Augusta’s Confederate monument is moving from an often-overlooked reminder of another era to an active target of a local movement to remove it that follows similar challenges nationwide.
The 76-foot-tall monument in the 700 block of Broad Street is either quietly revered as a memorial to those who fought and died during the Civil War or maligned as a cynical response to civil rights efforts. After protests against the removal of a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee turned violent in Charlottesville, Va., last weekend, some other cities have either removed or are considering removing their monuments.
In Augusta, most local elected leaders have remained silent, but a local push led by the NAACP and churches is quickly gaining strength in a city that is now predominantly black. The effort faces an immediate hurdle in a state law against moving, changing or obscuring any memorial to military veterans. City staff attorney Kenneth Bray said the law appears to apply to Augusta’s monument.
A group called the Ladies Memorial Association of Augusta raised $20,934.04 to erect the monument, which was dedicated Oct. 31, 1877, before an “immense crowd” that included secessionist Gov. Alfred Colquitt and the widow of Gen. Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson, Mary Anna Jackson, according to a full-page report detailing the event in The Augusta Chronicle.
Built by the Markwalter firm of Augusta, the monument includes a 72-foot-tall Carrara marble shaft sitting on a 4-foot Georgia granite base. Each corner of the base supports a marble statue of a Confederate general: Lee and Jackson, representing the South; Thomas Reade Rootes Cobb, representing Georgia; and William Henry Talbot Walker, representing Augusta and Richmond County.
Jonathan Horn, the author of The Man Who Would Not Be Washington, a biography of Lee, said most symbolic references and dedications to Lee as a hero of the Civil War followed his death in October 1870. Before Lee’s death, Horn said, he discouraged residents from building Civil War memorials because of funding and fear that it might further upset the nation.
“Asked when the right time to build memorials might be, Lee’s letters suggest that maybe he thought the answer was never,” Horn said.
In some sense the placement of monuments after the war takes away from the person that Lee was, Horn added.
“On the eve of the Civil War he was actually opposed to secession,” he said. “He thought secession was illegal, and yet he felt bound to follow his state of Virginia into rebellion.”
A fifth statue stands atop Augusta’s monument, a soldier modeled after Berry Greenwood Benson of nearby Hamburg, now known as North Augusta. Benson, a Civil War scout and sharpshooter who witnessed the first shot fired at Fort Sumter, “did his job, what he was supposed to be doing” as a soldier, said Augustan Carol Irwin, whose aunt is Benson’s last living relative. The family “would hate to see it destroyed” and wants to be involved if it is removed.
The north-facing side of the monument bears the single line of a poem: “No nation rose so white and fair: none fell so pure of crime.”
Anna Harris-Parker, an assistant English professor at Augusta University who specializes in poetry, said the engraving is part of a poem written by English poet Philip Stanley Worsley in 1866 to honor Lee.
“Given the poem in its entirety and the time period in which it was written, I am inclined to think Worsley intended the lines to suggest pure and just intentions of Lee and the Confederate army,” she said. “In other words, it seems to suggest that they thought they were doing what was right. Of course, it is possible and perhaps very likely that, as is the case with most poems, ambiguity was also part of Worsley’s intent.”
Ownership of the monument and responsibility for it remain unclear. Over the past decade, local members of Sons of Confederate Veterans Camp 158 have performed maintenance and have an ongoing memorial brick paver drive. Group members, known to parade in Confederate military regalia, also installed a chain around the monument in 2012 to keep skateboarders away.
Members of the William Henry Talbot Walker chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy – an Augusta-based group – said Thursday that their organization grew out of the Ladies Memorial Association and defended the monument as a tribute to “enormous sacrifices” made during the war, but refused to speak publicly about it.
“It is a very sacred monument,” one member said. “How dare anybody even suggest that monument be removed.”
Donna and Dan Conrad, of Highlands, N.J., stopped to look at the monument Thursday after dropping their daughter off at college in South Carolina.
“It may not be here tomorrow; let’s look at it,” Donna Conrad said of their decision.
Dan Conrad’s great-great-grandfather fought for the Union Army, but the couple agreed even memorials to the losing side should not be destroyed.
“I still believe in maintaining our history – you can’t erase it,” he said. “The history should stay.”
Construction of the Augusta monument began in 1875, 10 years after the war ended, eight years after the Reconstruction Act of 1867 that readmitted states into the Union and seven years since the 14th Amendment provided former slaves with American citizenship.
Republican government and military occupation had ended in Georgia in 1871, and the Compromise of 1877 in response to the disputed presidential election of Rutherford B. Hayes saw the U.S. government pull the last troops out of the South, formally ending Reconstruction and leading to an erosion of civil rights gains made during the era.
Ruth McClelland Nugent, an associate professor of history at Augusta University, said the construction of monuments throughout the South, and even in some parts of the North, weakened the progression of civil rights.
“It was racist,” she said. “Those statues were erected after the end of the Reconstruction so they’re really celebrating the loss of black civil rights as much as anything.”
