Confederate monuments are at the forefront of politics and national debate these days as American society grapples with the legacy of the Civil War and its aftermath. While this debate seems new and is situated in a modern society that is opening many meaningful, and sometimes divisive, conversations about history, race, and society, controversy over Confederate monuments is not necessarily new.
In the late-nineteenth century, veterans who wore both blue and gray started to come together on battlefields and in events that emphasized common bravery and reunification. The politics of reunion in the late century often highlighted the commonalities between northern and southern veterans and downplayed the racial aspects of the Civil War in a period where the southern states started to reshape the memory and meaning of the war in the post-Reconstruction period. This overarching theme of unity did not mean that there was no controversy over the legacy of the war, however, particularly in terms of Confederate monuments on the battlefields of the Civil War.
While doing research in the records of Pittsburgh-area Grand Army of the Republic Posts, I stumbled on this short entry in the minutes for January 11, 1890 of Post No. 162, the Col. John B. Clark Post located in the North Side of Pittsburgh:
The Resolution submitted by post 88 regarding the erection of monuments to Rebel organizations on the battle field of Gettysburg was read and after considerable discussion adopted. Chaplain Monroe moved as members of the Battlefield Memorial Association we would ask that the monument erected by the 2nd Maryland Rebel Regiment be removed from the field, adopted.
The monument they are responding to is the 2nd Maryland Infantry monument placed in the Culp’s Hill area of the Gettysburg battlefield in 1884. This relatively small and plain stone monument was the first Confederate monument placed at Gettysburg and it created a lot of controversy, first with the battlefield commission before they allowed it to be placed, and then with Union veterans as we see in the response of Post 162. The Col. John B. Clark Post did not include the initial resolution from Post 88 in their minutes, but we can gather from its motion to ask that the monument be removed that both posts agreed that the Confederate monument should not be allowed on the field and that there was a negative view towards monuments commemorating those who wore the gray at Gettysburg. The records do not indicate why the veterans were responding so late to the placement of the monument, but we can see that even five or so years after the monument was placed on the field it was eliciting negative responses from Union veterans. Despite the resolution of Post 162, and any others like it, the monument was allowed to stand, and eventually more Confederate monuments would join it at Gettysburg.
A couple years later, another Pittsburgh GAR post responded to a different controversy over Confederate monuments, this time the possible dedication of a Confederate monument while Union veterans were gathered in Louisville for an encampment of the GAR. The minutes for September 27, 1894 of the Col. James C. Hull Post, No. 157 briefly records the conversation:
Comrade Askin asked if it was true that a Rebel monument was going to be dedicated during the time the Grand Army Encampment would be held in Louisville. Comrade Bengough said that Post 88 had been misquoted in regard to their action on the matter. He said that he was satisfied that nothing of the kind would be attempted and that the Editor of the Courier Journal would be at the head of anything to squelch any scheme of that kind.
Although the details of the conversation were not recorded, we can assume that Comrade Askin was inquiring into this possible dedication because it would be an affront to the gathering Union soldiers, especially when he is assured that local community leaders would “squelch any scheme of that kind.” While in this case, the veterans were not opposing the placement of the monument, they were expressing concern that their former enemies would highlight the commemoration of their service in the face of a large gathering of Union soldiers. It would be interesting to know what the Union veterans generally felt about the Confederate monument, but the minutes do not record their opinions on that matter.
As our nation tackles these monuments in the twenty-first century, it is interesting to see the perspective of veterans responding to the same monuments over a hundred years ago. These two brief responses come at the time when monuments were just starting to go up, and many Confederate monuments would be erected after the veterans of the war were gone. We will never know how Civil War veterans would respond to today’s controversy over Confederate monuments, but we can see that it did spark discussion and controversy even in the 1890s. It is another reminder that memory and legacy are constantly in debate in society and that historical context is crucial when each successive generation tackles the issues of the past.
Col. John B. Clark Post, No. 162, Adjutant Reports. Reel 2. Grand Army of the Republic, Dept. of Pennsylvania, Miscellaneous Posts Records, 1861-1940, AIS.1986.07, Archives Service Center, University of Pittsburgh.
Col. James C. Hull Post, No. 157, Minutes, Vol. 4, January 5, 1893-June 17, 1897, 202. Reel 4. Grand Army of the Republic, Dept. of Pennsylvania, Miscellaneous Posts Records, 1861-1940, AIS.1986.07, Archives Service Center, University of Pittsburgh.
Dr. Kathleen Logothetis Thompson graduated with her Ph.D. from West Virginia University in 2017. She earned her M.A. from West Virginia University in 2012 and her B.A. in history with a Certificate in Revolutionary Era Studies from Siena College in 2010. In addition, Kathleen was a seasonal interpreter at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park from 2010-2014 and has worked on various other publications and projects.