Are Confederate troops eligible for Veterans' Hall for Fame?

Three hall of fame nominations force the question to be raised.

Published February 8 2015
Updated February 8 2015

TAMPA — The Florida Legislature could become the newest battleground in a war that officially ended 150 years ago.

Lawmakers might have to decide if the men who fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War are eligible for entry into the state's Veterans' Hall of Fame.

The hall honors "those military veterans who, through their works and lives during or after military service, have made a significant contribution to the State of Florida," according to its website. The question the Legislature could have to answer is who exactly counts as a veteran.

That's because the governor and Cabinet members on Thursday tabled inducting the 2014 class into the hall to wait for "legislative clarification" on three nominees who fought for the Confederacy against the Union.

The Florida Veterans' Hall of Fame, established in 2013, is a wall in the state Capitol building in Tallahassee with plaques commemorating inductees. Six plaques, all from the inaugural class, currently hang on the wall.

Eight nominees for the 2014 class were selected by the Hall of Fame Council and sent to the Florida Department of Veterans' Affairs for review. But the department forwarded just five for approval, leaving the three Confederate veterans off the list.

David Lang, Samuel Pasco and Edward A. Perry all became distinguished Floridians after their service to the Confederacy. Perry served as Florida's governor from 1885 to 1889; Pasco was a U.S. senator from Florida and is Pasco County's namesake; and Lang helped found what is now the Florida National Guard.

Mike Prendergast, executive director of the Department of Veterans Affairs, told the governor and cabinet Thursday that the three don't qualify as "veterans" under Florida and federal law.

State law defines a veteran as anyone who served in the active military and who was discharged under honorable conditions. The federal government's definition is nearly identical: "The term 'veteran' means a person who served in the active military, naval, or air service, and who was discharged or released therefrom under conditions other than dishonorable," the law reads.

Furthermore, the term "Armed Forces" is defined by the federal government as being the "United States Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Coast Guard," as well as the reserves.

Prendergast told the governor and Cabinet that nothing in the applications filled out on behalf of the three men demonstrated service in the armed forces of the United States of America.

"No doubt that in their post-military career they were all distinguished," Veterans Affairs spokesman Steve Murray said in an interview Friday. "It is our opinion the three gentlemen who were submitted did not meet the criteria set forth by the Florida Veterans Hall of Fame Council, and by applicable federal and state laws defining veteran status."

But Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a state Cabinet member, disagreed. "If you're throwing these guys out on a technicality, that's just dumb," Putnam said at the meeting Thursday, held at the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa.

Florida became a state in 1845, when almost one-third of the 140,000 people in the state were slaves. South Carolina seceded from the Union in December 1860, and Florida followed suit in January 1861. A month later, seven states, including Florida, established the Confederate States of America, prompting the Civil War, or as many Southerners prefer to call it, the War Between the States.

Fighting ended in 1865, slavery was abolished and the nation slowly came back together. But even though the war is long over, history still resonates.

Two members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, an organization for those whose ancestors fought against the Union, were also in attendance at the Cabinet meeting to support Pasco, Lang and Perry.

"They were instrumental in establishing our state in the current form, to say the least," David McCallister, a Tampa-area attorney who was at the meeting, said by phone Friday. McCallister is the commander of the local camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Also, he said, there's precedent for defining Confederate fighters as U.S. veterans. They were ultimately granted pensions, almost 100 years after the war in a mostly symbolic gesture, and could be buried in Arlington National Cemetery, though in a special Confederate section.

The Cabinet on Thursday asked to see the applications for Pasco, Lang, and Perry and decided to hold off for further clarification on who qualifies for induction.

Regardless of what the state Legislature decides, Purdue University history professor Caroline Janney said all those who fought during the Civil War would have considered themselves American veterans.

Although, in the 21st century, there's certainly no consensus.

"I think this is indicative of how much the Civil War still permeates our identity and our national culture," Janney said, "that this would be a debate that's being had in a state-level Cabinet meeting."

Times staff writer Adam C. Smith and researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 226-3446 or jsolomon@tampabay.com. Follow @josh_solomon15.

   
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