 556 was chartered nine years ago and had boasted more than 100 members. But earlier this year, about a dozen Sons, unhappy with the group's direction, created their own confederacy, the Judah P. Benjamin Camp No. 2210.

"We just differed in our philosophy," said Early Camp Commander Mike Herring. "They left and I think they're doing great. We lost a few members, but we've made them up. We're moving on and we wish them well."

Both groups fiercely defend their Southern heritage and seek to honor their ancestors' actions on the battlefield, but that may be where the similarities end.

Early Camp members still march in parades, make some public appearances and participate in memorials and Civil war re-enactments from Crystal River to Tampa. Much of the focus, though, is on charity work with its "mechanized cavalry" of motorcyclists who do poker runs and toy collections for worthy causes and needy families.

The Benjamin Camp aims for a higher profile and stages public appearances and events heavy on pomp, circumstance and guest speakers. The group's leaders say a main goal is to preserve historical sites around the Tampa area and show them off to the public with an educational slant.

Another difference: The Early Camp ended its close relationship with the local United Daughters of the Confederacy chapter, which was chartered at the same time. The Benjamin Camp welcomed the women into their fold.

The Early Camp might be mostly closely associated with the huge Confederate battle flag that flies over U.S. 92, visible by motorists on Interstates 4 and 75, and the granite informational memorial at its base. The group continues to maintain the memorial site.

The Benjamin Camp is still allowed to use the site for memorials and ceremonies, but now claims Marion Lambert, owner of the land on which the memorial sits, as one of its members.

Lambert is a charter member the Early Camp and spearheaded the flag effort. He left the Early Camp in April and joined the Benjamin Camp.

David McCallister, commander of the Benjamin Camp, said the two factions resemble the personalities of their namesakes.

"Early was a general who was not everybody's best friend," he said. "He was hard to get along with. He was cantankerous."

Early's army was defeated a month before Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Va. Early never surrendered and even though he eventually was pardoned by President Andrew Johnson, the terse rebel general refused to take the oath of allegiance.

"Benjamin was a diplomat," McCallister said. "He was Jefferson Davis' Attorney General, a U.S. senator and an accomplished orator. He was secretary of war and is better known as secretary of state."

The reasons for the split in the local camps depend on who's talking. Both camps subscribe to "The Charge," a mandate issued at the turn of the 20th Century when the Sons of Confederate Veterans was formed. It says camps are to uphold Southern heritage and remind the public about the honor of the Confederate soldiers.

But each camp interprets that mandate differently, McCallister said.

He said a faction within the Early Camp wanted to move toward more public education and historical preservation and were frustrated with resistance to that idea.

"It was a painful period at that point," McCallister said. "Some … were considered discontents to say the least."

The Benjamin Camp has grown to 22 members, including the core of 12 who came from the Early Camp in April.

"If you don't like the way things are going in a club, you just leave," McCallister said. "But we both still want to raise the public conscious that our ancestors were honorable men."

He said he doubted there would be a reunification.

"We've just gone in separate directions," he said. "We're just a little more interested in the historical and educational aspects for our own members and dealing with outside public."

It's not unusual for SCV camps to split, said John Adams, spokesman for the Florida Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

"One of the best ways to advance in rank is to start your own camp," Adams said. "The founders of a new camp are energized, excited and motivated to recruit and build their camp.''

Herring smoothed over any animosity between the two camps, even though Benjamin made off with some of his members. The camps both get funding through members' dues and donations, so the fewer members there are, the less money there is.

Recruitment is an ongoing struggle with both camps, he said, and getting out, marching in parades and stirring interest in history helps draw new members.

The overriding theme is history, not politics, though politics occasionally does force itself into the picture, Herring said. You can't fly a Confederate flag without some people complaining, he said.

To offset that, the Early Camp strives to do charity work as well as providing historical perspective. Herring said the camp's "mechanized cavalry" focuses mostly on charity work, and McCallister agreed.

"They do good service projects, like Toys For Tots," McCallister said. "It's not an image I would prefer for the SCV, though it's not a bad image."

The Benjamin Camp is aiming to boost its profile, McCallister said, and already has put its battle plan into action, with members serving on the Tampa Bay Sesquicentennial Commission, of which McCallister is president.

The commission's function is to observe the events of the 150th anniversaries of the Civil War as they come around. Last fall featured a re-enactment of the mustering of Tampa's Confederate Sunny South Guard; over the summer, the commission staged a re-enactment of the 150th anniversary of the shelling of downtown by a Union gunboat.

A re-enactment of the Union raid on Tampa that burned a Confederate blockade runner in the Hillsborough River near Lowry Park is planned for this fall.

Through those events, the commission joined forces with the Downtown Tampa Partnership, which offers, among other things, educational tours of the area. The partnership enlisted the commission to come up with locales that were significant during the Civil War for mention during tours.

The commission also has sought grants to promote historical preservation and tourism in Tampa and is working on establishing walking and driving tours throughout the city highlighting Civil War-significant locations.

McCallister said both groups are achieving the ultimate goal of "The Charge" but in different ways.

"I don't want to say we are rivals," he said. "We do boost each other and kind of work together. It's a friendly rivalry."


kmorelli@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7760

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