Gov. Rick Scott and Cabinet refuse to honor Confederate war heroes

Florida Gov. Rick Scott delivers his state of the state speech on the opening day to a joint session of the legislature on Tuesday, March 3, 2015, in Tallahassee, Fla.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott delivers his state of the state speech on the opening day to a joint session of the legislature on Tuesday, March 3, 2015, in Tallahassee, Fla. AP

In an emotional clash between race and Southern heritage, Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet on Tuesday refused to honor three prominent Floridians who were Confederate heroes during the Civil War.

The trio included a former governor, Edward Perry; Florida’s first adjutant general, David Lang; and Samuel Pasco, a Harvard-educated prisoner of war and U.S. senator for whom Pasco County is named.

A Florida NAACP leader, Dale Landry, told Scott and the Cabinet that if they honored the three, “You might as well also fly the Confederate flag over the state Capitol again.” One Cabinet member, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, made an unsuccessful bid to include Lang, saying he “helped bind up the wounds” after the Civil War.

All three men had been chosen by a nominating council of seven volunteers to be members of the 2014 class of the Florida Veterans Hall of Fame. They were denied recognition not because of politics but on narrow legal grounds, which only infuriated their supporters more.

The executive director of the state Department of Veterans Affairs, Mike Prendergast, rejected all three for failing to comply with a requirement to have an honorable discharge from the U.S. armed forces, which he said does not include the Confederate States of America.

“The law has been misinterpreted,” Graham Smith of the Sons of Confederate Veterans told Scott and the Cabinet. “By scrubbing this list, (Prendergast) performed your jobs.”

David Lang, great-grandson of the former adjutant general, told Scott and the Cabinet that his namesake was a unique case and deserved recognition.

Lang led the Florida Brigade at Gettysburg, but after the Civil War ended, he was appointed adjutant general by the governor, placing him in charge of Florida National Guard troops from 1885 to 1894.

“Yes, David Lang had been a Confederate Army officer, as had the other two nominees,” Lang said, “and all served honorably.”

Former Gov. Perry led Florida’s forces at the Battle of Chancellorsville. Pasco was wounded at the Battle of Missionary Ridge and became a prisoner of war.

Lang said his great-grandfather should be honored because he was an active member of the post-Civil War military. But Prendergast said Lang did not qualify because national guard troops are not considered veterans by law unless they are activated by presidential order.

Agriculture Commissioner Putnam’s proposal to include Lang failed to get a majority of votes, and Scott opposed the idea, saying he did not know enough about Lang.

The NAACP’s Landry said it would be a travesty for Florida to honor Confederate soldiers.

“These three men fought against the Union, and they symbolize a dark time in America’s and our state’s history — a period full of hatred and slavery,” Landry testified. “These men took up arms against the United States of America.”

Tuesday’s debate unfolded shortly after Scott and the Cabinet presented Governor’s Veteran Service awards to 28 veterans -- including Lang, Landry and six state legislators.

As Landry spoke, more than a dozen visiting members of Delta Sigma Theta, an African-American sorority, nodded in agreement and voiced their support.

After the vote, Landry said he was glad about the result, but remained concerned because of statements by Cabinet members that they want the law changed so that Confederate soldiers can be considered for honors in the future.

“That can be fixed,” Attorney General Pam Bondi said.

Putnam, who’s considering a run for governor in 2018, has been the most vocal supporter of honoring the Confederate soldiers. At a Feb. 5 Cabinet meeting in Tampa, Putnam criticized Prendergast and his general counsel, telling them: “I think you all screwed this up.”

On Tuesday, a visibly angry Putnam cited minutes of a nominating council meeting from last June, noted that a Prendergast deputy and attorney David Herman were present but did not challenge the nominations.

“Why didn’t you all speak up then?” Putnam asked.

Standing his ground, Prendergast told Putnam: “That’s not a statement of fact… The hall of fame council had ignored its own published guidelines.”

Prendergast said he alerted Cabinet members to the problem in writing last August.

Scott and the Cabinet did approve the five other members of the Florida Veterans’ Hall of Fame Class of 2014.

They are the late LeRoy Collins Jr. of Tampa, a rear admiral in the U.S. Naval Reserve and son of former Gov. LeRoy Collins; retired Marine Lt. Gen. Lawrence Snowden, the highest ranking survivor of the Battle of Iwo Jima during World War II; retired Army Maj. Gen. James Dozier; retired Army Col. Frank Farmer, a former state surgeon general; and Chief Master Sgt. Eugene Cecil Johnson, the first enlisted member and African-American in the hall of fame group.

The Confederate flag — a symbol of Southern valor to some and of bigotry to others — flew atop the Florida Capitol from 1978 until former Gov. Jeb Bush quietly ordered it removed in 2001, soon after Georgia and South Carolina did the same.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com. Follow @stevebousquet.