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Civil War museum closes after spat over Confederate flag

Peter Bonner, left, looks at a painting of Union soldiers as David Moody, right, tours what's left of the Nash Farm Battlefield Museum, a small Civil War museum closing in Hampton, Ga., Thursday, May 25, 2017. Against the backdrop of the removal of Confederate symbols from public spaces around the South, the closure of the small Civil War museum in Georgia has stirred up strong emotions. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

ATLANTA (AP) — This much everyone can agree on: A small Civil War museum, nestled in an old farmhouse at the site of a purported battlefield, has closed its doors and boxed up its Confederate and Union artifacts.

The leaders of a volunteer group that runs the Nash Farm Battlefield Museum said they preferred to close rather than fight a county commissioner’s request to remove all Confederate flags from the museum. But the commissioner says she never made such a request.

Whomever you believe, the closure has rankled residents as cities across the South — most recently New Orleans — wrestle with whether to remove Confederate symbols seen by some as vestiges of racism and others as icons of heritage. The issue has been especially sensitive since Dylann Roof, an avowed white supremacist who posed in photos with the Confederate flag, gunned down nine people at a South Carolina church in 2015.

The museum sat on a 204-acre, county-owned park that’s about 30 miles south of Atlanta in Hampton and is a popular spot for weddings and other events. The curator gave the final tour May 18, and nearly every artifact — most of them loaned by private owners — had been removed by Thursday.

“It was a wonderful museum and a great educational facility,” Henry County historian Gene Morris said. “It’s really a sad thing to see it gone.”

No official county action led to the museum’s closure, spokeswoman Melissa Robinson said. The county board of commissioners said in a statement Thursday that commissioners needed to explore the facts more thoroughly but that the closure has caused “much divisiveness and controversy.”

The museum was open Fridays and Saturdays and saw visitors from all 50 states and 15 countries in its seven-year run, said volunteer curator Bill Dodd.

“I think kids ought to have the ability to touch and hold history,” he said. “They learn more from touching it, feeling it, smelling it than they do from reading it in a book or looking at it on a stupid computer screen.”

While some dispute the site’s bona fides as a Civil War battlefield, archaeological excavation and extensive research have turned up convincing evidence it was part of a battle in August 1864, Morris said.

The park sits in the district of Commissioner Dee Clemmons, who was elected in November. Board members of the Friends of Nash Farm Battlefield Inc., the group that ran the museum, said she’s been chipping away at the site since taking office.

First, Clemmons asked to remove an entrenchment replica built by a group that does re-enactments, said Jimmy Pettitt, president of the Nash Farm group. Then, in March, she had the county parks department remove a Confederate flag that flew on the parade field.

Earlier this month, while attending an event at the museum, Clemmons cornered board members and demanded all Confederate flags be removed from the museum, Pettitt said.

But that would have left only Union flags, Pettitt said: “How can you tell the story without both?”

In an emotional meeting that drew tears from just about everyone present, Pettitt said, the group’s board decided to close the museum.

“You get tired of fighting with politics and you get tired of fighting with other people,” he said.

The group has decided to focus on preserving the battlefield, Pettitt said.

Clemmons said she only asked to remove Confederate flags in the windows of the museum bookstore that could be seen from outside.

“I’m very surprised that they didn’t come to me and sit down and talk to me because that’s the relationship that I thought we had built,” she said.

She declined in a phone conversation Thursday to answer further questions, saying the county attorney had told her to stop talking. She referred an Associated Press reporter to a video “showing the type of support that I have been trying to push for this park.”

The video, which appears to be a fundraising pitch, suggests developing the Nash Farm park into an “agricultural green space for school field trips and family outings.” The plans include educational programs, music and storytelling events, as well as hiking and horseback trails.

The video doesn’t mention that the site is believed to be a Civil War battlefield. In a March 16 email obtained by the Henry Herald newspaper, Clemmons wrote to her fellow commissioners and said of the outdoor Confederate flag: “this flag has no historical relevance to the undocumented battlefield.”

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