Fort Myers, Florida (News-Press) -- Though most 2014 calendars list May 26 as Memorial Day, many Southwest Floridians observe another day of remembrance a month earlier: Confederate Memorial Day.
It may have a lower profile, but it is indeed an official Florida holiday, as it is in 10 other southern states.
In 2006, the Lee County Commission made it official with a resolution that read, in part:
"Whereas: April is the month in which the Confederate States of America began and ended their four year struggle for sovereignty and independence (and) Florida joined the Confederate States of America and contributed more soldiers and sailors than any other state in proportion to its population...It is necessary to honor this part of our past to draw from it the courage, wisdom and strength demonstrated by those who lived through that era and endured its hardship so that we may go forward with other Americans in a spirit of brotherhood, unity and reconciliation for a better tomorrow..."
Fort Myers veteran Robert Gates takes those words very seriously.
That's why he'll be joining fellow members of the Major W M Footman Camp 1950 of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the Fort Myers United Daughters of the Confederacy. Sons of Confederate Veterans and United Daughters of the Confederacy in the old Buckingham Cemetery.
Though the nonprofits maintain Confederate graves and monuments throughout the region, they've given special attention to the Buckingham Cemetery. In recent months, they've added a flagpole, planted flowers and installed a 385-pound, 4-foot-tall statue of a Confederate soldier.
Dubbed Sgt. Franklin, it stands watch over the 11 Confederate veterans buried under the cemetery's ancient oaks.
A Cypress Lake High School graduate and decorated Air Force veteran, Gates is a charter member of the Footman camp as well as its commander.
For him, honoring Confederate veterans is a responsibility he shoulders proudly, informed by his abiding interest in history. He keeps a watchful eye on the Robert E. Lee statue in downtown Fort Myers and tends Confederate graves at Buckingham, Alva and New Prospect cemeteries, where the Sons have raised money to place markers on all Confederate graves.
But Gates wants people to know this is not a members-only affair — anyone is welcome to attend. If they do, they'll be treated to poetry, speeches, a flag ceremony and rifle salute as well as trumpet, bagpipe and violin music followed by an old-fashioned, covered-dish picnic.
Oft-flaring controversy aside, Gates says, the celebration is not about race or slavery.
"To us, the descendants ... we mark this day as a memorial to those who sacrificed all in the defense of their homeland and/or state," he says. "(It's) a day of remembrance of the Confederate soldier, sailor, elected official and civilians of the South who died during the War Between the States."
If you go:
Confederate Memorial Day celebration
10:30 a.m. Saturday
In the Buckingham Cemetery, on the south side of Cemetery Road, just east of Buckingham Road in Buckingham
Learn more: florida-scv.org/Camp1950