Barbara Gordon, a local community activist and publisher of the Metro Courier, a black issues-focused newspapaper, said she does not want the monument destroyed but “removed to a more appropriate place, such as a museum.”
“I clearly understand the Confederacy, the history and their legacy but their legacy is one built on hatred, bigotry, intolerance and enslaving an entire race of people,” she said. “Robert E. Lee and other Confederate leaders weren’t heroes; they were traitors, they committed treason and instigated a war for the sake of maintaining slavery.”
The state NAACP conference called last week for removal of all Confederate symbols from public property – and the Augusta branch has scheduled a rally Thursday at the monument to call for its removal.
Beulah Nash-Teachey, the Augusta branch NAACP president, said the group plans to petition the mayor and Augusta Commission to take it down.
“It has been talked about off and on for the past five years, and now we think it is time to move forward and ask leadership to remove it,” she said.
Former Commissioner Moses Todd spoke out strongly against the monument. He said that he is a combat veteran, and “those Confederate generals were traitors to the USA” and ought not “be there in my face in the public space. Society doesn’t honor individuals that lose wars.”
He said that he expects many monuments to be moved or removed in the next 20 years, especially where whites are not the majority.
The head of Savannah Riverkeeper, an environmental organization, suggested taking off the line of poetry and engaging in serious community dialogue, or asking voters to decide the monument’s fate.
“Statements like the one on the side of the monument are certainly outrageous and don’t fit in today’s Augusta,” Tonya Bonitatibus said.
Many Augustans might not be aware of the number of newcomers to the area who might not accept or appreciate the monument’s message, she said.
“People from all over the U.S. and all over the world” are locating here, she said. “Maybe we could do a little bit to say ‘oops, we’re sorry, that’s blatantly hateful.’ What matters is the perception that’s being put off today by it existing.”
Ebony Patterson, an Augusta resident and former NAACP branch chairwoman, doesn’t believe city leaders will address the monument for fear of bad publicity.
“The leaders here probably won’t comment on it because we have the Cyber Center and people from all kinds of background coming here so they don’t want controversy here,” she said. “They want to keep Augusta real quiet and peaceful and unified.”
As Savannah leaders propose to name the Eugene Talmadge Memorial Bridge for someone other than the segregationist Georgia governor and amend the city’s Confederate memorial to tell the rest of the story, Augusta leaders, including Mayor Hardie Davis, have remained largely silent about the monument.
“You ought to let sleeping dogs sleep,” said Commissioner Marion Williams, one of the six African-Americans on the 10-member commission. “When you get that type of conversation started, it doesn’t help. We talk at it, we don’t talk about it” and ultimately, “it’s going to result in some violence.”
Another black Commissioner, Dennis Williams, said the issue posed a challenge for some politicians.
“It’s one of those things, no matter which way you stand, you’re on the wrong side with somebody,” Williams said.
Williams, a former NAACP branch president, said he will attend the rally Thursday but does not support removing the monument.
“Personally I don’t have a problem with the monument,” he said. “I understood what the monuments were for – those are symbols of past history and hopefully a constant reminder to our community never to allow our community to get in that type of situation again.”
The rally might draw opponents, he said.
“There will probably be some folks down there on the other side of the rope,” Williams said.
Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle said he has the most Southern accent on the commission – but is actually the offspring of a Japanese-American and an Irish-American from New Jersey. He’s not offended by the monument or other area reminders of tragic events.
“My mother’s family was annihilated by the bomb,” Guilfoyle said. “At Fort Gordon, they had a concentration camp for the Japanese – does that offend me? No.
“To this day we are raised where we don’t see color; we see respecting each other. We’ve got bigger issues than this.”
As downtown revival spreads to the 700 block of Broad Street – restoration of the Miller Theater will join the Imperial Theatre in the same block, a young developer and promoter targeting millennials in the 800 block said times have definitely changed since 1877.
“(The younger generation) did not have to go through what their parents and grandparents did. We’re becoming more equal, whether it’s black, white, man, woman or unisex bathrooms,” George Claussen said. “We’re understanding equal rights, regardless of race or genders.”
The monument’s visual impact on the area will increase as development continues down Broad Street, he said.
“As Augusta Innovation Zone, as the Miller all start to come in line, we can take more of a look at that moment,” Claussen said. “It will be an interesting talk in a couple of years because it will be in the dead center of a revitalized Augusta.”
Skate shop owner Brian McGrath said public opinion about the monument might have shifted.
“As we move through time, things of importance change,” he said. “I don’t believe we should have things that offend people.”
Local artist Jason Craig, a designer with Westobou Gallery downtown, said that although some public art should be offensive, context is key. He compared the Confederate monument to the likeness of James Brown in the 800 block of Broad.
Despite its being loathed by some because of Brown’s arrests and the color of his skin, the South has “historically bigoted stuff all over the place,” Craig said.
A symbol tied to the past can be yanked into the present if it inspires negative feeling, he added.
“If any of these symbols start inspiring new hatred, they take on a different context,” he said. “A piece of history comes back around.”
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