CULPEPER, Va. — In Virginia, there are few historical battles that aren’t worth refighting.
That’s a lesson officials in Culpeper, a town nestled in the state’s Piedmont region, relearned this fall when they decided to create a new public relations branding campaign and tourism officials suggested that they go with a less “political” emblem. The problem: The town’s existing logo — the iconic Revolutionary War-era rattlesnake and “Don’t Tread on Me” combination — had been “hijacked” by the conservative tea party movement, staffers said.
But that, it turns out, was just as politically dangerous as sticking with the old image.
The town’s logo is based on the Culpeper Minute Men, the local militia formed in 1775 to confront the British. In Virginia, that kind of historical tie is sacrosanct to many.
Letters flooded the local paper to protest the town’s decision, and the Town Council has had to bat down charges that it intended to replace the logo, saying it will remain the standard for official town business and internal documents — though the new tourism-friendly logo will be the image the town tries to project to others.
“Honestly, I don’t know where the confusion started. I think there was some misunderstanding and some misrepresentation, possibly, but our intention was never to replace the Minute Man seal. Our intention all along was to continue to use that for official documents,” said Lori Sorrentino, director of tourism. “We just simply wanted to extend the tourism logo to some other uses.”
Fans of the Minute Man logo aren’t buying that explanation. They pointed to the word “replace” in a key staff report, suggesting at least some areas where the new would take over from the old. They also wondered what was wrong with using the historical logo to advertise the town anyway.
“The Culpeper Minute Men Battalion Flag is an American flag and symbol which belongs to all of us,” said Gar Schulin, past president of the local chapter of Sons of the American Revolution. “It is not — and should never be — labeled as, or be confused with, a mere political symbol.”
While many facts are in dispute, this much is clear: A town staff report this year said the Minute Man emblem “has unfortunately been hijacked in recent years by a political movement, the Tea Party, and it was assumed the town would prefer a positive, non-political identity.”
Staffers said the proposed new logo, which features the word “Culpeper” on a big banner waving in front of rolling hills, could be used on town vehicles, signs and printed materials, though they said “the new logo is not meant to replace the town seal, except where it represents non-official documents.”
Although the tea party and libertarian followers of Rep. Ron Paul of Texas had adopted the rattlesnake emblem, Ms. Sorrentino said, that was only part of the town staff’s concerns.
“It wasn’t a driving consideration; it was one of the considerations,” she said. “We want to put out a tourism message that encompasses all of our tourism assets, and you want to do that in a way that doesn’t involve politics, doesn’t involve political stands, movements.”
Town Manager Kimberly L. Alexander, who news accounts say approved the new logo, didn’t return a message seeking comment.
But the Town Council has held multiple meetings to try to contain the fallout from the logo flap and to decide exactly where the old and new logos would be used. The most recent fight, which played out last week, was over which logo should be displayed on town vehicles.
Other than a stone obelisk at the north end of town and the seal atop the municipal building, it’s tough to find much evidence of the old emblem here.
Town vehicles do have decals with the rattlesnake symbol affixed to their doors, and the Minute Man banner’s history is told at the town’s award-winning museum and on a historical marker in front of the government building.
But the town’s street signs and place markers feature several other emblems. The town figured that it was time for uniformity — and for a seal that could be read more easily.
Town Council member David B. Lochridge said part of the problem with the Minute Man emblem is that it has three slogans, each printed in small letters, making them all difficult to read.
“The current seal, if you look at it, if that’s the goal of whatever you’re putting it on, then you should have something you can at least read,” said Mr. Lochridge, who has a marketing background. He said the town needed to seize this chance to create an effective brand. “What people don’t seem to understand is there’s a window of opportunity to gain effectiveness.”
Mr. Lochridge, though, stressed that nobody on the council ever proposed getting rid of the original town emblem.
“It really got blown, in my opinion, way out of proportion,” he said.
But Mr. Schulin, the Sons of the American Revolution member, said the town shouldn’t be too eager to look past its history.
“A town and a nation that willfully forgets its heroes and its legacy will themselves soon be forgotten,” he wrote in a commentary in the Culpeper Times.
Most historical battles in this part of Virginia were part of the Civil War. Richmond officials regularly make national headlines as they grapple with balancing their history as the capital of the Confederacy with a heavily black population.
But as the site of the first permanent settlement of the original 13 Colonies, Virginia has 400 years of history that allow for plenty of opportunities for controversy.
The Culpeper Minute Men were mustered in July 1775, and their flag with the rattlesnake emblem was created. The white banner features two mottoes — “Don’t Tread On Me” and “Liberty or Death,” a paraphrase of Patrick Henry’s famous Revolutionary War challenge to fellow Virginians, along with the rattlesnake that had become a symbol of American independence.
The timing of the Minute Men’s muster suggests that the flag even predates the introduction to the fledgling Continental Army of the far more famous “Gadsden flag,” named in honor of American Gen. Christopher Gadsden. That rattlesnake banner, set against a bright yellow background, has become popular among followers of the tea party and Mr. Paul’s ardent following in recent years.
The Minute Men saw action against the British at the Battle of Great Bridge in December 1775, which marked the first fighting in Virginia. The militia disbanded soon after that, and many of the men joined the Continental Army.
The battalion was home to future leaders and statesmen, including a young John Marshall, who would become arguably the most influential chief justice in history, overseeing the landmark decisions that set the stage for expansive court powers.
The Minute Men formed again in 1860 ahead of the Civil War, and then again during the Spanish-American War.